defence connect logo



Competing interests: US faces renewed delays for ‘Asia pivot’

When first announced in 2011 by then-president Barack Obama, the US “pivot to Asia” was billed as the major restructure of America’s foreign and strategic policy at a time of simmering great power competition. Now fourteen years on, yet more delays and distractions are hindering America’s focus on the region.

When first announced in 2011 by then-president Barack Obama, the US “pivot to Asia” was billed as the major restructure of America’s foreign and strategic policy at a time of simmering great power competition. Now fourteen years on, yet more delays and distractions are hindering America’s focus on the region.

It has to go without saying that no nation, no matter how wealthy or powerful, has escaped the upheaval, disruption, and chaos of the last five years.

Least of all, the world’s hegemon, the United States, which faces an increasing spectrum of foreign and domestic challenges.


In particular, the mounting domestic political polarisation and division, which is reaching fever pitch in the lead-up to the 2024 general election, coupled with political brinkmanship over debt ceilings, have all served to highlight a superpower that doesn’t appear to have its own house in order.

This uncomfortable reality has only been further reinforced by America’s unquestioningly disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal, and now the added complexities stemming from having to juggle the requirements of both Ukraine’s ongoing conflict against Russia and support for Israel in light of the 7 October surprise attack by Hamas.

Where the US once strode abroad victorious and unchallenged in the aftermath of the Cold War, the fever pitch of optimism gave way to hubris and an expectation that the US would unilaterally wield its immense power to solve the world’s problems.

Whether in Kuwait and Iraq, Somalia or Kosovo, to Afghanistan, Iraq (again), Libya, and Syria, alongside longstanding commitments to global security across Asia and Europe, the US really embraced its position as the de facto “world policeman”.

For the most part, the world was happy to allow the US to unilaterally fulfil this role; however, this wasn’t to last.

Once great powers embraced the unrestricted economic opportunity and stability provided by the US, all the while beginning to plan and ultimately fulfil their ultimate, ideological objective – the end of the post-Second World War global order.

Standing opposed to this order, we saw “revolutionary” focused powers like China and a resurgent Russia under Vladimir Putin, among other emerging global powers, including India, Brazil, and a number of others, across the “developing world”, rapidly embracing the opportunities presented by globalisation, seeking to enjoy the economic opportunities enjoyed by the “developed world”.

This emergence of the multipolar world is now well and truly underway, with the implications of the new paradigm rapidly becoming apparent as many nations, Australia included, are forced to accept that the era of the “American peace” is coming to an end.

Nowhere is this clearer than across the Indo-Pacific, particularly Asia.

This has only become more apparent as policies like the Obama-era “pivot to Asia”, first announced in 2011 amid great fanfare, have continually been neglected and delayed by successive administrations in favour of more pressing, global threats to peace and stability; however, now the chickens have come home to roost.

Henry Storey, writing for The Lowy Institute’s Interpreter, in a piece titled “America’s re-balance to Asia delayed...again”, highlighted this new reality against the backdrop of an increasingly contested global environment.

Beijing on the march

While America and its global alliance network and web of partners have spent much of the last three decades heavily focused on the threat of religious extremism and the “Global War on Terror” in the Middle East, Africa and central Asia, our rival nation-state competitors have focused on challenging, subverting and supplanting the post-Second World War order.

The People’s Republic of China, in particular, is at the forefront of challenging the post-Second World War order, with an ever-expanding web of economic, political and strategic partnerships across the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and South America, with a specific focus on the developing world.

Highlighting this, Storey stressed the impact of the increasingly complex and competitive world in light of Hamas’ attack on Israel and Beijing’s own Middle East deployment in response to continuing destabilising factors, stating: “The hostilities in Gaza are the most recent in a long line of events bedevilling American efforts to shift resources from the Middle East to higher priority theatres. Slightly below the radar, the United States faces a more novel headache in the form of Chinese efforts to construct military facilities in the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

“Re-tooling America’s security and diplomatic posture to counter China has been a core priority ever since president Barack Obama’s 2011 ‘Pivot to Asia’ pledge. The Pivot’s metaphorical imagery did much to excite the fears of US partners in the Middle East. Later, the policy was described as a ‘re-balance’, which more accurately reflected the intent,” Storey added.

It is essential to understand that against this backdrop, we must consider America’s involvement across the Middle East throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century proved to be immensely costly not only for the American Treasury coffers but also for the lower and middle classes of the US, which were compounded by a hollowing out of the once mighty US industrial base in favour of cheaper, offshore manufacturing as part of the unrestricted globalisation of industry and trade.

This reality is only reinforced by the global dependence on oil from the Middle East and the centrality of the US in essentially securing the global oil supplies flowing out of the Persian Gulf to the global market.

Not content with the continuing, albeit constrained capacity of the US to maintain this critical flow of energy, Beijing has sought to expand its own influence and permanent presence in the region, expanding the competition between the two superpowers to an increasingly volatile part of the globe.

Storey explained this, saying: “China’s quest to establish bases in the Gulf marks a qualitatively new challenge. Washington has long been advantaged by the fact that few countries outside the region, except for European allies, had the means or intent to establish a military footprint.”

China’s expanded military presence in the Middle East is further supported by Russia’s longstanding regional presence, again, something that complicates the tactical and strategic calculus of the US and its allies, particularly as the combined nations struggle with their own domestic challenges and declining military capacity.

Storey added: “Russian facilities in Syria and proposed bases in Libya and Sudan have unnerved Western capitals, but unlike the UAE and Oman, these countries do not host Western forces ... Earlier this year, US intelligence detected renewed Chinese construction work at Khalifa Port, roughly 50 kilometres from America’s sprawling Al Dhafra airbase. This came after UAE officials had ostensibly acceded to US concerns by halting all construction in December 2021.

“Meanwhile, Omani officials who met with Chinese counterparts in October 2023 were reportedly ‘amenable’ to requests to build some kind of military facility. These discussions undoubtedly featured when Biden called on Oman’s Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said in early November,” Storey detailed.

This has dramatic impacts on the position of the US in the region, which Storey explained, saying: “US whack-a-mole efforts may well succeed in dissuading Gulf allies in the short term. Nonetheless, the pillars undergirding Washington’s privileged security position are being steadily eroded.”

Implications for the Indo-Pacific

This realignment of the Middle East has a dramatic impact on the security, stability and balance of power in the Indo-Pacific as the US increasingly finds itself pulled in multiple directions to maintain the global order.

By now, it is no secret, at least to most of the national security, international relations, and public policy community, that the world of the unipolar, post-Cold War world dominated by the US no longer exists.

While there are some corners of the public and political communities that refuse to accept this uncomfortable reality, particularly in Australia, where large portions of both our political leaders and the public seem to live in a state of arrested development when it comes to the reality and implications of this new multipolar world, even large portions of the American community are beginning to accept the limitations on their power.

Highlighting the confluence of these factors and its impact on the US is The Economist in an analysis piece, titled, “The overstretched superpower”, stressing the impact of the new multipolar paradigm: President Joe Biden is thus turning into an unlikely wartime president. He was not exaggerating when he told Americans in a recent televised address that the world was at an inflection point. When America acted to help Ukraine resist Russia’s invasion, many asked whether it had the wherewithal to deter a looming Chinese assault against Taiwan.

Yet academics debate whether and when the ‘unipolar’ world, in which America bestrode the globe after the Cold War, reverted to a ‘bipolar’ one, in which America is challenged by China rather than the Soviet Union; or whether it is already a ‘multipolar’ world. Joseph Nye, a Harvard academic, defined national power in three dimensions: military, economic and ‘soft power’, i.e., the ability, among other things, to co-opt others to do your bidding,” The Economist explained.

This will ultimately have dramatic impacts on the Indo-Pacific, which Storey detailed, saying: “The United States will also demand more of its partners to contribute to regional security. A more robust European posture in the Middle East will be of greater assistance to Washington’s Indo-Pacific goals than NATO sending token frigates to Asia. India will share US disquiet over proposed Chinese facilities. Delhi’s nascent but growing security presence in the region could prove beneficial.

“Ultimately, however, the US may have to evaluate what level of Chinese security presence it is prepared to live with. As a major energy importer, there are considerable areas where Beijing and Washington’s interests could overlap.”

America isn’t alone in facing these challenges, as Australia’s repeated domestic, foreign, industrial, and defence policies of the last three decades (at least) come home to roost, leaving the nation dangerously exposed to the whims, ambitions, and designs of others in our immediate region.

Final thoughts

Fundamentally, where much of the analysis falls short is as a result of the lens through which many analysts and commentators view foreign affairs, mainly through an almost romantic, gentlemanly” lens where the realpolitik is done behind the scenes, while empty platitudes, pointless press conferences, and joint communiques are the status quo.

This romantic worldview often leaves us vulnerable as a result of viewing the world as we would like it to be rather than how it actually is. The world, whether we like to admit it or not, is a jungle, and the law of the jungle is one that when the lion is hungry, he eats.

The uncomfortable reality is something we are now witnessing in real time, with the chaos sweeping across the world in the face of the seemingly weak Biden administration.

In this era of renewed competition between autarchy and democracy, there is a conversation that needs to be had in the open with the Australian people, as ultimately, they will be called upon to help implement it, to consent to the direction, and to defend it should diplomacy fail.

If we are to achieve this, Dr Ross Babbage of the Centre for Strategic Budgetary Assessments told Defence Connect: “I think what we’ve got to show what’s the vision for Australia, you know, what can we achieve and what you know if we go on the trajectory we are on at the moment. I’ll tell you what, you know, a lot of people, a lot more people in a decade’s time are likely to be either in really dumb jobs or maybe not have jobs at all, and in the society be a lot weaker and will be a lot less prosperous.

“So what we want to say is, look, there’s plenty of scope for doing more and smarter things, encouraging investment to do that, and then there will be some very, very interesting additional jobs and opportunities, a lot of high tech, and so on, I can tell you that, you know, talking to foreign investors, they’re quite keen on principle to work here, and do a lot more here and provide a lot more good jobs for Australians.”

This requires a greater degree of transparency and a culture of collaboration between the nation’s strategic policymakers and elected officials and the constituents they represent and serve – equally, this approach will need to entice the Australian public to once again invest in and believe in the future direction of the nation.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

You need to be a member to post comments. Become a member for free today!