The Pivot Expanded
The recent détente in US-Iran relations, marked by direct conversations between President Obama and Iran`s Hassan Rouhani, sparked cautious optimism in some political circles. To others, however, this step was received with a fair amount of skepticism and as a distressing detachment from the Asian-Pacific “pivot”. To this concern, further substance was added with President Obama`s most recent address to the UN General Assembly in New York in which he overly stressed the interest of the US in a stable Middle East and the hope for a “different relationship” with Iran, based on “mutual interests and mutual respect”.
The timeline of these developments coincided with further diplomatic impediments. The shutdown of the US government led to the cancellation by President Obama of a key Asian trip to four countries (Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Brunei) and two summits. Moreover, the recent US military raids against violent extremist elements in Libya and Somalia reinforced concerns of a strategic shift to Africa and the geopolitical abandonment of the “pivot”.
The rapid reactions to these events prove the powerful resonance of geopolitical norms and the Asia-Pacific Pivot has been consecrated as the vital area of interest to the US. The criticality of a US pivot in Asia, particularly in the context of China`s expanding leverage in the region, is most tested in such instances, when fears of a faltering pursuit of the pivot feed into speculations of an upper hand for China.
These concerns were particularly reinforced as, at the same time, China`s Xi Jinping conducted a series of strategic visits. He expressed an interest in strengthening the relations with Australia beyond the mining sector, discussed future investment plans in Indonesia and the potential for a revived oil pipeline in Malaysia. With such a record in favor of China, the pivot has been considered yet another casualty of the government shutdown.
Firstly, it is safe to predict that the US interests and position in the Asia-Pacific are too well consolidated to be fatally doomed by this setback. Secondly, headlines which announce a US `defeat` in Asia employ a definition of the pivot that appears increasingly outdated. They see US geopolitical interests as a matter of a drastic either/or dichotomy: either pursuing the Asian pivot or focalizing on the Middle East. Rather, I consider these recent events to prove the need for an expanded geopolitical vision in which the “pivot” is imagined beyond its established boundaries.
It is unrealistic to imagine a US geostrategic vision which sees its pivotal interests linked exclusively to the Pacific region. More appropriately, we need to consider the wider Middle East, Central Asia and North-East Africa to be bound together in a geopolitical unit of pivotal importance. Given their economic and commercial potential, resources, liabilities and security concerns, this region forms what I call a “tripwire pivotal corridor” (TPC). The TPC runs from north to south, between 30 and 75 degrees east. It is a corridor of abundant resources, strategic transit areas as well as urgent sources of instability. The TPC also includes the North and South poles, where global hazards are imminent due to global warming.
As the region is particularly problematic in terms of cultural fault lines, religious, civil and interstate rivalries, these have a critical bearing on US interests and global order. Stability and effective governance within this corridor is critical to global security and economy and this fact is often obfuscated by the prevailing consensus of a US “Pacific Century” which implies that all major geopolitical stakes are located in the eastern part of Asia.
Indeed, the Asia-Pacific represents more than half of the world economic output and of US trade. Yet, this paradigm insulates the Asia-Pacific area from other regions which occupy a pivotal position in contemporary geopolitics and for the US in particular.
The Caspian Sea, for instance, is estimated to hold around 20 billion barrels of undiscovered oil and about 243 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered natural gas. The geopolitical significance of the TPC is also evident from the fact that it hosts the world`s most critical passageways. Through the Strait of Hormuz, which connects the Gulf of Oman with the Persian Gulf, up to 17 million barrels of oil pass each day, mostly to the United States, Western Europe and Japan. Not surprisingly, it is listed as “the world`s most important oil transit chokepoint” by the US Energy Information Administration. Just at the entrance of the Strait, the small island of Abu Musa is occupied by Iranian troops. The Strait of Malacca, which is one of the world`s most vital shipping lanes, The Turkish Straits (a major transit area for oil) and the Suez Canal (through which 1.3 million barrels of oil pass daily) are other key strategic areas and disturbances of shipping or temporary blockages in these sensitive junctures would create havoc on the oil markets.
Thinking of the Pivot beyond the current meaning (confined to Asia-Pacific) seems more appropriate now. Nevertheless, we can conclude that it is not lack of factual knowledge that has prevented a change of discourse but politics: recognizing other pivotal areas can be interpreted as a scaling down of the engagement in Asia-Pacific. However, in practice, no pragmatic leadership can ignore that pivotal geopolitical interests exist outside of Asia-Pacific and that devoting attention to them is no less imperative.