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How the US War on ISIS will Affect China

Sep 26 , 2014
  • Wang Wenfeng

    Professor, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

With two years left of Obama’s presidency, there is still time for the administration to shape his foreign policy legacy. Nothing is more prominent than his ending Iraq and Afghanistan wars, withdrawing American troops, and America’s strategic rebalance toward Asia-Pacific. However, ISIS has recently emerged as his greatest challenge.

Obama once dismissed ISIS as “JV team”, displaying his ignorance of the Islamic extremist group. Even after ISIS commanded international attention with its brutal beheadings of two American citizens in late August, Obama still had to confess that there was “no strategy” for fighting the Islamic State.

However, it’s hard to blame Obama for not having a strategy. What we can say is that counter-terrorism has not been at the top of Obama’s agenda, as he believes there is something more important. For the past 4-5 years, there has been at least one strategy at the forefront of his foreign policy – the “rebalance toward Asia.” This strategy has very much embodied America’s understanding of the geopolitical development in today’s world, and it has not even been a regional strategy but rather a global one. For some time, this strategy was quite successful in dealing with the Asia-Pacific region where the US had huge strategic interests. As Obama and others see it, the rebalance toward Asia is a necessary readjustment of US policy away from the Middle East. The Asia-Pacific is about America’s future and Obama believes this must be reflected in the US government’s global strategy. This shift of emphasis has been discussed in America since the end of the Cold War, and many believe it’s high time to push for a readjustment. So, even as the threat of a more chaotic Middle East has loomed, people from America’s two political camps still want to make sure that the strategic gravity of the country remains in Asia.

“As far out as I can see into the 21st century,” said William Burns, Deputy Secretary of State, “no region will be more consequential for American interests and for the shape of the global system than the Asia-Pacific,” and “never has there been a moment when it has been more important for the United States to underscore our commitment to the long-term ‘rebalancing’ of our foreign policy toward Asia.” Across the aisle, we heard Aaron Friedberg, a Princeton professor who used to work in George W. Bush’s Administration, testify before the US Senate in June. “What is required is…an increased emphasis on the balancing portion of America’s strategic portfolio,” as the Obama administration’s rebalance to date has been “inadequate”. The Obama administration was therefore signaling that America would not leave Asia, and that rebalancing would still be an emphasis, whereas Obama’s critics were saying that what he had done was far from enough, and he needed to do much more.

The rise of ISIS reminded the world of dangers of terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda, and the damages and injuries they inflicted. President Obama has ordered the bombing of ISIS, but so far he has insisted on not sending ground troops back to Iraq to directly fight terrorists. Both Republicans and Democrats have urged the Administration to take ISIS’s threat seriously. ISIS extremists “are one plane ticket away from US shores,” House Intelligence Committee chairman, Republican Congressman Mike Rogers said, adding that an attack against the US “is a very real threat.” The Chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein wrote that “the threat ISIS poses cannot be overstated. This is the most vicious, well-funded and militant terrorist organization we have ever seen.” There is a strong call for a massive military assault on ISIS, as well as a “Pivot to Middle East.”

So under this circumstance, it seems legitimate to ask whether America can maintain it strategic rebalance toward Asia, and what the implication is for China?

It takes deeper analysis to give good answers to those questions. First, how serious is the Islamic State’s threat to America? Do people really believe that it just cannot be overstated, as Senator Feinstein put it? As a matter of fact, US intelligence agencies, as recently reported, still see a lot of uncertainty in the danger that ISIS poses. According to some experts, ISIS’s ability to carry out complex, large-scale attacks in America and other Western countries is currently limited. So it is one thing that some people compare ISIS to Al-Qaeda and warn against the threat of terrorist attacks; it is quite another that America should or should not be on extremely high alert. Maybe it is understandable that Obama hasn’t rushed into announcing a war against the Islamic State. He has reason to believe that his principle of “not sending battle troops back to the Middle East” can be achieved by implementing his four-point strategy.

If Obama is correct, it means that the US doesn’t need to shift its strategic emphasis back to the Middle East, it is not necessary to do another pivot, and rebalancing towards Asia will not be significantly affected. Even if America does need to send some ground troops to Iraq to fight ISIS, let’s remember that it was during the process of withdrawing US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan that Obama began to implement his rebalance toward Asia, meaning that having troops fighting in other places doesn’t influence his rebalance in a serious way.

Secondly, does Obama believe that China can be a partner in fighting the Islamic State so that the two great powers can find a common enemy? This is necessary for better bilateral strategic relations, as their strategic cooperation will be lifted to a new and higher level and their differences over issues like the South China Sea will be put aside.

Is China’s cooperation helpful? The answer is yes. When Susan Rice was in Beijing, one of the topics she talked about with Chinese leaders was cooperation over counter terrorism. But how important is China’s cooperation?

When George W. Bush first launched the Global War on Terrorism in the wake of 9/11, he sensed that major powers like China and Russia should be involved as part of a coalition. As a result, he reached out to these countries, and with counter terrorism on the top of US global strategy, competition with China was not a priority for Bush’s foreign policy agenda. But today, that is not the case for Obama. ISIS cannot be compared with Bush’s all-out war on terrorism . As for US-China relations, after so many years of ups and downs, it’s hard to imagine that Obama still has a rosy picture of bilateral cooperation.

For US global strategy, Asia-Pacific and the Middle East is not a zero-sum game. American regional policies run in constant parallel. But on the other hand, today’s America really doesn’t have the luxury to fight on two fronts. Obama knows this quite well. If ISIS turns out to be a major threat to US national security in the coming months, it’s reasonable to believe that the rise of China will be a less urgent problem for America. As for what it means for China and the US rebalance toward Asia, it still remains to be seen how effective Obama’s strategy against the Islamic State will be.

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