When the Barack Obama administration announced its pivot, later branded a rebalance, to Asia in 2011, two elements captured international public attention: the military and East and Southeast Asia. Critics variously assailed the “military buildup,” which they argued would anger China, and accused Obama of walking away from European allies and Middle Eastern friends.
Yet the rebalance was never just about the military, nor should observers have skipped over its implications for South and Central Asia. Those regions were left out of rebalance discussions, despite the fact that the strategy specifically sought to strengthen ties with India and despite the fact that long-term U.S. interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan hinge as much on helping both countries develop stronger trade ties with their Asian neighbors as on counterterrorism.
As the United States has focused on East and Southeast Asia, China has won a more prominent role for itself across South and Central Asia as the foremost regional investor, infrastructure provider, and champion of alternative multilateral organizations. The United States has long played a central role in the creation and maintenance of economic and security architectures in the Asia Pacific, but in South Asia, Central Asia, and the Indian Ocean, there are fewer established regional organizations—and those that do exist lack deep ties with Washington. China’s rising influence underscores the need for the United States to secure its own interests where they differ from those of China.