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Obama Ceding Middle East and South Asia to China

In his influential NightWatch security newsletter, analyst John McCreary notes the impetus behind the new Chinese/UAE strategic partnership announced yesterday:

China has maintained a strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia since before the first Gulf War. The closer relationship with the UAE signifies that China intends to be consequential in both Sunni Arab states as well as Shiite Iran. A recent analysis concluded that Arab states friendly to the U.S. now perceive that the will to use U.S. influence in the Middle East is waning and thus have begun looking for other partners to help ensure their long term security. China is the obvious candidate and is showing that it is prepared to fill any power vacuum the U.S. chooses to leave.

The shifting calculus in the Middle East is a repeat of what’s already happened in the South China Sea. Jitters over American intentions had led allies to dismiss the U.S.’s commitment to checking Chinese expansionism. Their worries were confirmed when the Obama administration began responding to provocative PLAN deployments with weird combinations of timidness and snideness.

The Navy knows China is going to make a play for shipping lanes, and Beijing will launch cyberattacks against American assets in the Pacific (on a smaller scale, Chinese hackers recently cracked U.S. military access cards and raided Army, Navy, and Air Force infrastructure). But instead of pursuing a military buildup that could check Chinese ascendency – something Max Boot called for last summer – the president has vowed to veto any attempt by Congress to circumvent the militarily-devastating sequestration tied to the Super Committee’s failure.

The administration has been insisting defense cuts will be reversible if the U.S. goes to war, but that’s politically-driven incoherence. Even assuming that periphery industries won’t shut down as demand shrivels – which has already happened in America’s solid fuel rocket industry, and which will inevitably result from the 1.5 million jobs sequestration will destroy – it just takes too much time to build new ships and planes. As of last month the Pentagon was still literally in denial.

Meanwhile, the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program – critical to fighting China’s still-predominantly green water navy – remains woeful. Next-generation jets, which are minimally necessary given the very real possibility that Chinese technology has deeply eroded the U.S.’s stealth advantage, will be delayed by cuts. Two hundred existing planes will be taken offline.

U.S. allies are already responding to what they perceive as voluntary American withdrawal, and they’re adjusting their relationships with China accordingly. That can still be reversed with enough diplomatic and political will, which is why regional actors are still hedging their bets (Mitt Romney, for instance, has made a point of focusing on the need for American naval power). But let Obama’s military cuts go too deep for too long, and American decline will become inevitable and undeniable. The rest of the world will make its calculations accordingly.