More than a decade after it was proclaimed by Barack Obama, the pivot to Asia is definitely on. Washington had been lurching in that direction in fits and starts for years, but President Biden’s recent and forceful decisions to pull all remaining US troops out of Afghanistan and to include Australia in a nuclear technology-sharing US-UK security agreement provide emphatic exclamation marks to the shift in US priorities.
Whether the shift is overdue or overdone is the big debate consuming strategists and policymakers in DC, and will likely remain so for years to come. But there should be no debating that the sudden focus on containing China at all costs – and that is what this pivot is all about – spells opportunity for other US trading and manufacturing partners previously overshadowed by China. The more Washington and Beijing are inclined to view theirs as a Cold War rivalry, the more awkward their economic co-dependence becomes, and the more pressure will be felt to “uncouple” and lessen our mutual reliance.
This should be the moment for Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in other words, to cut in with the proverbial “hold my beer.” If the emergence of China as a low-cost global economic powerhouse in the 1990s stole the North American Free Trade Agreement’s thunder, the time is now to reassert the economic and geostrategic soundness of the North American concept, as a globally competitive, integrated trading and manufacturing bloc. Building on some of the region’s assets and established cross-border supply chains, the three North American governments should encourage more “ally shoring” and similar strategies.
Tragically, however, the Mexican government is doing whatever the opposite of carpe diem is. AMLO’s Fourth Transformation amounts to a nostalgia-tinged pivot of its own: away from North America, away from economic competitiveness, and away from the future. Instead of proposing ambitious and nimble expansions of the North American economic project, the Mexican government is guided by a tired 1970s playbook: spooking foreign investors with its disregard for the rule of law across a number of fronts, trying to close down energy markets to outside investment and innovation, and bemoaning Yankee bullying of Cuba and the lack of economic integration with fellow Latin American nations.
The United States, to be fair, is hardly being imaginative or innovative in its own North American strategic thinking. The same global populist-nationalism virus driving AMLO’s agenda still rules in Washington too, even if we have overcome its particularly nasty Trump variant. Instead of trying to cajole or incentivize AMLO to change his course, the Biden administration has been busy strengthening its own “Buy American” procurement requirements.
Worst of all, most Democrats in Congress today do not share Barack Obama’s worldview. When he proposed his pivot to Asia while in the White House, it wasn’t just about an increased military presence in the region. It was also about providing a market rules-based counterweight to China in the form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trading zone. Mexico, ironically, did join the agreement, but Donald Trump abandoned the push for US entry, and the Biden administration has not reversed that call.
China’s rise and relative geopolitical strength is often exaggerated, but Beijing’s actual vulnerability makes for an even more precarious international situation. President Xi Jinping and his advisers must feel encircled by potential antagonists: India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Australia, Thailand, and Taiwan, among others, are nations managing varying levels of grievances and suspicion towards China. All of these nations, who collectively can draw upon formidable resources, are eager for closer ties with the United States to offset China’s influence. Just last month, in addition to announcing the “AUKUS” security agreement that involves Australia acquiring nuclear submarines, the Biden administration hosted the first summit of the leaders of the “Quad,” the loose but evolving US-Japan-Australia-India pact whose purpose need not be spelled out.
Because the Biden administration is incapable or unwilling to frame its East Asian engagement and pivot in traditional postwar US terms of expanding economic interdependence and expanding common prosperity (to borrow Xi Jinping’s term), the containment of China acquires a distinctly military tint, further alarming Beijing. This increases the prospect of toxic self-reinforcing dynamics creating instability in coming years. The more China feels encircled, the more aggressive and erratic it will behave (as in its bullying of Australia, which led to the submarine deal), the more other regional powers will bond closer to respond. And so on.
The risks of military confrontations increase by the day, but even moreso the risk of serious economic calamities, as the political strains affect supply chains, and investment flows. It is hard to imagine two potential adversaries being in a more symbiotic economic relationship than China and the US, with each therefore holding tremendous leverage (and power to do harm) over the other. Any material uncoupling from that state of affairs would be difficult under the best of circumstances.
Under the present circumstances, sadly, there seems little will in Mexico City or Washington to connect the dots, and see in what is happening across the Pacific a catalyst for a new approach in how we should work together across the Rio Grande.
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America .Twitter: @AndresDCmtz