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The Challenge of America: From the Middle East to Asia

The Challenge of America: From the Middle East to Asia

04-03-2024
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Background: Middle East Region and Geopolitical Importance

The Middle East refers to the territories surrounding the southern and eastern perimeters of the Mediterranean Sea. This encompasses, at a minimum, the Arabian Peninsula and, according to certain interpretations, extends to include Iran, North Africa, and occasionally beyond. The complexity of this region surpasses mere geographical demarcations. Its geopolitical landscape stands as one of the most intricate and intricate among all global regions. The Middle East holds profound significance as the birthplace and spiritual nexus of three paramount monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Additionally, it stands as the primary repository of the world’s largest single oil reserve. Historically, it has served as a pivotal hub in global affairs- a region of immense economic, political, and cultural sensitivity .

The Middle Eastern region boasts the most extensive reservoirs of oil, constituting 51% of the world’s oil reserves, and a significant portion exceeding 40% of global natural gas reserves. This substantial endowment positions the region as a pivotal player in the global energy landscape, exerting a significant influence on the dynamics and functionality of the international energy system . Not only just the energy resources but the region serves as a crucial crossroad between Asia, Europe, and Africa, making it a pivotal hub for trade and commerce throughout history. Control over key waterways like the Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz is of utmost importance for global trade . However, the region is characterized by ongoing tensions and wars in the region- where major powers such as the US and Russia is involved. Ongoing disputes, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and regional rivalries- civil war in Yemen and Syria, have global implications and contribute to the volatility of the region .

The reality persists that major powers have consistently sought influence in the Middle East, often making it a strategic battleground for their interests . The United States, Russia, and China have each sought to establish their influence in the region, driven by their individual interests. This article, therefore, investigates the evolving strategic interests of the United States in the Asian region, highlighting its burgeoning engagement with the Middle East and South Asia. It examines the interconnectedness of America’s growing ambitions in Asia and the resultant implications, challenges, and tensions that emerge within its engagement with the Middle East.

America’s Growing Ambitions in Asia

Following the conclusion of World War II and the Cold War, the United States ascended as the foremost global power. It notably amplified its assertive involvement in the internal affairs of other nations, actively seeking to establish, sustain, and sometimes exploit hegemonic control while advancing strategies of subversion and infiltration. Despite ongoing scholarly debates regarding the potential transformative impact of China’s ascent on the global order, the United States retains a considerable advantage in the contest for global hegemony. This country still maintains the world’s largest economy, most potent military, and most dynamic society. Notably, both the United States and its allies in the Asian sphere aim to uphold a balance of power within the Indo-Pacific region, ostensibly aimed at curbing China’s aspirations to assert regional hegemony .
The US’s increased focus on Asia stems from various factors, including economic interests, security concerns, alliances, and technological collaborations. 

Economic Interests: The Asian region contributes nearly 60% of the world’s economic growth, underscoring its status as a substantial market for American goods and services . Furthermore, the exportation of U.S. products to Asia stands as a primary generator of employment. Strengthening economic bonds with Asian nations not only facilitates advantageous trade accords and alliances but also reinforces the United States’ position in securing favorable business environment. It is noteworthy that among the top 10 countries from which the U.S. imports goods, five originate from Asia. 

Security concerns and alliances in the Asian region: The United States has substantial concerns regarding China rather than Russia in the Asian region. The primary concern revolves around the perceived prospect of Beijing gradually convincing neighboring nations to disengage from affiliations with the US. China’s explicit ambition to attain a position as a “leading global power” and its active endeavors aimed at reshaping established norms , particularly evident in the South China Sea and other pertinent domains, seem to validate these apprehensions. As a result, the U.S. seeks to maintain stability in the region, reinforcing its strategic alliances with countries like Japan, South Korea, Australia, and others to counterbalance potential threats.

The United States sustains a network of 750 military bases spanning more than 80 nations globally, with around 310 of these strategically situated in Asian countries. Notably, within this region, South Korea and Japan together house a combined total of 193 bases, positioning a substantial presence in proximity to China . This presence functions as a deterrent against security threats and plays a pivotal role in upholding peace and stability within the region. Moreover, it signifies an effort to impede China’s expansion within the Asia-Pacific realm.

Technology and Innovation Hub: Asia is a hub for technological innovation, particularly in areas like AI, robotics, and renewable energy. Collaborating with Asian counterparts enables the U.S. to stay at the forefront of technological advancements and maintain its competitive edge. Such as, Taiwan is renowned for its microchip and semiconductors. It produces more than 90% of the world’s most advanced microchips and 60% of semiconductors overall. Also, Japan is renowned for producing high-quality electronics, such as televisions, cameras, and laptops.

The US and South Asia
Geopolitical Importance and Diplomatic Relations: South Asia holds significant geopolitical relevance due to its strategic location between the Middle East, Central Asia, and East Asia. Also, strengthening diplomatic ties in South Asia allows the U.S. to expand its influence in the region. Building relationships with countries like India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka serves broader diplomatic and strategic interests for the U.S. in both regional and global contexts.

US-India Relationship: India has become Asia’s third great power. Its emergence as the major power in Asia stems from its significant economic strength, cultural influence wielded through soft power, proficient military capabilities, and possession of a nuclear arsenal. According to US department of state, The relationship between the United States and India is one of the most strategic and consequential of the 21st century.  The United States supports India’s emergence as a leading global power and a vital partner in promoting a peaceful, stable, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. The bilateral relationship between the two countries focuses on the defense and security, clean energy, space, multilateral cooperation, and people to people ties. 

The strategic significance of India to the US resides in its role as a counterbalance to China’s regional influence, prompting a closer rapport between the two nations. Within this dynamic, an argument can be made that the United States perceives a greater need for India in the region than vice versa. However, amidst a rapidly fragmenting global landscape marked by geopolitical volatility, leaders such as Modi and Biden have exhibited a shared inclination to strengthen bilateral ties . Notably, India rebuffed a proposal to join NATO plus, discerning potential constraints on its independent diplomatic pursuits. Furthermore, the inauguration of the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) during the September 10, 2023, proceedings of the G20 summit in New Delhi underscores a concerted India-U.S.-led countermeasure vis-à-vis the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) . 

US-Bangladesh Relationship: The United States and Bangladesh share a vision for an inclusive, secure, and prosperous future. According to the US Department of State, “The United States seeks a strong, multi-faceted relationship built on mutual respect for the rule of law, democracy, and human rights; inclusive economic growth and development; people-to-people ties; enhanced capacity to tackle the climate and pandemic crises; and a greater contribution to regional security.” (US Department of State, 2022).

Geostrategic Position of Bangladesh

Bangladesh’s geostrategic positioning renders it a pivotal nation for the United States amid escalating geopolitical rivalries and the discernible shift in geopolitical focus from the Middle East toward the Asia-Pacific, particularly South Asia. As the United States contends with diminishing influence in the Middle East, the imperative to forge new alliances in Asia, specifically in South Asia, has become apparent. Consequently, within the context of the burgeoning competition among geopolitical connectivity endeavors, Bangladesh has emerged as a significant focal point.
Bangladesh has historically held and is anticipated to persist in holding a role pivotal to the ongoing transformation of the regional power dynamics between India and China. This significance could be highlighted by the development of Bangladesh’s energy reserves and regional energy and trade routes to China and India.

Economic relationship between the US and Bangladesh

The United States and Bangladesh have fostered a robust economic partnership, characterized by substantial U.S. investments exceeding eight billion dollars over the past five decades. Bangladesh’s commendable humanitarian efforts in hosting nearly one million Rohingya refugees have been duly recognized. Additionally, amid the challenging backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. has played a crucial role, extending support by donating vaccines and providing over $121 million in vital aid to Bangladesh (US Department of State, 2022). Economically, the United States stands as the primary importer of Bangladeshi goods, accounting for imports valued at $8.3 billion in 2021. Furthermore, U.S. companies have taken the lead in foreign investments, contributing $4.3 billion, constituting approximately 20 percent of the total foreign direct investment (FDI) stock in Bangladesh for the year 2021. However, recent years have witnessed strains in this amicable relationship, largely attributed to the United States’ concerns and dissatisfaction with Bangladesh’s internal socio-political landscape.

The US’s pressure on Bangladesh

The recent policy implementations by the US Department of State, including visa restrictions aimed at supporting electoral integrity, coupled with Bangladesh’s omission from the “Summit for Democracy” events hosted by the Biden administration in 2021 and 2023, reflect a recalibration in bilateral relations. Additionally, reports of Bangladesh and neighboring India’s exploration of local currency transactions for import-export activities, diverging from the prevalent use of the US dollar, have garnered attention, prompting discussions on potential de-dollarization, remarkably noted by Russia.
These actions underscore the multifaceted motives driving the United States’ engagements with Bangladesh. While human rights and democratic concerns remain significant drivers, a parallel ambition to maintain influence within the Asia-Pacific region forms a crucial aspect.
As China’s influence expands in Bangladesh and the broader Asia-Pacific, the US perceives the necessity for steadfast alliances in this strategic sphere. This perspective casts China as a primary adversary, prompting concerted efforts to counterbalance its burgeoning influence. Consequently, diverse strategies are employed by the US to exert pressure on governments across different nations. Notwithstanding this stance, the United States endeavors to avoid estranging Bangladesh, seeking instead to foster collaborative engagement.

Understanding Why the US Feels Like a Fish Out of Water in the Middle East

The United States grapples with escalating challenges in the Middle East, characterized by a swift erosion of its power and hegemonic influence. This diminishing stature not only signifies a reduction in its global dominance but also positions the nation amidst a profound and acute crisis within the region.
In the Syrian civil conflict that commenced in 2011, the United States provided support to rebel factions such as the Free Syrian Army. These groups, initially bolstered by arms supplied by NATO and GCC states, achieved substantial territorial gains against government forces, which, in turn, received support from Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah, the latter deploying specialized military units. Notably, rebel forces captured key regional capitals, including Raqqa in 2013 and Idlib in 2015. However, the conflict’s dynamics shifted significantly following Russia’s military intervention in support of the government in September 2015, marking a pivotal turning point.
Subsequently, by late 2018, the government reclaimed control over most rebel strongholds, with the exception of certain areas within the Idlib region. Following a ceasefire in Idlib in March 2020, active frontline hostilities diminished, giving way to sporadic skirmishes.
Despite this, the United States diverges from its Arab allies, who have begun normalizing relations with the government led by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. While the US remains steadfast in its refusal to normalize relations with the Assad regime until genuine UN-led political progress aligning with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 occurs, it refrains from imposing penalties on countries that move closer to engaging with al-Assad’s government.
As Syria regained control over substantial portions of its territory, supported by Iran and Russia, certain Arab nations gradually softened their stance toward Damascus. Though the US actively discourages its allies from pursuing normalized ties with Syria, it refrains from punitive measures against countries that opt to engage more closely with the Assad administration.
The diplomatic ties between Iran and the United States have remained severed since 1980. In August 2018, Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, imposed a ban on direct negotiations with the United States. This enduring rift has perpetuated a historically strained relationship marked by recurrent imposition of sanctions by both nations. Notably, Iran has cultivated robust affiliations with certain countries such as Russia, Syria, Lebanon, and China, all of which are regarded as adversarial entities from the perspective of the United States.
In the recent Palestine-Israel conflict, the United States and its allies have provided direct military support and diplomatic backing to Israel. Israel appears to be encountering strategic setbacks in the ongoing conflict with Hamas, a group aiming to remove Israeli settlements. Hamas’ operational capabilities in this conflict are believed to have been bolstered by extensive Iranian training, the supply of Iranian weaponry, and substantial financial backing from Iran over the years. While the U.S. has consistently supported Israel, recent shifts in its perspective have become apparent. Tensions between the United States and Israel became public as President Joe Biden cautioned that Israel was losing international support for its campaign against Hamas, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly rejected American post-war Gaza plans.
Consequently, it is evident that the United States faces considerable challenges in pursuing its ambitions in Asia. While maintaining strong relations with South Asian nations like Bangladesh and India, Bangladesh’s recent alignment with China reflects a notable shift, contributing to the rapid growth of Chinese influence in the broader Asian region. Additionally, the intricacies of the Middle East, a complex geopolitical arena where the U.S. once held a favorable position, have undergone notable transformations due to various factors, including evolving relations between Syria and Arab nations, Iran’s connections with Hamas, and strategic setbacks experienced by Israel in recent conflicts.
As a result, the forthcoming steps for the United States present a complex landscape. The achievement of its Asian ambitions appears increasingly elusive and may require an extended duration. Moreover, the diminishing hegemony poses significant challenges for the United States.

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Md Obaidullah
The author of this article is lecturer at the Department of Development Studies, Daffodil International University, Dhaka
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