Robin Niblett
Director, Chatham House

The defining feature of President Barack Obama's foreign policy has been the so-called 'pivot': his attempt to rebalance US resources and focus from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific. However, the gyrations in America's diplomacy over Syria in recent months risk undermining the administration's strategy. 

Questions about America's willingness to carry the burdens of deterrence in one region will inevitably affect the other. President Obama's prevarications over how to respond to the 21 August chemical attack in Damascus have given cause for some to doubt the clarity of his red line against the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran. If doubts grow among US allies in Asia about America's willingness to project military force, the United States could see its influence undermined in both regions.

Turning back to the Middle East

President Obama's handling of the Syria crisis would appear to confirm his commitment to the pivot. He has done all he can to avoid entangling the US in direct military conflict with Bashar al-Assad, including turning to Congress for authorization to uphold his own red line against the regime's use of chemical weapons.

But there are two ways in which the handling of Syria may undercut Obama's pivot to Asia. First, the Middle East will now take up a large amount of the administration's limited stock of foreign policy attention. US allies in Asia worry increasingly whether the administration will have the time and energy to follow through on its promised rebalancing to the region. Dealing with Syria, preventing a spillover of its civil war into its neighbourhood, and trying to leverage the attendant opportunities to make progress on Iran's nuclear programme are likely to suck the oxygen out of other major US foreign policy initiatives for the next year or two. It remains unclear whether Secretary Kerry's efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal will be a victim or beneficiary of this renewed US focus on the Middle East.

The administration is likely to continue to rebalance its naval presence eastwards, strengthen its diplomatic presence in Asian institutions, and deepen its commercial relationships in the region, including through the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But the credibility of the American pivot does not rest on these initiatives alone. The second spillover from the US handling of Syria is the way in which this chaotic process has led decision-makers in Manila, Seoul and Tokyo to question whether the United States will have the political will to back up its commitments to their security.

Testing the credibility of the US pivot

China's military modernization continues apace. Its official defence budget grew by 10.7% in 2013 to some $116 billion, dwarfing defence spending by other states in the region. Admittedly, a large portion of this spending, perhaps up to 50%, is applied to internal security. However, much of the remainder is focused on its ambitions for the region. In the latest sign of its growing regional assertiveness, Chinese naval forces have chosen this moment of US distraction to underscore Beijing's claim to the contested Scarborough Shoals, which lie some 200 kilometres off the coast of the Philippines.

If China's territorial disputes with many of its neighbours over its 'nine-dash line' in the South China Sea escalate into a more explicit stand-off, can US policy-makers and voters be trusted to deploy their military forces to stand behind their distant allies in the Asia-Pacific region? Or will the administration and US Congress be more selective and hesitant before committing its political and military muscle to protect its allies' interests? Will the importance of sustaining the US-China relationship trump the concerns of smaller US allies, much as the desire to accommodate Russian concerns has been seen as influencing US diplomacy in Syria? These are the concerns which increasingly occupy America's Asian allies.

Selective US leadership carries consequences

There are valid reasons for the president's hesitancy over Syria. And, by hesitating, a possible path has opened to a negotiated solution to this bloody conflict. Ironically, a decisive US military response to Syria may have reassured US allies in Asia of the credibility of America's deterrent in their region, but also deepened the US entanglement in the Middle East that the pivot was supposed to counter. In the end, however, the president's hesitation and ambivalence reflects a broader frustration among US policy-makers and voters about serving as the world's policeman. Leaders from Cairo to Riyadh already feel that they need to look out more for their own security and are acting accordingly. Some US allies and friends in Asia may arrive at a similar conclusion and hedge their bets by being more accommodating to Chinese interests.

Being selective about US political leadership in the Middle East, while trying to be more strategic in its application in Asia, will be supremely difficult for the Obama administration. US actions over Syria during the coming months will have repercussions not only for its reputation and influence in the Middle East. It will also affect the credibility of America's re-balancing towards the Asia-Pacific region. Under any circumstances, regaining the strategic momentum that the Obama administration set in train across Asia during its first term will be an uphill task.