White House Shifts Focus From Middle East to China

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said US must be ready to 'impose costs' on Beijing

On Friday, Politico reported that new National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan restructured the National Security Council to prioritize countering China in the Indo-Pacific. To do this, Sullivan downsized the team devoted to the Middle East and added more positions that deal with Asia.

In what became known as the “Asia pivot,” the Obama administration attempted to prioritize Asia but decided to intervene more in the Middle East and got bogged down there. Under Obama, the NSC’s Middle East directorate was much bigger than the Asia department.

Current and former US officials that Politico cited in the report said the new administration “wants to avoid another quagmire in the Middle East” so they can keep the focus on Asia.

Overseeing Indo-Pacific affairs on the NSC is Kurt Campbell, who is known as the architect of Obama’s Asia pivot. As the State Department’s top Asia diplomat from 2009 to 2013, Campbell made frequent visits to allies in the Pacific.

The focus on Asia lines up with the Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy that outlined a shift away from counterterrorism in the Middle East towards so-called “great power competition” with Russia and China. The Trump administration accelerated US military activity near China’s coast, and it seems to be continuing right along under Biden.

Speaking at an event on Friday, Sullivan said the US must be “prepare to act” and “impose costs” on China over issues in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang.

The focus on China is not limited to Sullivan and the NSC. During Senate confirmation hearings, Biden’s cabinet members and nominees all had tough words for Beijing and made it clear countering China is a top priority for the new administration.

Some Republican China hawks were concerned that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin did not have enough experience in Asia and wouldn’t be sufficiently hawkish on Beijing. To placate the hawks, Biden appointed Ely Ratner to advise Austin.

Ratner is a China hawk who worked at the interventionist Center for a New American Security think tank. In September 2020, Ratner co-authored an op-ed titled “Trump Has Been Weak on China, and Americans Have Paid the Price.”

Author: Dave DeCamp

Dave DeCamp is the assistant news editor of Antiwar.com, follow him on Twitter @decampdave.