Prime Minister Harper’s trip to Israel this week underscores Canada’s commitment to the region’s only true democracy and his own belief that Canada should stick by its friends. But there is a bigger question to be asked: does the Middle East still matter?
It was oil that made the Middle East a region of strategic importance in the last century. Egypt’s Suez Canal was also a key transportation corridor, remaining so long after Britain and Europe’s imperial powers relinquished their colonies in the Far East.
Today, however, Alberta’s oil sands, the discovery of new shale-oil reserves, and the development of new “fracking” technologies, are fast turning North America into a self-sufficient energy powerhouse. The Middle East and Africa (Nigeria, in particular) are not nearly as important as they once were to North American energy supply needs.
As David Ignatius reported recently in the Washington Post, the United States “is on track to pump nearly 10 million barrels of oil a day by 2016 — roughly equal to Saudi Arabia’s output…[and] oil production from shale reserves is forecast to increase from 2.3 million barrels a day in 2012 (or 35 per cent of U.S. production) to 4.8 million barrels in 2021 (or 51 per cent of the total).”
The picture is also a rosy one when it comes to natural gas where prices are plummeting with the discovery of new shale gas reserves and the prospect of even more discoveries in the north.
With the rapid shift of economic power and global trade to the economic power houses of the Asia-Pacific, the Suez Canal no longer has the geostrategic importance it once did. Today, roughly half of global container traffic and 70 per cent of ship-borne energy passes through the Indian Ocean and Pacific sea lanes.
One therefore has to wonder why Secretary of State John Kerry is investing the kind of energy he is into Middle East diplomacy, especially after a series of seemingly fruitless military campaigns in Iraq and other countries that border the region, like Afghanistan and Libya, that have damaged US prestige and influence.
While the United States preoccupies itself with affairs in the Middle East, China is exploiting the absence of America in Asia in order to isolate its historical enemy and regional rival, Japan. The so-called “Asian pivot” which was downgraded after Hillary Clinton’s departure from the State Department to a “rebalancing” is now largely confined to Washington speeches.
South Korea is also moving into China’s orbit. China — not the United States — is now Korea’s most important trading partner. That makes two Koreas — South and North — which depend on China for their economic livelihood though clearly in very different ways.
But what many North Americans may not know is that South Korea’s President Hyun Hye Park speaks fluent Chinese and her biography is a top seller in China. South Korea shares China’s antipathy to Japanese revisionist history, as do many others in the region. It is also increasingly apparent that the China is leaning closer to South Korea than to North these days, all to exploit the vanishing Americans.
The recent op-ed by the Chinese Ambassador, which appeared in the Globe and Mail, was replicated in all of major capitals in the world. A first on the diplomatic front for China, but a clear sign of President Jinping Xi’s confidence as a leader. Unlike his predecessor, Xi is an excellent retail politician as well as a strong, experienced leader.
It is also apparent based on his New Year’s speech to the Chinese people, delivered in US presidential Oval office style (another Chinese first), that Xi has no immediate plans to relinquish the control of the Chinese Communist Party over his people. Fundamental changes to China’s political system notwithstanding Xi’s plan for economic reform are not in the offing. After all, why would Xi change something that from his own vantage point is working fine, especially when he sees the warts of western democracy everywhere else.
According to Carleton University’s leading China expert Jeremy Paltiel, “the Chinese believe that they have nothing to learn from the West” and much to get payback on – the humiliations since 1850, the “Open Door” exploitative policies of Western colonial powers, and of course Japan prior to and during the Second World War.
There is something incongruous about an American Secretary of State who is devoting 90 per cent of his energy and time in a region where American interests and needs, especially when it comes to energy, and its capacity for influence are in sharp decline while giving pro forma attention, if any, to some its neighbours and allies.
America’s principal ally in the Asia-Pacific, Japan, senses the same. It is deeply worried about a China that is on the rise while the US role is fading.
While the geopoltical tide is shifting the leader of the West is mesmerized by the past. The negotiations with Iran probably have more to do with aspirations for legacy than an assertion of power or interests. In short the US is not focusing on the region where the most significant geopolitical changes are occurring.