How Hwee Young/Reuters
If we put a map of the world on the wall and put red pins on the conflict zones that most threaten American security and tax its resources, and green pins where economic growth is fastest and the promise of wealth greatest, we would see a lot of red pins clustered in the Middle East and a lot of green pins dotting Asia. So it should not come as a surprise that President Obama made "pivoting" away from the Middle East and toward Asia the cornerstone of his foreign policy. He saw the writing on the map, so to speak, and decided that the future of America should be entwined with the prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region and China and not with the troubles of the Middle East.
The pivot's aim, on the face of it, is economic: boosting the amount of business that America does with Asia's booming economies, both investment and trade. Those plans, however, collide head-on with China's regional ambitions. The pivot, to succeed, must block China's hegemonic impulse and contain its rise in its own backyard. Containing China, therefore, thinks Washington, is the real strategic challenge facing America in the coming decades.
But this sort of thinking poses a false choice between the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region. America is right to think that its rivalry with China will play out in Asia -- but Beijing and Washington have very different conceptions of what Asia is. America thinks of Asia as the arc from the Straits of Malacca to the Sea of Japan: the area from Myanmar to the east, or, in other words, the region we call Southeast Asia (Myanmar,Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc.) plus Northeast Asia (Japan, North Korea, South Korea). China, however, thinks of Asia as the entire vast landmass -- the world's largest both in area and population -- that stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.