On Sept. 15, the United States and Britain announced that they were signing an agreement with Australia to share technology for nuclear-powered submarines as part of a new “enhanced trilateral security partnership” to be known as AUKUS. This event was treated as big news around the world — and rightly so. It is a sign that the fulcrum of geopolitics has moved east and that Asia will be at the center of international affairs for decades to come.

The day after that announcement, however, came another that received relatively little coverage. China formally applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the successor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the trade pact negotiated and promoted by the Obama administration in large part to counter China’s growing economic dominance in Asia. (President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement three days after entering the White House.) Taken together, the two announcements show the complexity of the China challenge.

In the wake of Washington’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, many have commented on the United States’ short-term thinking, its mercurial foreign policy and its lack of staying power. But the AUKUS deal illustrates that, on the big issues, the opposite is true. For 15 years now, the United States has been gradually pivoting away from Europe and the Middle East and toward Asia.

During the Cold War, Europe was the central arena in which geopolitical competition took place. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States began shifting its gaze east. Despite the post-Cold War demobilization, Bill Clinton pledged to keep 100,000 troops in the Far East. Then came 9/11, which forced the United States to focus on the Middle East. But it kept one eye on Asia. President George W. Bush broke with decades of policy and “normalized” India’s nuclear program, largely to gain an ally to deter China. President Barack Obama came into office consciously articulating a pivot to Asia. The day after he announced the stationing of 2,500 U.S. troops in Australia, he declared, “The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.”

Trump’s own strategy toward China involved the usual personalized circus, zigzagging between slavish admiration for Chinese President Xi Jinping and attacks on the country over trade deficits and, later, for the coronavirus. But his administration followed and deepened the pivot strategy, withdrawing more troops from the Middle East and turning attention to the Pacific. It strengthened “the Quad” — a loose and mostly ineffective security dialogue among the United States, Australia, Japan and India — expanding military cooperation among the four nations, with an implicit goal of deterring China.

The crucial accelerator of the pivot to Asia has been China. Beijing’s belligerent foreign policy — a break from previous decades — has unnerved most of its neighbors. India was long the most reluctant member of the Quad, wary of alienating its huge neighbor to the north and in getting involved in a U.S. strategy to counter Beijing. But New Delhi dramatically changed its approach, especially after bloody skirmishes on the Indochinese border that gained Beijing nothing more than some frozen wasteland in the Himalayas.

Today, India readily engages in joint military exercises with the Quad and has banned Chinese involvement in various aspects of the Indian economy. Similarly, China’s imperious 14 grievances issued to Australia last year played a crucial role in pushing Canberra to search for a more robust deterrent against Beijing — and thus to ask the United States for nuclear-powered submarines.

And that brings me to China’s bid to join the CPTPP. Could it be a return to an older, more strategic Chinese approach that asserts Beijing’s influence using economic, technological and cultural means? Xi does not seem like a man who acknowledges error — but could it be that he is quietly attempting a course correction after seeing the disastrous results of his “wolf warrior” diplomacy? Could China actually join the CPTPP? It’s unlikely, since in key areas it remains a “nonmarket economy,” which is incompatible with the group’s requirements. But were it somehow to manage that process, it would be a remarkable move of jiu-jitsu. A trade and investment pact designed to combat Chinese influence would end up becoming one more platform in which China’s weight was paramount.

The submarine deal is a big and smart strategic move. It plays to U.S. strengths, which are military and political. But what if the China challenge is fundamentally economic and technological? For the United States, rejoining CPTPP is politically difficult, but it might be strategically more important than about eight Australian submarines that may not begin to be deployed until 19 years from now.

Don’t take my word for it. Ash Carter, Obama’s defense secretary, said in 2015 that the United States joining the TPP was as important as deploying another (nuclear-powered) aircraft carrier in Asia. Kurt Campbell, now the top White House policymaker on Asia, went further that same year. “If we did everything right in Asia . . . and not get TPP, we can’t get a passing grade,” he said. “We can do everything wrong . . . and get TPP, and we have a B.” What if he was right?