Ukraine conflict won’t make Biden abandon Indo-Pacific strategy

US President Joe Biden’s summit meeting with the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian leaders this week in Washington, his travel to Seoul and Tokyo later in the month, and participation in the Quad leaders’ forum in the
Japanese capital answer many important questions about the current US global strategy.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine at the end of February, it was widely asked in Delhi if the new challenges of European security would result in a dilution of the US’s strategic commitment to the Indo-Pacific. Put simply, can the US continue to balance China in Asia as Russia upends the European order?

The question is a legitimate one. After all, even the most powerful states find it hard to concentrate their resources in two distinct theatres. Biden’s answer is a definitive one — yes, the US can handle Russia in Europe and China in Asia. Biden came to power with a determination to make the Indo-Pacific the highest priority of his foreign policy. He is not going to abandon that objective in dealing with the unexpected crisis in Europe.

Biden shared his predecessor Donald Trump’s assumptions that China was the principal challenge and Russia was less of a threat. That is one of the reasons Biden chose to meet Putin in June 2021 to offer prospects for a reasonable relationship with Russia in order to devote US energies to the China question. But Putin’s calculations led him in the other direction — towards a deeper strategic partnership with China. Putin and the Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced a partnership “without limits” and “no forbidden areas” just days before Russia invaded Ukraine.

But America’s assessment of the Russian and Chinese threats has not changed since the war began in Ukraine. As the Director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, Bill Burns told the Financial Times the other day, Xi’s China was the “biggest geopolitical challenge we face over the long-term as a country”, even though the threat from Putin’s Russia could not be underestimated. “(Putin) demonstrates in a very disturbing way that declining powers can be at least as disruptive as the rising ones,” Burns said.

Contrary to the initial assumptions that America is on the retreat and the West is in disarray, it is Moscow and Beijing that are on the defensive as the war in Ukraine completes three months. The idea that China will gain from the Russian war in Ukraine has also proven to be false. If Putin is locked in a military conflict that he can neither win nor withdraw from, Xi has tied himself to the fading star, Putin. Expectations that Russia’s triumph in Ukraine will be followed by a successful Chinese invasion of Taiwan have begun to dissipate. If the annexation of Taiwan must wait, Xi Jinping must also cope with the continuing pressures from the US on a range of issues — economic, political, and diplomatic.

This week’s summit level engagement with the ASEAN comes after sustained high-level US outreach to the region since the Biden Administration took charge. While it was widely assumed that South East Asia was “lost” to Chinese dominance, Biden has said, “not so fast”.

In North Asia, the election of Yoon Suk-yeol as the president of South Korea — he will be sworn in this week — has tilted the scales slightly towards the US in the continuing battle for influence between Beijing and Washington. The US is also actively trying to reduce the differences between its two treaty allies in the region — South Korea and Japan.

Biden’s trip to Seoul and Tokyo later this month is about consolidating the bilateral alliances with South Korea and Japan. The Tokyo summit of the Quad leaders — the third in barely 15 months — is about making the forum a critical element in the regional security architecture as well as boosting strategic ties with India.

Last year, it seemed China’s advance in the east was unstoppable and the American retrenchment was inevitable. Now the US is clawing back into the region. There have been setbacks to the US too: For example, the security pact between China and the Solomon Islands could lead to the PLA’s permanent military presence in the South Pacific. But, Washington is signaling that it is here to stay and ready to wrestle with multiple challenges in the region.
Meanwhile, China is reeling under self-inflicted problems, most notably Xi Jinping’s zero Covid strategy and his crackdown on the large internet companies. Beijing’s prospects look a lot less rosy than before as the Chinese economy slows down and XI’s foreign policy turns out to be quite costly for China. That leads to the second part of Biden’s answer to the question of dealing with the Russian and Chinese challenges at the same time.

Biden’s lemma to the theorem on a two-front strategy is a simple one — that Washington will address the simultaneous challenge in Europe and Asia not by acting alone but in coordination with allies and partners. Quite early on in the Biden Administration’s tenure, national security adviser, Jake Sullivan emphasized the core principle of Biden’s strategy — “building a latticework of alliances and partnerships” around the world.

The idea was rooted in the recognition that alliances and partnerships are America’s greatest strength and most important advantage over Russia and China. If Trump trashed US alliances as a political and fiscal burden, Biden has focused on empowering allies to achieve its broader strategic objectives.

Both Putin and Xi might have convinced themselves that the US alliances are falling apart amidst the deeper crisis within the West. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine has reinvigorated NATO and the Western alliance across the Atlantic. In Asia, China’s muscular approach to disputes with its neighbors has helped strengthen the US alliances, create new forums like the AUKUS, elevate old ones like the Quad to a higher level, and consolidate the strategic conception of the Indo-Pacific. Besides Britain, the US has also drawn Europe into makings for the Indo-Pacific that have endured despite the war commitment in Ukraine.

Until recently, China was heaping scorn on the Quad and Indo-Pacific. Today, it is painting them as the greatest threat to regional and global security. China has no one to blame but its own hubris. Asia’s new coalitions are a response to Xi Jinping’s unilateralism and his quest for regional hegemony. India’s enthusiasm for the Quad can be directly correlated to Xi’s military coercion on the disputed frontiers with India. If Xi does not like the Quad or other “small cliques”, he could simply return to a peaceful resolution of territorial disputes and restore normal ties with neighbors. That would at once take away the source of resurgent Asian alliances.

The two parts of Biden’s answer to the Europe-Asia or Russia-China question have worked well for India. For one, the US’s emphasis on the long-term challenge from China has meant that Washington is willing to cut some political slack for Delhi on the Russian question. This gives India time to diversify its defense ties that have been heavily dependent on Russia. The US emphasis on partnerships rather than unilateralism in dealing with the China challenge means India’s agency in the region can only grow. The Quad allows Delhi to carve out a larger role for itself in Asia and the Indo-Pacific in collaboration with the US and its allies.

The writer is senior fellow, Asia Society Policy Institute, Delhi and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

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