Amid escalating US-Russian tensions, US President Joe Biden unveiled his long-delayed “Indo-Pacific Strategy” on February 11, just as the White House warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine was imminent.
The US confrontation with Moscow, which has mounted a major military build-up against Ukraine to force the United States to abandon its post-Cold War policy of sliding NATO to Russia’s borders, risks becoming the crisis key to Biden’s presidency.
A Russian invasion could leave an already distracted US president little time for the Indo-Pacific region, which is why the 19-page strategy document was hastily released on a Friday afternoon.
A double paradox, however, stands out: Biden has turned Russia’s troop buildup against Ukraine into a major international crisis, but he hasn’t uttered a word about a bigger military buildup — by China along the way. Himalayas – which threatens to unleash a war on US strategic strategy. partner India.
And, although Biden has abandoned Ukraine to its fate by ruling out coming to the direct defense of this embattled country, Washington has been in the lead in sounding the drums of war.
It took Biden more than a year after taking office to unveil the broad outlines of his Indo-Pacific strategy. And that followed criticism at home that he had failed to clarify his approach to a region that is most critical to US interests. The world’s center of gravity is shifting to the Indo-Pacific, where the specter of a power imbalance looms.
Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy, as a simple document for public consumption, offers a glimpse of the Indo-Pacific landscape. With its brief or nebulous references to key regional issues and challenges, the document does not provide sufficient clarity on the focus and direction of US policy.
In fact, it sounds more like a watered down version of former President Donald Trump’s administration’s “U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategic Framework.” It also comes without the assumptions, goals and actions that were clearly defined under each topic in this once-secret strategic framework, which was declassified in the final days of the Trump presidency with slight redactions.
The fact is, Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy document is essentially an exercise in public diplomacy, while the Trump administration’s strategic framework was formulated to advance his policy of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’. – a concept originally drafted by the Japanese at the time. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and retained as the centerpiece of the Biden strategy. The declassification of the strategic framework appeared to be intended to emphasize that the Biden administration inherited a coherent, comprehensive and realistic strategy on the Indo-Pacific.
So far, Biden has not delivered his long-awaited China strategy speech to lay out his administration’s approach to a country that poses a military, economic and technological challenge on a scale that states States have never seen before. While largely respecting the China policy established by his predecessor, Biden’s approach seems more conciliatory.
As the Trump administration launched an ideological offensive against China as a predatory communist state without political legitimacy or the rule of law, Biden assured Xi at a virtual summit last November that the United States would not seek not to change the Chinese political system. Similarly, when he called Xi last September, Biden, according to a senior US official, sought to explain US actions toward China “in a way that (is) not misconstrued as…trying kind of undermine Beijing in a particular way.”
The reinsurance is embedded in the Biden Indo-Pacific strategy document, which states that “our goal is not to change the PRC (People’s Republic of China) but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates…”.
Biden, including during the virtual summit with Xi, has repeatedly stressed the importance of establishing “safeguards” to avoid conflict with China. Curiously, the stronger power seems more concerned than the weaker power with avoiding conflicts.
The US president’s Indo-Pacific strategy document, however, recognizes that China “seeks to become the most influential power in the world” and that “our allies and partners in the region bear much of the cost of the PRC’s nefarious behavior”. . Still, he says the United States will seek to “manage competition with the PRC responsibly” and “work with the PRC in areas such as climate change and nonproliferation.”
The strategy document, while supporting “India’s continued rise”, framed its reference to China’s military actions against India not as “aggression” (a term the Biden White House uses almost every day to describe the rise of Russia against Ukraine) but in neutral language – like “the conflict along the Line of Real Control with India.” And the background press briefing on the release of the document referred to “China’s behavior in the line of effective control.”
The document contains only fleeting references to Japan, America’s most important ally in the Indo-Pacific which hosts more American soldiers than any other country in the world. But he pledges to strengthen cooperation between the United States, Japan and South Korea.
More importantly, the document confirms a Biden-initiated shift from “the Quad” group involving Japan, the United States, Australia and India to geo-economic and other larger issues – from “global health security” and climate change (Biden’s pet concern) to “critical and emerging technologies, fostering supply chain cooperation, joint technology deployments, and advancing common technology principles.” Such a broad agenda threatens to dilute the Quad’s strategic focus on the Indo-Pacific and also weigh it down.
Today, the main challenge facing the United States in the Indo-Pacific is the relentless push by a revisionist China to expand its borders and sphere of influence and dominate the region. But, much to China’s delight, the United States is again diverted from the Indo-Pacific.
The current geopolitical crisis between the United States and Russia, with Ukraine as a flashpoint, could help Biden distract from his domestic issues at a time when his approval rating has hit a new low. But Russian President Vladimir Putin is also strengthening his position at home, while reaping windfall profits for Russia from the crisis-induced soaring of international oil prices to seven-year highs.
The Biden administration is the third successive U.S. administration to commit to shifting America’s primary strategic focus to Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific. Yet its current influx of military assets into Europe highlights the risk that, like the two previous US administrations, it too cannot truly pivot to Asia.
Brahma Chellaney, a longtime contributor to the Japan Times, is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).
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