Focus on Russia will curtail efforts to limit Chinese expansionism
The Indo-Pacific region — home to the world’s most populous nations, largest economies and largest militaries — has emerged as the world’s economic and geopolitical hub. This vast region will shape the new world order, including America’s geopolitical standing, in the coming years.
Greater volatility in the Indo-Pacific, however, seems inevitable as a result of the deepening international crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Western retaliation in the form of an unprecedented hybrid war against Moscow.
Sanctions are a form of warfare whose unforeseen consequences have, historically, set in motion an escalating spiral leading to devastating armed conflict. It was a raft of U.S. sanctions intended to squeeze Imperial Japan that ultimately provoked the attack on Pearl Harbor, leading to the Pacific war and eventually the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Russia, now the world’s most-sanctioned country, remains a nuclear and cyber superpower, as well as the world’s richest country when it comes to natural resources, and its own likely reprisals to the West’s hybrid war will increase the risks of a wider conflict.
The new Cold War will constrain an overstretched Washington from genuinely pivoting to the Indo-Pacific or robustly countering the challenge to its global preeminence from China, which dwarfs Russia in economic power and military spending.
Since taking office, U.S. President Joe Biden has sought to stabilize the geopolitical competition with China so as to focus on containing Russia, in keeping with what he told CBS “60 Minutes” just before being elected: Russia is “the biggest threat to America” and China “the biggest competitor.”
As part of that approach — a reversal of the Trump administration policy of treating the Chinese Communist Party as an existential threat to U.S. interests — Biden last year poured a record $650 million in military aid into Ukraine. Last autumn’s U.S.-NATO military exercises near Russia’s Black Sea coast incensed Moscow, foreshadowing Russian aggression today.
To help stabilize relations with Beijing, Biden has taken a number of steps, including a decision not to reinstate certain tariffs. Biden allowed Beijing to escape scot-free over its failure to meet commitments in the so-called Phase One trade deal with the Trump administration. China’s increased purchases of U.S. goods and services fell far below its commitment of $200 billion over 2017 levels during the deal’s two-year period that ended on Dec. 31, 2021.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s unrelenting expansionism from the South and East China Seas to Hong Kong and the Himalayas has essentially been cost-free. Even Xi’s mass incarceration of over a million Muslims in Xinjiang, which the Biden administration acknowledges is “genocide” and “crimes against humanity,” has gone unpunished, with the U.S. imposing only symbolic sanctions.
Biden, after more than a year in office and barely two weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, unveiled the “Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States.” This followed criticism at home that he lacked clarity on a region central to long-term U.S. interests.
Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy, while acknowledging that “our allies and partners in the region bear much of the cost” of China’s “harmful behavior,” goes out of its way to mollify Xi’s regime, stating that America’s “objective is not to change the PRC (People’s Republic of China) but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates.” It also says the U.S. will “manage competition with the PRC responsibly” and “work with the PRC in areas like climate change and nonproliferation.”
As if seeking to allay China’s concerns, Biden has also progressively diluted the Quad’s agenda, broadening it, as his Indo-Pacific strategy attests, to everlasting universal challenges like climate change, sustainability, “global health” and “advancing common technology principles.” The Quad, however, was designed as a bulwark against China’s expansionism.
Biden has yet to comment on China’s nearly two-year border aggression against India. Nor has the U.S. asked Beijing to pull back the nearly 200,000 Chinese troops it has massed along the Indian frontier. Yet Biden, seeking to co-opt India in his new Cold War with Russia, hosted a special Quad summit by video link on Mar. 3 to discuss the Russian aggression.
But the summit, as the unusually short White House statement indicated, achieved little. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi put his foot down over extending the Quad’s sphere to Ukraine, saying the group must “remain focused on its core objective… in the Indo-Pacific region.”
India — the only Quad member not under the U.S. security and nuclear umbrella — has taken an independent stance on Ukraine, calling for an end to hostilities and a return to the path of diplomacy but abstaining from the United Nations votes to condemn Russia.
As Biden steps up his hybrid war against Russia, his conciliatory approach will become more pronounced toward China, which has the capacity to bail out the Russian economy. But Xi is likely to work toward neutralizing similar Western sanctions against China in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Xi is expected to fast-track progress on parallel international financial arrangements that are free from Western domination and weaponization.
Biden’s imperative to win Chinese cooperation on his sanctions against Russia gives Beijing important leverage. Like a double-edged sword, it will wield that leverage to extract U.S. and Russian concessions. With Biden’s characterization of Russia as Enemy No. 1 becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, a major casualty is likely to be America’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”