Biden’s Putin fixation strains ties in Asia

Several of Biden’s current policies are helpful to the PRC and a handicap to those seeking to keep the Indo-Pacific free of control by the rising hegemonic power, writes Prof. Madhav Nalapat

The hangover in US policy-making groups from the intoxicating days when their country was the sole superpower has persisted within that essential partner of India in ensuring a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. The effect of such a retro mindset in Beltway decisions about policy are evident even in some of the think-tanks that have not sufficiently adjusted to the reality of the 21st century Indo-Pacific world order. There are indeed excellent minds at both Brookings as well as the Heritage Foundation, and fewer and fewer of analysts there who remain in thrall to the Europeanist view that Moscow, and not Beijing, is the central threat to US interests.

Despite the diversion of attention that the Ukraine imbroglio has caused, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Hudson Institute too are becoming less tethered to still looking at the world from a Cold War 1.0 (USSR-US) lens. Unfortunately, even the younger crop of European politicians, such as Emmanuel Macron, who has twice been elected President of the French Republic, remain moored to the fantasy that Europe rather than Asia remains the centrepoint of geopolitical gravity. It is such a view that makes Macron talk about a Europe stretching from Paris to Vladivostok once a clone of Boris Yeltsin replaces Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin.

In reality, the prospect of a Euro-cetric Asia is a fantasy, despite being embraced by some of the senior hires in the Biden administration. Given the present flow of events and responses, what is more likely is for a swathe of first PRC influence and later primacy stretching from Beijing to Berlin. Already, in a few EU member states, the PRC has accumulated enough influence to almost certainly ensure a veto of any move by the EU that goes against the interests of the CCP. The war in Ukraine has been seized by chancelleries in Paris, London and Berlin as a catalyst for Washington to return to its traditional policy of looking on European rather than Asian countries as the country’s most significant strategic partners.

That the White House is sympathetic to such a change in direction became clear with the establishment of AUKUS. Merely an Australia-US (USA) pact on nuclear technology would have met the need for Canberra to equip itself with nuclear-powered submarines. Now that that the emphasis paid by Shinzo Abe while PM of Japan on national defence is being continued by Kishida, AUKUS from the start ought to have instead been JUSA (Japan-US-Australia), given that neither Japan nor Australia is a nuclear weapons state in the manner India is. President George W. Bush made UK Prime Minister Tony Blair his partner in the management of post-Saddam Iraq. This put anti-US sentiments in Iraq on steroids, as the US was seen as teaming up with the colonial power that had stripped Iraq (not to mention India and several other countries) of much of their resources in the past. Tony Blair, of course, was delighted to join in the bid to administer post-Saddam Iraq.

Incongrously, UK PM Boris Johnson has been invited by US President Joe Biden (courtesy Jake Sullivan and Tony Blinken) to join what ought to have been an entirely Indo-Pacific grouping. Which is what JUSA or even USA (US-Australia) would have been. Biden bringing the UK into the mix has resulted in the creation of perception in Asia that President Biden needs to be listed among those who favour foreign and security policies that are designed on the assumption that the US is a slice of Europe separated only by the Atlantic Ocean.

The effort by some in Team Biden has is aimed at persuading some countries in Asia to accept NATO as their security guarantor, despite the disastrous record of that organisation in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. The retreat by NATO from Afghanistan is resulting in the daily capture and worse of individuals who were unwise enough to assist that alliance against the Taliban. While Ukraine is given the benefit of a US Lend Lease program, India has not, despite being incalculably more important to Washington than Kiev. The transfer of less than a dozen naval platforms to the Indian Navy on the lines of USS Trenton, and access to weapons and platforms on the same terms given to Ukraine for the Air Force and the Army would ensure that the next time the PLA launches a conflict that affects Quad security, the PRC would pay a price too heavy for Xi Jinping to bear politically. No such luck. Instead, India is offered weapons systems at prices that are unaffordable.

Taiwan has met the same fate, being sold weapons rather than getting them either on Ukrainian terms or at cut prices. Until President Biden matches words with action, few in Taiwan or India will believe that he is serious about helping out either in the event of a PLA attack. Just now, Foreign Minister Wang Yi is making a scouting tour of several island countries in the Indo-Pacific, looking to repeat the Solomon Islands precedent of giving the PRC , or rather the PLA, bases. None of this seems to have diminished the Ukraine obession of the Biden administration.

Several of Biden’s current policies are helpful to the PRC and a handicap to those countries Anthony Blinken’s speech lauding the PRC under Xi casts doubt on US resolve in seeking to keep the Indo-Pacific free of control by the rising hegemonic power. An example of the way in which the Europe-obsessed policy of the Biden administration is ceding ground to China even among longstanding allies is Saudi Arabia. There remains considerable negativity within the White House and Foggy Bottom towards the reformist Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman, who perhaps as a consequence has substantially enhanced his country’s linkages with China, including through substantial imports of Chinese anti-drone systems and high-velocity firearms.

Russia may be next as a provider of defence platforms to the GCC. Of course, the Saudis are miscalculating if they believe that China will long continue as a significant buyer of Saudi crude. That role will increasingly be filled by Russia, which has become much more reliant on China as a consequence of the US-EU-UK sanctions on it. Another country that is crucial to security in the Indo-Pacific, South Africa, has also entered upon a process of replacing Washington with Beijing as its most important partner. Moves by the US and the EU to punish those democracies that refuse to demonise Putin and abjure Russia are not helping to keep the Indo-Pacific safe from the rising hegemon, quite the reverse. Clumsy diplomacy by the Biden team are conferring ever more advantages to the PRC. The longer President Biden takes to understand that several of his policies are unintentionally giving an advantage to Xi, the greater will be the damage sustained to the Quad project of ensuring a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific.

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