Ukraine: Will tensions with Russia dilute the US focus on Indo-Pacific, China?

Updated on Jan 31, 2022 12:11 AM IST

There is a debate in the wider American strategic community about the possible impact of a conflict in the European theatre on the US’s role in Indo-Pacific theatre.

The US and its allies have warned that Russia is preparing for an invasion after massing some 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine, but Moscow has contended it has no plans to attack (Reuters)
The US and its allies have warned that Russia is preparing for an invasion after massing some 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine, but Moscow has contended it has no plans to attack (Reuters)
By, Washington

With the US focused on the crisis with Russia over Ukraine, and diplomatic talks with Moscow yielding no breakthrough, there is a debate in the wider American strategic community about the possible impact of a conflict in the European theatre on the US’s role in Indo-Pacific theatre.

Also Read | How the Ukraine crisis affects India

Three questions, in particular, have animated both officials and experts. Is the Joe Biden administration’s focus on Russia at a time when China is the real strategic challenge of the present and the future smart? Will the US policy focus on Russia lead to a diversion in geopolitical attention and material resources from Indo-Pacific to Europe, or can Washington multi-task? And what does this mean for other countries in Asia, including India?

Battling Russia or China, or Russia and China

While there is a broad bipartisan consensus in the US Congress against Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Congressman Ro Khanna, a member of the House of Representatives from California, recently said the US’s interest was in “long-term de-escalation in the region especially with the rise of China”. He supported the threat of US sanctions against Russia, but warned against a conflict. “With the rise of China and the economic and military threat of invading Taiwan, the US cannot afford to embroiled in a draining war and conflict in Ukraine.” US national security interest, Khanna reiterated, lay in not getting “significantly entangled in a conflict that would weaken us vis a vis China”.

Khanna’s comments triggered a backlash against him on Twitter from those who advocate the exercise of more coercive options against Russia. But key former US officials acknowledged that the Congressman had a point.

When asked if tensions with Russia risked diverting the US’s geopolitical focus from the China challenge, Elbridge A Colby, a former assistant secretary of defence for strategy and force development, said: “Yes, without question.” Colby, who helped draft the US’s National Defense Strategy in 2018 – a key document that recognised the re-emergence of long-term strategic interstate competition as the US’s primary challenge – warned: “We need to keep the focus on Asia even as crisis flares in Europe. Asia is far more important, and China a much greater threat than Russia. We don’t have the military capacity and likely lack the diplomatic capital and geo-economic leverage to focus on Asia while sustaining our traditional posture in Europe – let alone doubling down. Indeed, doubling down in Europe now would be a historic mistake, and one we will likely rue in the future.”

But there is a counterview that sending a strong message to Russia over Ukraine is essential to sending a message to China too, since what is at stake in Ukraine are broader principles of state sovereignty. A weak US response, in fact, may embolden Beijing.

At a press briefing earlier this week, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said: “In some ways, this is, as important as Ukraine is, even bigger than the question of a conflict, a Russia-produced conflict, between Russia and Ukraine. This is what about what should be the inviolable rules of the so-called rules-based international order.”

Also Read | Russian invasion of Ukraine would be 'horrific': Pentagon

Alluding to China, without specifically naming it, Price added: “You hear us talk about the rules-based international order not only in the case of Europe and what Russia is doing to undermine it, but in other regions too, notably the Indo-Pacific, where we have similar concerns about what certain countries have also sought to do to undermine, to erode that rules-based international order.” Price said this was why the implications of what Russia was doing went beyond Ukraine.

Colby, who has recently authored The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict, disagreed. “I don’t buy this, fundamentally. Look, obviously Beijing is watching to learn more about how the Biden Administration does things. But much more important is the reality that we face real constraints on our power.”

Colby said that what advocates of a hawkish approach in Ukraine missed the fact that the US did not have enough military power to go around. “They seem to think it’s all just about our willpower. But willpower without strength is feckless. So what would actually probably most embolden Beijing is doubling down in Europe, since that will mean that we’re not going to strengthen our position in Asia.”

Then there is the question of whether China and Russia can be seen separately or as a part of a common nexus of US adversaries. Those who support a strong US position against Russia point to the deep, and deepening, Moscow-Beijing nexus and argue that the US has to contend with both. Indeed, in a call on Wednesday with US secretary of state Antony J Blinken, his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, spoke about taking into account Russia’s “legitimate security interests”.

Others, however, suggest that the US will have to identify whether its core contradiction is with Moscow or Beijing, stay focused on that adversary, and find creative diplomatic ways to split the China-Russia nexus and play on Moscow’s fears of Beijing encroaching on its sphere of influence in central Asia.

But these choices aren’t easy, especially when no US administration can be seen as allowing Russia to undermine the entire post-Cold War architecture in Europe – which is what Vladimir Putin has sought in his treaty proposals by asking NATO and the US to limit their engagement, presence, posture, and activities in eastern Europe.

What it means for Indo-Pacific and India

Irrespective of whether the US should have escalated tensions with Russia over Ukraine, or whether it could have adopted any other course given that it is Russia that has stepped up the ante in recent months, the fact is that US-Russia tensions have deepened; there is a strong possibility of Russian action in Ukraine; and both sides are preparing for a prolonged geopolitical and economic confrontation.

How will this alter Washington’s mood?

Ashley Tellis, the Tata chair for Strategic Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a former US administration official, and among the foremost strategic experts on Asia in Washington DC, believes that these renewed tensions will indeed lead to a shift in focus for the US national security establishment – and have two implications.

“One, the US gets easily distracted. In this case, thinking about the Indo-Pacific is far ahead of the practical implementation. For all the accentuated rhetoric, the administration’s engagement and investment in Indo-Pacific is still relatively modest and involves pursuing low-hanging fruit, such as investing in the Quad or holding summit-level meetings. There is a big deficit in terms of both the military investments in the Indo-Pacific strategy and, more visibly, the trade dimension, at a time when the regional economies are still deeply integrated with China.”

A military crisis with Russia, Tellis argued, will end up weakening US capacity in the Indo-Pacific and lead to greater resource allocation in Europe.

The second implication is with regard to India, and how it emerges out of the crisis. “There are already anxieties in the Congress about India, including vis-à-vis its relationship with Russia. If Delhi feels compelled to be mildly sympathetic to Russia, or even excessively neutral, it will not find a receptive audience for its position in Washington. India is admittedly in a hard place,” said Tellis.

Unlike Australia and Japan, the other members of the Quad, who are US allies, India is a partner, prides itself on its “strategic autonomy”, and has a robust relationship with Russia. India finally issued a statement on the issue on Friday, calling for a “peaceful resolution of the situation through sustained diplomatic efforts for long-term peace and stability in the region and beyond”. Policymakers are hoping that that the crisis gets defused, given their desire to sustain India’s close links with both Washington and Moscow.

But if the crisis escalates, New Delhi’s position on the issue may well play into the debate in the US on whether India merits a sanctions waiver for its acquisition of the S-400 missile system from Russia – which would otherwise apply under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), a US Congress law passed in 2017 to deter countries from engaging with Moscow.

Most observers of India-US ties in Washington DC believe that an executive waiver of sanctions is likely for three reasons. One, Delhi is banking on the fact that the US recognises that India’s security imperatives vis a vis China – a shared concern – requires it to engage with Russia – a long-standing defence partner.

Two, sanctions will set back India-US ties by conveying a message that Washington is not reliable and strengthen the skeptics within the Indian system who have viewed deepening ties with caution – both within India’s defence and intelligence set-ups, the memory of US’s hostility towards India during the Cold War is alive and Pentagon’s continued ties with Rawalpindi are viewed with suspicion.

And three, it will potentially reverse the deepening defence engagement between India and the US, with implications for the US defence industry, and ironically, enhance Indian dependence on Russia, even as Delhi has sought to diversify its defence relationships in recent years.

None of these outcomes would suit the US, which has made substantial investments in the India relationship in the past three decades.

But an outright conflict in Europe will make it difficult for the administration to justify a sanctions waiver when the mood on the Hill is particularly hostile to Moscow. A major sanctions bill against Russia, brought by chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, Robert Menendez, and backed by the White House, is in the offing if Moscow does invade Ukraine.

Delhi has also lost a degree of goodwill on the Hill due to what it is widely perceived to be an erosion in its democratic record. This doesn’t necessarily play out in direct ways in policymaking but does make asking for a concession more difficult. The balance is still pretty strongly tilted towards a sanctions waiver, but till it is done, it is not done.

Can the US multi-task?

Despite US’s new dilemmas due to Russia’s actions, there remains a view in DC that the administration knows that across military, economic, technological, strategic, and political spheres, China is US’s greatest challenge. All national security documents, messaging, and appointments in the administration over the past year have reflected this policy conclusion.

Indeed, even as the attention is on the Russia front, the China challenge has not been forgotten. Just in the past week, President Biden has held a bilateral meeting (virtually) with Japan’s new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, where both reiterated their commitment to a shared vision for the region. There have been indications that the next Quad summit is scheduled to held in Japan this summer.

The US has conducted strong naval drills in East Asia as a message to Beijing not to engage in adventurism on Taiwan. The State Department held a briefing to reiterate its opposition to China’s illegal and coercive activities in the South China Sea. And the China director of the National Security Council outlined the administration’s five-point strategy to compete with Beijing over the past year of Biden’s presidency,

Jeff Smith, research fellow, South Asia, at Heritage Foundation and author of Cold Peace: China-India Rivalry in the 21st Century, said that since the Barack Obama administration’s infamous Pivot to Asia, several consecutive US administrations had sought to prioritise the Indo-Pacific and shift resources and attention from legacy theatres such as Europe and West Asia to the “super theatre” of Indo-Pacific.

“Of course, America’s adversaries get a vote too and Russia’s provocative moves in and around Ukraine are indeed drawing US attention back to the Eurasian landmass when the US government would rather be focusing on the China challenge.”

But Smith said he was sceptical that the ongoing Ukraine crisis would have “more than a marginal impact on America’s posture or strategy” in the Indo-Pacific. “The US government is accustomed to, and capable of, managing instability in multiple theatres simultaneously. To date, there are no indications that the US government is pursuing a major deployment of redistribution of resources, manpower and platforms to the European theatre.”

Smith pointed out that the US had already ruled out sending troops to Ukraine, and suggested that the envisioned contingencies involving additional deployment NATO’s eastern flank were not on a scale consequential to US’s Indo-Pacific posture.

Frank O’Donnell, the deputy director of the South Asia programme at Stimson Centre, agreed and said that as serious as the Ukraine crisis was, it would not divert American attention from China. “The administration’s deep engagement with Asian allies and partners, and comparably more limited interactions with European counterparts prior to the crisis, is a significant indication of where it sees its geopolitical priorities.”

As the world watches what happens in Kiev, and Washington figures out a way to tame Moscow’s ambitions and compete with Beijing, developments in the next few weeks will have implications in capitals as far as Canberra, Tokyo, and of course, New Delhi.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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