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How Biden Can Save His China Strategy After Afghanistan

Washington needs to give a visible sign of Indo-Pacific commitment.

By , the senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University, and , the executive director of the Alexander Hamilton Society.
A man walks past U.S. and Taiwanese flags in Taipei on Aug. 10.
A man walks past U.S. and Taiwanese flags in Taipei on Aug. 10. Ceng Shou Yi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

In June, we argued that a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan would complicate the Biden administration’s pivot toward countering China in the Indo-Pacific rather than enabling it, as proponents were claiming. That is now manifestly obvious. Resources are being withdrawn from the Pacific to cover the withdrawal. The Japan-based aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, for example, is now on a sustained deployment in the Arabian Sea, leaving the U.S. Navy and its allies in the Western Pacific with none to replace it. Beijing has already warned Taiwan that the abandonment of Afghanistan proves Taipei cannot count on U.S. protection, prompting Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to address the nation to urge greater efforts at self-defense. While not as critical in public as Washington’s European allies, senior national security officials in Tokyo and Canberra have quietly expressed to us their consternation not only at the lack of consultation on Afghanistan but also at the poor execution by what they had been led to believe was a U.S. national security dream team after the tumultuous years of the Trump administration.

Yet as chaotic and tragic as the Afghanistan withdrawal has been thus far, it should not change the logic of the Biden administration’s strategy on China. Domestic backing remains high: There is strong support among Americans for defending Asian allies against attack, which is unlikely to go down given the bipartisan backlash in the U.S. Congress against President Joe Biden for abandoning both Afghan and coalition allies in Afghanistan. Nor is there any evidence that Afghanistan has given U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific cause to give up on their own strategies of aligning more closely with Washington to counter Chinese hegemony, as the Stanford University lecturer Daniel Schneider writes.

Nevertheless, the debacle raises new questions for those in the region whom Biden needs to work with to succeed. The onus is now on the administration to provide more compelling answers on its Asia strategy than it has to date.

In June, we argued that a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan would complicate the Biden administration’s pivot toward countering China in the Indo-Pacific rather than enabling it, as proponents were claiming. That is now manifestly obvious. Resources are being withdrawn from the Pacific to cover the withdrawal. The Japan-based aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, for example, is now on a sustained deployment in the Arabian Sea, leaving the U.S. Navy and its allies in the Western Pacific with none to replace it. Beijing has already warned Taiwan that the abandonment of Afghanistan proves Taipei cannot count on U.S. protection, prompting Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to address the nation to urge greater efforts at self-defense. While not as critical in public as Washington’s European allies, senior national security officials in Tokyo and Canberra have quietly expressed to us their consternation not only at the lack of consultation on Afghanistan but also at the poor execution by what they had been led to believe was a U.S. national security dream team after the tumultuous years of the Trump administration.

Yet as chaotic and tragic as the Afghanistan withdrawal has been thus far, it should not change the logic of the Biden administration’s strategy on China. Domestic backing remains high: There is strong support among Americans for defending Asian allies against attack, which is unlikely to go down given the bipartisan backlash in the U.S. Congress against President Joe Biden for abandoning both Afghan and coalition allies in Afghanistan. Nor is there any evidence that Afghanistan has given U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific cause to give up on their own strategies of aligning more closely with Washington to counter Chinese hegemony, as the Stanford University lecturer Daniel Schneider writes.

Nevertheless, the debacle raises new questions for those in the region whom Biden needs to work with to succeed. The onus is now on the administration to provide more compelling answers on its Asia strategy than it has to date.

First, Biden must acknowledge the operational failures in Afghanistan. His refusal to admit any shortcomings has only compounded close allies’ concerns about basic operational competence. Calls by U.S. Sens. Mark Warner, Chris Coons, and others for a careful assessment of lessons learned should be echoed by Biden himself to reassure Asian allies that the United States will not repeat these mistakes in planning, consultation, and execution during the next major operation. Biden must first resolve the crisis of competence lest it become a crisis of confidence in the United States’ forward presence in Asia.

Second, the administration will need to refresh its counterterrorism strategy with allies like Australia to prepare for an expected increase in foreign fighters operating from Afghanistan—reportedly including hundreds of Islamic State and al Qaeda terrorists whom the Taliban released from prison last week—and jihadis elsewhere emboldened by the Taliban’s victory. The administration’s line that this counterterrorism strategy can be executed without eyes and ears on the ground in Afghanistan is risible to serious U.S. allies, who saw the surge in foreign fighters in Asia after the Obama administration’s withdrawal in Iraq and subsequent rise of the Islamic State. A bolder plan is needed, particularly with respect to the U.S.-India relationship, as the Taliban’s victory will likely increase the threat to India at a time when the United States and its allies need New Delhi’s help in maritime Asia. With the U.S.-Pakistan relationship fundamentally recast now that Washington is no longer dependent on Islamabad for access to Afghanistan, now is a good time for the Biden administration to step up its engagement with New Delhi on counterterrorism efforts.

The administration’s strong first moves in Asia are now at risk of being overwhelmed by the fallout from Afghanistan.

Third, the administration will need to demonstrate the power of U.S. deterrence in the Western Pacific with more visible exercises and deployments than originally planned, particularly after the absence of the Ronald Reagan for so long. Key U.S.-Japanese and U.S.-Australian defense ministers’ meetings are coming up this fall and must be locked in soon with ambitious agendas for military exercises, weapons development, and cooperation in new domains like cyber and space. Similarly, Biden must push hard to confirm that the next summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, also known as the Quad—will take place as expected in September. The administration should commit to fully fund the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, passed by Congress to boost the capabilities of the U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command.

Fourth, the administration needs to break out of its instinctive Atlanticism in responding to the Afghanistan crisis. Ten days after the fall of Kabul, Biden has yet to speak to a single Asian ally, despite having spoken with leaders of Western European NATO powers and Gulf countries to thank them for assistance in the evacuation. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has received no phone call—even though Australian forces took combat risks in Afghanistan every bit as great as the British and certainly greater than the Germans. The proposal for a G-7 meeting on Afghanistan will help the administration climb out of this hole, but only Japan would bring the Indo-Pacific perspective to the table. If the administration wants to prove it is serious about pivoting to the Indo-Pacific, then it’s high time for that to start showing in the response to critical events such as this.

Finally, the administration needs a big play in the region to demonstrate its strategic commitment. Vice President Kamala Harris was right to forge ahead with her visit to Vietnam and Singapore, but simply showing up to say that Southeast Asia is important and Washington remains committed is no longer enough. The biggest gap in Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy to date has been the absence of any economic statecraft after then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement in 2017. Since Biden’s election, all attempts to convince the new team to move forward on Indo-Pacific economic engagement have failed. Instead of joining the successor agreement to the TPP, launched by 11 countries without U.S. participation in 2018, the administration has advanced a much more modest proposal for a digital trade agreement that would address some of the cutting-edge technology competition issues vis-à-vis China. However, even that idea is now being slow-rolled. Allies in the region have quietly been told by the administration not to expect much economic statecraft out of Washington until after the U.S. midterm elections in November 2022. That is no longer an acceptable answer.

Just as we warned, the precipitous and complete withdrawal from Afghanistan is complicating Biden’s Asia strategy rather than simplifying it. The administration’s strong first moves in Asia are now at risk of being overwhelmed by the fallout from Afghanistan. To recover, the administration must demonstrate not only that it can get Americans, U.S. allies, and vulnerable Afghans out of Kabul but also that it is doubling down on the U.S. commitment to the Indo-Pacific at the same time. Otherwise, the United States’ allies and adversaries will view the chaos in Afghanistan as the new normal rather than the exception.

Michael J. Green is the senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a professor at Georgetown University, and a former senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @JapanChair

Gabriel Scheinmann is the executive director of the Alexander Hamilton Society. Twitter: @GabeScheinmann

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