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Even an ‘Asia First’ Strategy Needs to Deter Russia in Ukraine

There is no Indo-Pacific strategy without U.S. pushback against Russia.

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.
Putin and Xi
Putin and Xi
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping take part in a welcoming ceremony at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on April 27, 2019. VALERY SHARIFULIN/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

As Walter Russell Mead recently noted in the Wall Street Journal, there is a new “Asia First” movement pushing back against U.S. involvement in the crisis over Ukraine. The idea is that an overstretched and declining United States needs to pick its fights carefully and that China, Taiwan, and the Indo-Pacific loom larger in geopolitical terms than Russia, Ukraine, and the future of Europe. They are right: China, Taiwan, and the future of the Indo-Pacific are more important geopolitically. But retrenchment in the face of Russian aggression in Europe would undermine U.S. strategic competition with China in the Indo-Pacific, not enhance it.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi blew a big hole in the Asia First argument when he urged a firm stance against Russian President Vladimir Putin and promised resolute Japanese support. Hayashi correctly noted that China was watching and that a failure of resolve in Europe would only encourage greater coercion and belligerence by Beijing. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said her country “empathize[s] with Ukraine’s situation” and ordered the creation of a task force to study the Russia-generated crisis. Beijing will also carefully study Putin’s next moves with an eye to revising China’s own Taiwan strategy at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party this fall. The United States’ success or failure is carefully measured by friends and foes alike. It’s hard to imagine that Putin wasn’t encouraged in his adventurism by the abrupt U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, as we warned would happen.

This time, however, the link between the Ukraine crisis and strategic competition with China in the Indo-Pacific goes beyond the sometimes amorphous question of prestige and credibility. It is more fundamentally a question of strategy.

As Walter Russell Mead recently noted in the Wall Street Journal, there is a new “Asia First” movement pushing back against U.S. involvement in the crisis over Ukraine. The idea is that an overstretched and declining United States needs to pick its fights carefully and that China, Taiwan, and the Indo-Pacific loom larger in geopolitical terms than Russia, Ukraine, and the future of Europe. They are right: China, Taiwan, and the future of the Indo-Pacific are more important geopolitically. But retrenchment in the face of Russian aggression in Europe would undermine U.S. strategic competition with China in the Indo-Pacific, not enhance it.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi blew a big hole in the Asia First argument when he urged a firm stance against Russian President Vladimir Putin and promised resolute Japanese support. Hayashi correctly noted that China was watching and that a failure of resolve in Europe would only encourage greater coercion and belligerence by Beijing. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said her country “empathize[s] with Ukraine’s situation” and ordered the creation of a task force to study the Russia-generated crisis. Beijing will also carefully study Putin’s next moves with an eye to revising China’s own Taiwan strategy at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party this fall. The United States’ success or failure is carefully measured by friends and foes alike. It’s hard to imagine that Putin wasn’t encouraged in his adventurism by the abrupt U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, as we warned would happen.

This time, however, the link between the Ukraine crisis and strategic competition with China in the Indo-Pacific goes beyond the sometimes amorphous question of prestige and credibility. It is more fundamentally a question of strategy.

The U.S. strategy for competition with China must be a global strategy that links U.S. alliances and partnerships into a mutually reinforcing network rather than chopping them into separate unconnected spheres. The latter, as we should know by now, is precisely what Beijing is trying to achieve. China has sought for over a decade to divide Europe internally and to separate Europe from the United States. China’s 17+1 outreach program to weaker members of the European Union using Belt and Road Initiative money and leveraging their resentment of Brussels worked: Countries such as Hungary did China’s bidding by blocking a concerted EU response to China’s coercion in the South China Sea in 2016 and suppression of Hong Kong in 2021.

Successful deterrence of Putin now will reduce the requirement for shifting more significant resources away from the Indo-Pacific later.

Over the past year, however, the geopolitical trends in Europe have become more favorable for the United States and its Asian allies. Britain has joined with the United States to help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines through the AUKUS agreement. While France was miffed at being stiffed in that agreement, it will stay onside as China encroaches on the French island territories and very large exclusive economic zone in the South Pacific. NATO is more forward-leaning on China in its own deliberations today, with Pacific-facing Canada a strong partner in that endeavor. Even in recalcitrant Germany, the Foreign Office under the leadership of new Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has predicated its China policy on “systemic competition” with China.

Members of Beijing’s 17+1 group have also grown alarmed at the ferocious Chinese economic embargo against Lithuania after Vilnius inaugurated a Taiwanese representative office using the name “Taiwan” instead of “Taipei.” Lithuania quit the 17+1 group, and Beijing’s fellow travelers were unable to block the EU from lodging a formal complaint against China at the World Trade Organization. EU members are even discussing so-called coalitions of the willing on issues related to China to preempt future attempts by Beijing to leverage captured members. These are important geopolitical trends that would be undermined if the United States abandoned NATO in Europe’s greatest moment of crisis in a generation.

The authors of the Asia First arguments are thinking primarily about the impact of Ukraine on finite military resources. They are right that deployment of more ground forces and strategic assets to Europe, even temporarily, would reduce access to similar resources needed in the Indo-Pacific. But it is important to think about the application of military resources temporally as well as geographically. Successful deterrence and imposition of costs on Putin now will reduce the requirement for shifting more significant resources away from the Indo-Pacific later. On the other hand, if Putin successfully pulls off an Anschluss of Ukraine and Belarus, that would not only quadruple the length of the current Russia-NATO contact line, but it would also create one even longer than the NATO-Warsaw Pact border during the Cold War. Adequate defense of this new border would be far costlier, and bind far greater resources, than preventing its creation.

The advocates of restraint in the Ukraine crisis also need to remember that strategic competition with China is a full-spectrum endeavor. Any Chinese calculation of the risk and reward associated with an attack on Taiwan would have to consider both the military order of battle and the geopolitical consequences. If Chinese President Xi Jinping thinks the United States’ European allies will not impose an economic and geopolitical punishment for aggression against Taiwan, then deterrence and dissuasion are weakened. Abandoning Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression would shrink Washington’s hand in the larger game Beijing is playing. For that reason, the administration’s successful harnessing of diplomatic support from Japan, Australia, and other allies against Putin is an important foreshadowing for Beijing of what NATO and European partners might do should it be Taiwan’s turn.

Realism would also force Washington and its partners to recognize that Putin and Xi are consolidating their own global alignment. The two leaders spent a full day before the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics coordinating strategy for competing with the United States. China even formally supported Russia’s demands in Europe. Chinese and Russian military exercises and intelligence operations, including foreign interference campaigns, are increasingly aligned and carefully coordinated. U.S. and Japanese forces in the Western Pacific find themselves responding to simultaneous and well-coordinated Chinese and Russian military probes in the air and at sea. Russia is also a Pacific power—a fact too often overlooked, even though the Russian Pacific Fleet dates back nearly 300 years.

In the Biden administration’s recently released Indo-Pacific Strategy, the word “Russia” is conspicuously absent. Just as Beijing and Moscow are working to put Washington’s alliances in the Indo-Pacific on the back foot, the United States should be working with its allies globally to outmaneuver their authoritarian axis. Driving up the costs to Russia will also drive up the costs to China. A closer Sino-Russian axis opens potential opportunities to further coordinate strategy with India beyond what has already been achieved with AUKUS. The United States and its NATO allies also have more work to do coordinating their responses to Chinese efforts to build military bases in East and West Africa. Treating Russia as an isolated European power and China as an Asian one is ahistorical, myopic, unrealistic, and unstrategic.

At the same time, the real trade-offs between the competing security demands of Europe and the Indo-Pacific should be a wake-up call for Washington. The Pentagon leadership has been unable to break the bureaucratic morass—not least among its own brass—and shift resources from U.S. Africa Command, Central Command, and Southern Command to the Indo-Pacific. The defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff need to crack heads and make those choices so the Asia-Europe trade-off is less acute. The administration also needs to push Congress for the defense budgets needed to manage two significant military challenges. Defense spending as a percentage of GDP is projected to be barely 3 percent in 2022, a post-World-War-II low at a time of great and increasing danger. If the administration is not willing to push Congress, a new Congress should push the administration. Finally, precisely because the United States is in full-spectrum competition with China, the administration should not get a pass on its lack of any international economic strategy. In its new Indo-Pacific Strategy, the White House promises leadership on a new economic framework for the region. But what is this framework? More importantly, where is it? Economic statecraft and strategic influence have always gone hand in hand. But as one senior official has lamented to us, U.S. foreign policy is now operating with one hand tied behind its back.

These are problems of means that the administration still has to fix, but they should not be excuses for dramatically shifting the ends of U.S. post-World-War-II strategy. A stable and closely aligned Europe may be less important relative to the Indo-Pacific than it once was, but it nevertheless remains absolutely indispensable to U.S. success on the other side of the globe.

Perhaps the original Asia Firster was Gen. Douglas MacArthur. In a famous 1951 cartoon by Herbert Block, MacArthur is pictured urging Defense Secretary George Marshall to prioritize Asia over NATO because of the Korean War. In front of MacArthur is a cube-shaped globe with the Pacific on the top and Europe hidden below the edges. Marshall says, “we’ve been using more of a roundish one.” Marshall’s retort was as right then as it is now.

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 and co-chairs, with Paul Lettow, the Forum for American Leadership’s strategic planning working group. Twitter: @GabeScheinmann

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