There is some fear in Indo-Pacific capitals, and hope in Beijing, that the Russian invasion of Ukraine will force a reassessment of the US threat calculus and halt the shift of Washington’s strategic focus from Europe to Asia. That will not happen.
Events in Ukraine have demonstrated in many ways the centrality of China to strategic considerations around the globe. China will continue to be the center of US and Western concern.
The United States has called China “the pacing threat” of the 21st century. As Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, explained, that means that “China is the only country that can pose a systemic challenge to the United States in the sense of challenging us, economically, technologically, politically and militarily.”
The war in Ukraine poses a more immediate threat, however, and some experts now insist that the West must adjust its thinking accordingly.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, for example, said Europe must accept the “new normal” imposed by the Russian invasion, and make a “longer-term adjustment” to build up its defense in Eastern Europe.
Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former intelligence officer who worked on Russia and is now at CNAS, a US think tank, agrees, arguing that “the United States can’t simply return to its previous business of focusing predominantly on China.”
We’ve been here before. When George W Bush took office in 2001, his security team believed that US strategic focus needed to shift from Europe to Asia, amid mounting concerns about China’s intentions. The EP3 spy plane incident in April 2001 crystallized those anxieties.
But any transition ended after the September 11 terror attacks. The Bush administration deemed “rogue states” and terrorists to be the chief danger and Beijing quickly offered its support in that struggle.
If a pendulum was swinging from Europe to Asia, it became stuck over Afghanistan and the Middle East.
That won’t happen again. Europe is following Stoltenberg’s advice. European governments are boosting defense budgets, with Germany setting the pace with an eye-popping proposal for a 100 euro billion fund to upgrade its military and a pledge to adhere to the NATO goal of spending 2% of GDP on defense.
Denmark, Lithuania and Poland also said they will boost defense spending.
Finland and Sweden are mulling NATO membership. Regardless of their decisions, Europe has been awakened to a direct threat to its security and is responding. That effort will allow the US to continue its strategic readjustment.
While still capable of being a danger and a geopolitical spoiler, Russia is increasingly spent. Its military has been shattered by the invasion and its economy is in tatters. If sanctions are not lifted soon, it may take generations for the country to recover.
Europeans now recognize the dangers of relying on Russia for critical supplies and will hedge: Moscow’s levers of influence will be significantly reduced.
In Asia, the response is less full-throated. Blame the distance from the conflict in Europe, the limited role that Russia plays in this region, China’s more expansive role (especially when it comes to doing business), the readiness to value real, immediate gains over distant, possible costs or “banal” geostrategic factors like diplomatic support or weapons sales.
The absence of a multilateral institution that can muster a diplomatic or security consensus is another explanation. Failing a collective response, the US must act on its own, or with partners, to address any threat to the status quo in a region that it deems “vital” to its security and prosperity.
Meanwhile, the crisis has shone a light on China and either created or confirmed skepticism about Beijing’s role in the world. China has aligned itself closely with Russia and has become its principal diplomatic defender, while assiduously touting its neutrality.
The Indo-Pacific Strategy, released last month, is crystal clear when it comes to the importance of the region for the United States: “American interests can only be advanced if we firmly anchor the United States in the Indo-Pacific and strengthen the region itself, alongside our closest allies and partners.”
Some strategists have been quick to draw straight lines from Ukraine to Taiwan; that may be premature as Beijing, too, is studying developments and its own conclusions may – or should – induce caution rather than boldness.
Nevertheless, the lesson the US is drawing from the Ukraine crisis is that perceptions of weakness invite attack. Expect deeper engagement from Washington and more concerted attempts to strengthen defense and deterrence to prevent any regional government from being tempted to repeat Russia’s mistake.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions (Georgetown University Press, 2019).