SEOUL – US President Joe Biden last week wrapped up the first Asia tour of his administration with trips to South Korea and Japan, where pro-US governments in both Seoul and Tokyo staunchly reiterated their commitment to their American alliances.
But the trip came against the backdrop of a war in Europe that is consuming much of America’s political, diplomatic, military and media bandwidth.
Biden’s visit has been a long time coming. The two-nation visit, which included a meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialog in Tokyo, followed three separate tours Biden has made to Europe. There, he has visited Belgium, Italy, Poland, the UK, Switzerland and Vatican City, and attended the G7 and NATO summits.
And even though his Democratic Party is hardly a natural partner of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, he has already visited the UK three times.
As vice-president under Barack Obama, Biden is familiar with the so-called “Pivot to Asia.” But many in the region are starting to ask if Biden is too Atlantic-centric – or even too Anglosphere-centric.
It is a germane question given the holes in the West’s anti-Russia strategy.
“Asian economic heft is being indirectly funneled behind Russia in this war,” said Indian Manu Sharmer, a partner at the intelligence arm of Fair Observer, a non-profit independent media. “If Russia is not on its knees, it is because it has indirect access to everything it wants from China or India.”
Making that situation doubly ironic, Beijing and New Delhi are, in the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean, aligned against each other, illustrating the complexities facing US policy in the region.
East versus West
The latest US security initiative in Asia-Pacific, the Australia-UK-US AUKUS format, which appeared in 2021, provides some grounds for Anglocentric criticism.
“One aspect of AUKUS that makes it uncomfortable is that it is kind of an Anglo-Saxon club,” admitted Philip Shetler-Jones, the James Cook Indo-Pacific Fellow at the Council on Geostrategy. “Any grouping can be individuous.”
However, the Briton added: “I don’t think that is helpful – and the development of a joint fighter with Japan is a kind of corrective to that.”
Tokyo and Mitsubishi are mulling which partner to build its next-generation stealth fighter with. The two companies in the running – the UK’s BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin – are both Anglosphere players.
Shetler Jones, like Sharmer, was speaking on an online panel discussion last week hosted by Fair Observer, as Biden wound up his Asian trip.
But the issue is not only one of appearances. America faces more multi-faceted security dynamics in the Indo-Pacific than it ever did in the North Atlantic.
“It has always been the case that NATO has been one of the best models for regional security as it does have an architecture and Asia has always been, by comparison, sort of weaker,” said Haruko Satoh, a Japanese scholar of regional and international relations at the Osaka School of International Public Policy.
While NATO might provide Washington with an ideal “us versus them” vehicle to confront first the USSR and then its legacy state, the Russian Federation, issues in the Indo-Pacific are more complex.
“Asia needs to be mindful that we cannot draw a binary way of looking at this region in terms of China and Russia versus democracies as might be the case with NATO,” she said.
The key multilateral post-war agreement in the region, the San Fransisco Treaty of 1951, did not include China, the USSR or either of the Koreas as signatories, she noted. As a result, the US was forced to draw up a “hub and spokes” system for the region, and even within that there are tensions.
“Insofar as Japan is concerned, Japan has territorial disputes with China and Korea, and the absence of a peace treaty with Russia,” she said. “There is lots of catching up to do among the spoke countries in terms of meeting certain security challenges.”
But compared with other parts of a region that Washington and its Anglosphere subalterns are trying to rally to confront a rising and increasingly assertive China, South Korea and Japan’s historical and territorial squabbles are piddling.
India’s issue with America
“Everyone has been an unreliable security partner – the US and UK have been on Islamabad’s side on Kashmir, and if you read the New York Times, you would think India is practicing genocide in Kashmir,” said Atul Singh, editor-in-chief of the Fair Observer. “So, from the Indian point of view, there has been some lack of reliability.”
That, he suggested, was one reason why New Delhi has declined to assail Moscow at the UN. But there is another reason – which illustrates the case for a non-binary view of the region.
India relies on Russia for spare parts for its defense systems and can hardly turn down Russian offers of “cut-price oil.” Both are critical for India’s defense – and nuclear-armed India is the one regional power able to stare down China.
“The elephant in the room is China,” Singh said. “Which country can go head to head with China? Our boys can.”
He ticked off the reasons why, in his opinion, New Delhi should get more respect from the West.
“India has the manpower, the economic heft, the territorial size to take on China,” he said. “We don’t have a single child policy, we can take casualties, we can roll with the punches. The Chinese can’t.”
But India has reason to cast a critical eye at Biden, reckoned one of Singh’s colleagues – who summoned the recent history of Democrats’ defense policies in the sub-continent.
“The US is a mixed bag as a security partner [for India] depending on the bent of the administration in place,” said Sharmer. “From the India point of view, Bush and Trump were excellent on security issues in the post-Soviet era, but when the Democrats are in power, India has a tough time.”
He cited Bill Clinton’s opposition to India’s nuclear test, Obama urging New Delhi to downplay terrorist threats, and Biden for “choosing to withdraw from Afghanistan without consulting the biggest democracy in the region.”
Biden’s abandonment of the Kabul government was “a huge knock” for democracy, he said.
After the fall of Kabul, “hard military power was going to be a strong arbiter of disputes … a call to arms,” Sharmer said. “Sooner or later what happened in Kabul would land at the doors of the West – and that came in the Russo-Ukraine War.”
Japan is joined at the hip to the US via a Mutual Defence Treaty, unlike India, which is simply a member of the Quad. Hence, Tokyo takes more comfort from US support.
“The Japanese perception of US commitment to Asia has been quite strong for the past 10 years, regardless of Donald Trump,” Satoh said.
That was a reference to Trump’s demands that Seoul and Tokyo massively expand their share of the financial burden generated by stationing US troops in the two nations.
But she agreed that, elsewhere, Democratic administrations had failed Asia on the security front.
Referring to saber rattling and base building in the South China Sea as Beijing built up a huge blue-water navy, Satoh pointed the finger at Obama, whose pivot to Asia lacked teeth.
She criticized the administration for underplaying the Hague Tribunal’s 2016 decision regarding the Philippines’ territorial rights against China in the South China Sea, and then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s mild response to Chinese aggression over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
“The US could have called out China much more strongly on freedom of navigation,” she added. “If Obama did it sooner, China would have had a different calculation.”
The West’s wobbly posture
The Russian assault on Ukraine has sparked fears in Japan of a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan, Satoh noted.
The tougher posture Biden has adopted – as seen in his shock statement in Tokyo, that the US was committed to a military defense of Taiwan – may be a learning from Ukraine’s misfortunes, Asia Times has learned.
Moscow may have greenlighted its invasion of its neighbor after both Biden and Johnson stated clearly that they would not fight in, or for, Ukraine, a source familiar with European military affairs said. A more florid stance, at least verbally, is now being taken with Taiwan.
Ukraine’s surprising resilience, Russia’s multiple blunders and shortcomings, the likely advent of Sweden and Finland joining NATO and Germany’s commitment to increased defense spending response favor a shifting of western eyes to the east.
“It makes turning to Asia look less like a risk,” said Shetler-Jones. “Europe is much more capable of defending itself than people have been thinking, so this is a golden opportunity for America and others to deploy a portion of their diplomatic, intelligence and security resources to the Indo-Pacific.”
A renewed US and Western commitment to the region is merited now more than ever, Sharmer said. While he was critical of the lack of substance in Obama’s pivot, the thinking was sound, he said.
“If you look at the world today, of the top 5 largest economies in the world, three are Asian – China, Japan and India,” he said. “This is not the world in the 1980s … the Cold War, the Atlanticist world as it was a few decades ago … the world has moved on in terms of manufacturing, cyber technologies, 5G, you name it, coupled with the huge domestic market that each of the three has.”
Add Southeast Asia and South Korea to the mix and “it is a huge economic bloc. It is not engaged like the EU today, but it will rise,” Sharmer said.
Regional economies are being woven more tightly together by giant multilateral trade deals such as the Tokyo-led CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for a Trans-Pacific Partnership) and the Beijing-driven RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership). Both remain nascent, and it is unclear how far they will go in increasing intra-regional trade.
But both are actual free trade areas, with tariff removing provisions and commitments, unlike Washington’s IPEF (Indo-Pacific Economic Framework), a rule-setting dialog group rather than a trade area.
And the IPEF is not the only US-led Asian grouping whose ties lack tensile integrity.
“IPEF is not a real trade deal, it is mere chat,” said Singh. “The Quad is a reaction to the rise of China, and it could be a lead to some sort of new NATO, it could be an economic arrangement … people are just dating, they are not really getting involved yet.”
The broader question is exactly where America and the West stand in relation to the East, given the lack of a clear, firm stance on principles of econo-political engagement.
“There is a frustration in Asia with the West in what side the Western countries are on: Do they favor democracy or autocracy, or do they emphasize business or values?” Sharmer asked. “Most times it is quote-unquote ‘real politick.’”
This ambiguity is undermining the Western effort to defend Ukraine, he warned, and it comes on the back of a fall in American prestige in the sub-continent.
“The US could have withdrawn from Afghanistan in a more elegant manner, taken on more democratic and liberal stakeholders, but it left as if it was being chased by a wild beast,” Sharmer said.
“There are grandmas and housewives – the grassroots of India – with a cheap internet phone getting every piece of info. It has an impact, and the prestige of the US took a fall.”
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