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Opinion | Cracks emerge in America's 'Indo-Pacific' approach as Ukraine conflict takes its toll

By Tom Fowdy

Several years ago, the United States affirmed that the region of the so-called "Indo-Pacific" a broad swathe of oceanic space which extends from the East Coast of Africa, across the Indian subcontinent, the Pacific and all the way to the coasts of California, would be the ultimate foreign policy priority and the strategic future of the United States. Placing maximum emphasis on building partnerships through this region, it is unpronounced that America's ultimate goal is to uphold its traditional dominance over this region and contain the rise of China. It has taken a multifaceted approach, including the creation of partnerships such as the "Quad" (With Australia, India, Japan), the AUKUS military bloc, striving to strengthen its ties with Southeast Asian countries, and increasing its military overall presence.

However, politics is always a story of how unexpected twists and turns ensure things don't quite go to plan. Whilst the Biden administration seemingly gained momentum on some of these initiatives across 2021, the first few months of 2022 have been another matter. Russia's war in Ukraine effectively threw America's "Indo-Pacific" initiative off balance by initiating large-scale geopolitical consequences which appear to be changing the picture. The past two days have heralded two significant developments in this area. First of all, China's foreign minister Wang Yi made an official visit to India, the first since the deadly border skirmish of 2020, which sought to begin a reset in ties between Beijing and New Delhi.

The visit of course wasn't a complete resolution to this dispute, which India made clear, yet it was an unmistakable chip hammered into the unity of the quad which was made possible by both countries being on the same page on Russia, which created an opening for reproachment. New Delhi has like Beijing, been unwilling to condemn Moscow or cede economic ties with it by submitting to western sanctions. This environment ultimately reminds China that India is not a mere "lackey" or "puppet state" of the United States, but ultimately pursues an independent foreign policy which strives to preserve strategic autonomy, meaning there is space to make amends between the two.

The second major development across the weekend was that the news broke, as reported by Politico, that the US-ASEAN summit, an event where Joe Biden sought to host the leaders of all 10 Southeast Asian countries, another staple of the "Indo-Pacific" strategy, had in fact been "indefinitely postponed", having been scheduled for the end of March. It was claimed in official White House rhetoric that the postponement was merely a "scheduling problem" based on the feasibility of getting all leaders together, but the behind-the-scenes touting of "indefinite" suggests obvious and undisclosed political problems at play. Instead, the US replaced it with a bilateral summit with Singapore, notable of course for being the only country in all Southeast Asia being willing to condemn or take any action against Russia.

What does this reveal? It reveals that Southeast Asian countries as a whole have become politically sensitive to such grandstanding summits at this time particularly because the United States would demand they make a statement on Russia and Ukraine, as well as other political requirements of an ideological nature, of which would compromise the collective neutrality of the bloc. ASEAN has been keen to engage with the United States on some fronts, but what America does not understand or consider in its strategy is that the bloc does not want to be forced to "side" or "choose" with any one particular country, and of course is very much aware the US is pushing them to do so.

Since the Ukraine war began, the Biden administration has in the typical American fashion sought to weaponize the crisis into a zero-sum ideological struggle of good vs. evil, or democracy vs. authoritarianism. Therefore, ASEAN states have subtly made distance with Washington in what would otherwise be described as a "snub". But there are also several other reasons why too. First of all, the US has given up its Trump era strategy of trying to engage Myanmar and last week formally accused it of "genocide" against the Rohingya people, a policy shift obviously influenced by the post-Ukraine context. The US would demand a tougher ASEAN condemnation of Myanmar at the summit, another strike against its political autonomy.

Finally, it is also worth noting that in 2022, ASEAN is being chaired by Cambodia, a country the US is targeting with sanctions, penalties and threats for seemingly being too close to China. Phnom Penh is undoubtedly the single most pro-China, anti-US state in the bloc, and therefore has an additional vested interest in politically disrupting it and being forced into taking positions by the US. This has subsequently added to the domino effect of growing political tensions with ASEAN above which has weakened the short-term scope for US diplomacy with this bloc.

In conclusion, the Ukraine war has unleashed a political context which is now taking its toll on America's Indo-Pacific strategy, on multiple fronts. The underlying theme? The fact that the United States is vesting its foreign policy on a zero-sum ideological approach, forcing countries to "choose" and subsequently attempting to push this position on countries who in fact, don't want to choose. The US is attempting to use ASEAN and India as lynchpins to a broad anti-China strategy, but had underestimated the desire of both parties to remain strategically independent even if they could find common interests. The crisis with Russia has exposed this discrepancy, ultimately weakening the vision for the "Indo-Pacific".


The author is a well-seasoned writer and analyst with a large portfolio related to China topics, especially in the field of politics, international relations and more. He graduated with an Msc. in Chinese Studies from Oxford University in 2018.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of DotDotNews.

Read more articles by Tom Fowdy:

Opinion | North Korea's 'Nuclear Breakout'

Opinion | Madeline Albright: A symbol of America's lack of remorse, indifference and hypocrisy

Opinion | Russia's war has not gone to plan, but it's naive to think they're losing


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