America – Pirouettes Based on Geopolitical Events of the World
On June 10, 2022, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin held a meeting for over an hour with his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe, in Singapore on the occasion of the 19th edition of the Shangri-La Dialogue. This meeting follows President Joe Biden's maiden tour of Asia, ending on May 24, 2022, after visits to South Korea and Japan to reassure traditional allies of American support in the face of what they describe as aggressive behavior by China and North Korea. Given the resumption of the conflict in Ukraine in February 2022 and the limits of American resources, especially given turbulent domestic economic and social conditions, is the old pivot to Asia still possible?
Pivot or pirouette?
The multiple contacts of the Biden Administration in Asia in the recent period took place after a first half of the term in which the Asian problems had a secondary role compared to the internal American problems and to the European problems related to the conflict which started in Ukraine in 2014. The Obama Administration attempted a pivot to Asia, anticipating the new phase of rivalry with China and the anxieties of traditional allies in the region. He was faced with the need for on-the-spot preparation (e.g. infrastructure), the doubts of traditional allies (Australia repeatedly refusing to host US nuclear weapons and standing troops, beyond the rotation of US Marines at Darwin), internal problems which undermine the ability of American leaders to make foreign policy, the so-called Islamic State, as well as the assertive actions of Russia, seen through the illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the support for the separatist regions since 2014. Donald Trump directed his attention to Asia, managing to meet with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, in Singapore (which has become a kind of Vienna or Geneva of the region) and having, in a single term, twice as many talks and meetings with the former Prime Minister of Japan, the late Shinzo Abe, as Barack Obama had during two terms. For all the peculiarities of the Trump Administration, including the imposition of trade tariffs on Japan, the US's Asian partners have had no reasons to complain regarding the security side. President Biden happened to show up in a difficult pandemic situation, alongside a series of violent domestic disturbances, being supported by a party divided between moderates and extremists. The focus of the Biden Administration has been on the global response to the pandemic, on resuming the US leadership role in global efforts against climate change and, last but not least, on the issue of Russia's actions in Eastern Europe.
In this sense, it seems that the Asia-Pacific region, or the wider Indo-Pacific, as it is called, has been neglected by an Administration that aims for pivots, but sticks to pirouettes, because its attention is immediately redirected to another crisis of the day.
China has become aware of this situation, and of the fact that US hegemonic commitments are costly and unsustainable, because America must keep a presence and response and deterrence capability all over the world through its more than 1,000 bases, but having fewer and fewer financial resources or materiel (number of ships, number of recruits etc.), in relative and absolute terms. At the same time, China and other adherents of a revisionist multipolar global order seek regional hegemony, or at least the ability to neutralize the US in their region. Their area of coverage is much smaller, they have the advantage of making the first move and using hypersonic weapons and other technologies to threaten hugely expensive and sophisticated weapon systems (aircraft carriers etc.). When operating outside the region, they have all the possibilities to choose when, where and how to intervene. Thus, they have less exposure to the cost of being a superpower, nor do they want to assume the American role if it comes with those costs, not just the privileges.
Source: Lindsey Ford, “Network power: China’s effort to reshape Asia’s regional security architecture”, Brookings, Sept 2020
Types of relations
After the special Washington DC – ASEAN summit hosted by Joe Biden, the President visited South Korea and Japan and reiterated US support for these countries and other partners in the region, especially Australia, Taiwan and India. The Americans have brought into being a series of security formulas to help them manage different aspects of their bilateral and regional relations – the US-Japan-South Korea trilateral, the US-Japan-Australia trilateral, the Quadrilateral Dialogue (the Quad), consisting of the US, Japan, India and Australia, the recent AUKUS (Australia-UK-US) which is a narrow variant of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing group which also includes Canada with New Zealand etc. It is very interesting that, in Asia, the same countries engage in cooperation dialogue formulas either with China, or with the US, or with both. The figure highlights this situation very well, and actually represents their attempt to balance a privileged economic relationship with China with a privileged security relationship with the US, a dynamic also found, in a different form, in Central Asia (with China and Russia) and in Eastern Europe (with the EU and the US).
The Shangri-La Dialogue is a mixed formula, and so it has become the meeting place between defense leaders from Beijing and Washington. The Americans have criticized the dangerous behavior of Chinese air patrols and tried to discourage the supply of Chinese military equipment to Russia, which is basically compatible with Russian ones. The discussion also covered the divergences between the security perspectives of the two countries, especially on the issue of the legitimacy of the American presence in the region and in waters that China considers its territorial waters. Last but not least, an attempt was made to fix the mistake of President Biden, who seemed to support a much more assertive Taiwan, while the domestic legislation (Taiwan Relations Act) and the practice of American diplomacy were to create strategic ambiguity – supporting one China, but formed through peaceful reunification, not by force, opposition to Taiwan's unilateral declarations of independence and promises of material and real military support. This ambiguity leads to the maintenance of the status quo, under the conditions of the evolution of Taiwanese perspectives on their own independence.
What else could President Biden do? Basically, nothing. The foreign policy capacity of the Presidential Administration, especially the increasingly influential National Security Council, led by the National Security Adviser (currently Jake Sullivan), is diminishing. Its strength is undermined by the normalization of extreme partisanship in the US, congressional malfunctions, a crime wave that is unprecedented in the last 30 years and mass anxiety about the future. Also important are the economic impact of major crises, including the economic effects of the pandemic, pandemic responses, the war in Ukraine, seen through inflation, the large increase in fuel price, and shortages of certain products. Paraphrasing Nicolae Titulescu, the absence of a good domestic policy undermines the prospects of having a successful foreign policy.
The real global competition is in Asia, and the conflict in Ukraine either distracts from this reality or is a secondary field of confrontation, but with geostrategic impact within the Asian competition. Americans are committed to supporting Ukraine in many ways – materially, in terms of endowment, media, and diplomatically – which entails the dedication of material resources and political capital. Their focus is firmly on those issues, which limits their motivation for a decisive pivot to Asia, although some American institutions (the Marine branch of the US Armed Forces) are currently going through extended reform processes to adapt to a world in which China is on the same level with the US, at least regionally.
However, it should not be overlooked that, from a geopolitical point of view, the US along with China are the big winners of the conflict in Ukraine. Russia is being forced by sanctions to strengthen the cooperation with China, eventually leading to a de facto junior partner status of Russia in relation to China. The US has been reconfirmed as an indispensable nation for European security. At the same time, Russia will suffer from the sanctions, not only in economic terms, but also systemically, as it runs out of manufactured goods such as advanced tools and production machinery, which it needs for heavy industry, defense industry and for drilling in the Arctic zone. The EU suffers from sanctions, especially in the field of energy, but also in the macroeconomic area. Both the EU and Russia will be weakened and will become dependent on others.
Photo credit: Yogendra Singh (https://www.pexels.com/photo/man-wearing-blue-jeans-doing-pirouette-spin-1701202/)