As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Australia this week for a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue foreign ministers’ meeting, his message will be that Washington can walk and chew gum at the same time. Amid escalating US-Russian tensions over the standoff in Ukraine, the Biden administration is eager to convince its Indo-Pacific allies and partners that it is still focused on their part of the world.
But Washington’s top diplomat may find himself stuck in a vice. In Canberra, New Delhi, Tokyo, and key Southeast Asian capitals, there are growing concerns that the crisis in Ukraine is distracting the Biden administration from Indo-Pacific challenges and could embroil the overstretched superpower in yet another long engagement. Back in the United States and parts of Europe, however, prominent voices are calling on the administration to show greater “strength” against Russia, both in support of Ukraine and as a signal of US resolve to the rest of the world. These dynamics pull in very different directions.
In Canberra, New Delhi, Tokyo, and key Southeast Asian capitals, there are growing concerns that the crisis in Ukraine is distracting the Biden administration from Indo-Pacific challenges and could embroil the overstretched superpower in yet another long engagement.
To safeguard the United States’ credibility and strategic position in the Indo-Pacific, the Biden team must continue to act with restraint over Ukraine. This doesn’t mean abandoning Kyiv, ignoring NATO’s security concerns, or looking the other way from the invasion of a sovereign country. But it does mean keeping the Ukraine crisis in a global strategic perspective—and addressing it in a disciplined way that preserves finite attention and resources for Washington’s “priority theater.”
The Biden administration’s Ukraine strategy so far hasn’t been too bad from an Indo-Pacific perspective. Washington has backed Ukraine’s territorial integrity without extending security commitments. It has pursued diplomatic off-ramps with Moscow without appeasing coercion. It sent a small number of troops to reassure front-line NATO allies and provided lethal military aid to bolster Kyiv’s self-defense while making it clear that US forces won’t be deployed against Russia to save Ukraine. Above all, the administration has tried hard—albeit, with limited success—to build international cohesion for a sanctions package that it hopes will deter Moscow with the threat of devastating economic punishment.
Although this approach may not stop Russian aggression, it comports with Indo-Pacific preferences for a firm but restrained US strategy. Viewed from the other side of the world, the strategic logic is sound. Washington can’t stand idle in the face of a major war in Eastern Europe. But as the United States, by its own admission, can no longer ensure conventional military deterrence in Europe and the Indo-Pacific at the same time, it must conserve its strength for top priorities and make difficult trade-offs everywhere else.
Accordingly, for a peripheral US interest in a secondary theater like Ukraine, Washington is correct to rely on economic punishment, allied burden-sharing, and resistance by local forces to deter or respond to a Russian invasion. A strategy of military deterrence would simply be too resource intensive, drawn out, and potentially escalatory to justify Indo-Pacific opportunity costs.
So far, so good. But when listening to the hyperventilation among American pundits over an allegedly irreparable reputational loss for the United States if it doesn’t take a harder line on Ukraine, you might think that Washington’s Indo-Pacific friends were similarly worried about the administration’s strategy. Indeed, a dangerous myth is taking hold in US policy debates that misrepresents the geopolitical linkages between the United States’ conduct in Ukraine and its strategic position in the Indo-Pacific. Pushed by both foreign-policy hawks and liberal internationalist purists, it goes something like this: If the United States doesn’t project military strength against Russian aggression, China will have a green light to use force in its part of the globe, and Washington’s Indo-Pacific allies and partners will lose all confidence in the United States’ security guarantees.
This isn’t how Indo-Pacific countries think about deterrence and reassurance. True, US allies and partners are deeply concerned about Chinese aggression. But they do not believe Beijing will choose to use force in, say, Taiwan or the South China Sea, based on the strength of Washington’s military resolve in Ukraine. Such a notion is facile, echoing last year’s widely discredited arguments and Chinese propaganda suggesting that Washington’s withdrawal from Afghanistan would embolden Beijing. It hasn’t.
True, US allies and partners are deeply concerned about Chinese aggression. But they do not believe Beijing will choose to use force in, say, Taiwan or the South China Sea, based on the strength of Washington’s military resolve in Ukraine.
Chinese leaders generally have proved to be archpragmatists. Their decisions to use force are far more likely to be based on the prevailing balance of interests and hard power—which, in northeast Asia, is rapidly tilting in China’s favor. More to the point: As Beijing’s aim is to ultimately win without fighting by employing gray-zone coercion under the shadow of its conventional military might, a muscular US policy in Ukraine would actually serve Chinese interests by sapping US power and reducing Washington’s focus on the Indo-Pacific.
Not surprisingly, this is also why Washington’s allies and partners aren’t assessing its credibility as an Indo-Pacific power based on how tall it stands in Ukraine. Quite the opposite, in fact. Having been promised a US pivot to Asia for more than a decade, Washington’s regional friends are far more interested in how successfully the Biden administration can minimize its exposure in Ukraine and pick up momentum in the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, as Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong aptly replied to a question about Washington’s credibility during the Afghanistan withdrawal last year: “What will influence perceptions of US resolve and commitment to the region will be … how it repositions itself in the [Indo-Pacific] region.” Today, stepping up powerfully against Russia would be counterproductive for precisely the same reasons.
This shows why Blinken’s meetings this week in Australia, Fiji, and Hawaii are so important. As the Ukraine crisis rolls into its fifth month, there are growing fears that Washington’s restrained approach may be metamorphosizing into something more demanding.
US cabinet-level attention is fixated on defusing the crisis and strengthening European solidarity on sanctions against Russia. The administration’s long-awaited National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy have been delayed, apparently due to concerns that their emphasis on Indo-Pacific challenges would appear ill-timed and may require a rethink. Calls for new funding packages to bolster European deterrence are making the rounds. And expectations are high that if Russia does invade Ukraine, the Biden administration will be unable to resist extreme political and diplomatic pressure to deploy tens of thousands of additional troops to Europe—at a scale, speed, and cost that could prevent it from prioritizing the Indo-Pacific military balance for the remainder of its term.
Blinken’s job is to explain to his Indo-Pacific counterparts why these worst-case fears won’t come to pass. Speaking about Ukraine several days before his departure, he acknowledged just how much bandwidth the European standoff is taking. “We have had, I believe, more meetings, calls, and video engagements with our allies on this than anything I can think of in recent memory,” he said. This is understandable given the magnitude of the crisis on Europe’s doorstep. But if the administration can’t hold the line of restraint over the coming months, its credibility and strategic position will suffer in the Indo-Pacific.