Will Ukraine break the back of the beleaguered US Indo-Pacific strategy?

May 30, 2022
ASEAN countries capitals
ASEAN autocracies like Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam do not share Western democratic ideals. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Implementation of the US Indo-Pacific Strategy is already facing significant obstacles. Now divisions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are further undermining US diplomatic efforts.

The US Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) intends to prevent China’s hegemony in the region by building greater coordination with allies and partners “across war-fighting domains”. Its success depends on a US-centered network of security allies and partners and their willingness to go along with it in confronting China. But its implementation is already facing significant obstacles and now divisions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are further undermining US diplomatic efforts.

First of all, the US emphasis on a militarist approach is not welcome by many countries. Indeed, the U.S. military buildup in the region and its thinly-veiled threats to use force against China in the South China Sea worries ASEAN members who will suffer collateral damage from a US-China kinetic conflict.

Other obstacles to the military approach include India’s non-alignment and Japan’s constitutional restraints on the uses of its military. Also many Southeast Asian states are reluctant to offend China.

The IPS states that “Our objective is not to change China but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates, building a balance of influence in the world that is maximally favorable to the United States, our allies and partners, and the interests and values we share”.

But few countries in the region share core US values. ASEAN autocracies like Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam do not share Western democratic ideals like freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and free and fair elections. This is underscored by the fact that the only Southeast Asian countries invited to the US-organized Summit for Democracy were Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Timor-Leste.

Behind the verbal veil, the IPS is essentially saying that the US-Southeast Asia commonality is fear of China. But some Southeast Asian states like Cambodia and Laos have made their accommodations with China and do not fear it while others will continue to hedge between the two because of their national economic interests – not values. Moreover, the recent turmoil and stultifying divisions in US politics undermine the attractiveness of US ‘democratic values’.

ASEAN and the U.S. have fundamentally different visions for the region. The U.S. vision of an implicitly anti-China, security-oriented Free and Open Indo-Pacific contrasts with ASEAN’s inclusive [including China], less militaristic Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and will create tensions that may be insurmountable.

Now adding the straw that may break the back of the IPS, the tragedy of Ukraine has exposed the fragility of the ‘international order’ and is further stress testing US relations in Asia. Indeed, just as the U.S. is beginning to implement the IPS, Asian responses to the Ukraine crisis have revealed fundamental differences with the US world view.

It is true that China -fearing US allies Japan and South Korea have given whole hearted support to US-led sanctions. But that is about it for the rest of Asia.

It is no surprise that under this ‘diplomatic stress test’, China has so far chosen its strategic partnership with Russia over improving ties with the West. “China opposes NATO enlargement, blames the US for inciting tensions, and stands by Russia’s demands that its legitimate security concerns must be respected. “

Among Southeast Asian countries, only Singapore—surrounded by potentially unfriendly countries–has joined the political fray on the side of the West. Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said “ Unless we as a country, stand up for principles that are the very foundation for the independence and sovereignty of smaller nations, our own right to exist and prosper as a nation may similarly be called into question”. But Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong qualified this by stating that “_ _ we think it is good that you [the U.S.] are participating in the region, but that does not mean we fight your wars or that we are expecting you to ride to our rescue should something happen to us_ _ we are not lined up eyeball to eyeball”.

Indeed, many small Southeast Asian nations have likely learned from the tragedy of Ukraine the realist lesson that they must maintain their neutrality between the U.S. and China. Otherwise they may become political pawns in the US-China ‘great game’ and be invaded by their land or maritime neighbor. Moreover if this happens, most realize that the U.S. will not come to their rescue militarily.

Even US ally the Philippines may be further distancing itself from the U.S. The likely next president Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has said he would not ask for help from the U.S. to deal with China. “The problem is between China and us. If the Americans come in it’s bound to fail because you are putting the two protagonists together”.

Although nine of eleven Southeast Asian states voted for a UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution condemning Russia’s invasion, Vietnam and Laos abstained. Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia abstained from another UNGA resolution removing Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. Indonesia initially criticized the invasion but has since become a fence sitter. Because of US sanctions imposed for its conduct in East Timor, it does not want to rely on the U.S. for advanced military weaponry such as fighter jets. It has instead decided to purchase them from Russia.

Others–including Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines have been relatively silent reflecting the ASEAN principle of noninterference in others’ internal affairs, particularly those so far away.

The U.S. tried to persuade and pressure India—the Western anchor of the Quad– to join it in condemning Russia, but it has remained neutral. It abstained from voting on both UNGA resolutions. India depends on Russia significantly for its defensive armaments and some of its energy needs. The U.S. is threatening to make matters far worse by sanctioning India for these deals. If it does so it can probably forget about a strong role for India in the Quad.

The U.S. has been courting Vietnam to be a partner against China. But Vietnam has refused to condemn Russia. Russia is its main supplier of arms and a major partner in oil exploration in the South China Sea. The two have a long history of defense cooperation. If it lost access to Russian weapons and technology, it would make it more vulnerable to pressure from China . Now it plans to undertake military exercises with it in the near future. This is a slap in the face to the U.S.. As Vietnam expert Carlyle Thayer says ‘ How will the Vietnamese leader be able to look [US President Joe] Biden in the eye “ at the upcoming US-ASEAN summit.

In referring to Ukraine, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price recently said ” _ _there are principles that are at stake here that have universal applicability everywhere–that each and every country has a sovereign right to determine its own foreign policy, has a sovereign right to determine for itself with whom it will choose to associate in terms of its alliances, its partnerships, and what orientation it wishes to direct its gaze. “ These words have come back to haunt the U.S. Indeed, the tragedy of Ukraine has cast a long shadow on the US IPS and its effort to win over Asia.

An edited abridged version of this piece appeared in the South China Morning Post.

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