China’s Neighbors Hope Afghanistan Pullout Means Pivot to Indo-Pacific

Nepal Chronicles, 23.08.2021
Hiroyuki Akita, commentator for Nikkei.

The catastrophic turmoil in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of U.S. troops has raised serious concerns in East Asian capitals. The scenes of desperate Afghans trying to get a spot on a U.S. military aircraft departing Kabul have left a deep, indelible image of declining U.S. leadership.

However, Asian countries do not see this week’s turmoil as an event that marks a major shift in U.S. foreign policy. It was the Obama administration that decided on the withdrawal as part of a broader pullback from the greater Middle East, the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban to set conditions, and the Biden administration only implemented what everyone already knew to be U.S. policy, even if the timing and method of withdrawal were far from ideal.

Now, Asian countries are watching closely to see whether and how the end of military involvement in Afghanistan will affect U.S. President Joe Biden’s approach to the Indo-Pacific region. Governments from Tokyo to Taipei don’t believe that the turmoil in Afghanistan has negative repercussions for the Indo-Pacific, not least because of their region’s geostrategic importance. On the contrary, insofar as the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan allows Washington to engage more deeply in the Indo-Pacific, they even welcome the pullout.

So far, China’s regional neighbors have applauded Biden’s diplomacy—not because he is doing anything fundamentally new but because he is continuing the Trump administration’s policies in the Indo-Pacific, just as he did in Afghanistan. Biden, like his predecessor, has defined China as a strategic competitor and emphasized his determination to meet the challenge posed by Beijing.

Indo-Pacific countries generally support this approach. While there are differences in terms of their closeness to China and tolerance for risk, no country wants the regional order to be dominated by Beijing. Asian capitals will now be watching closely to see if the long-announced strategic shift to Asia in Washington’s strategic posture actually takes place now that U.S. forces have left Afghanistan.

The Biden administration has been attempting to build on its predecessor’s policies by constructing a multilateral framework to deal with China. In February, Biden held the first-ever summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (also known as the Quad), the Indo-Pacific forum comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. Since April, Biden has met with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and South Korean President Moon Jae-in and confirmed they will work together in their response to China, emphasizing in their joint documents the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

This is deterrence by words. The purpose is to send a strong and clear message through summit meetings and joint documents that it is unacceptable for China to unilaterally upend the current global order and to call on Beijing for restraint. The Chinese government has pushed back strongly against such calls, but the latest round of diplomacy seems to have had some effect in deterring Beijing’s assertiveness.

Take the Taiwan Strait: Since Japan and the United States signed their joint statement on April 16, provocations by Chinese military aircraft toward Taiwan have declined significantly. According to an analysis of data from the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense by the newspaper I write for, the Nikkei, 248 Chinese fighter or bomber aircraft entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone on a total of 70 days between Jan. 7 and April 16. Between April 17 and July 25, such incursions took place on 30 percent fewer days and involved 55 percent fewer aircraft.

China’s intention is unclear, but as the United States and Japan draw closer together and signal their willingness to cooperate on the Taiwan Strait, China may be reconsidering whether it is a good idea to escalate military provocation at this time. While China is highly unlikely to stop its military provocations against Taiwan, Biden’s diplomacy could at least complicate Beijing’s calculus.

But what is the next step? What the U.S. administration must do now is to work with like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific to ensure that the strategic competition with China can be won. Deterrence by words alone—without effective measures to back them up—will not let the United States and its partners gain an advantage against China.

This won’t be easy for Biden. What makes it tricky is that the risk tolerance in relations with China varies greatly from country to country. The countries with the highest risk tolerance—and thus the greatest willingness to stand up to China—are Japan and Australia. Both are long-standing allies of the United States, which has a treaty obligation for their defense. Approximately 55,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan provide the country with a security umbrella. It also helps that both Japan and Australia are geographically separated from China by sea.

Conversely, the countries of mainland Southeast Asia, geographically close to China and highly dependent on the Chinese economy, have a much lower risk tolerance. Laos and Myanmar, which share land borders with China, and Cambodia, which is also close to China, typically seek to avoid antagonizing their big neighbor.

According to a recent poll by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute that asked respondents in 10 Southeast Asian nations which country they considered “the most influential economic power” and “the most influential political and strategic power,” China came in first place, with 76 percent and 49 percent, respectively. Only 7 percent and 30 percent of respondents, respectively, named the United States.

What makes it tricky is that the risk tolerance in relations with China varies greatly from country to country.

If Japan and Southeast Asia are at the extreme ends of strategic risk tolerance, India and South Korea fall somewhere in between. India is a major power with nuclear weapons but has ongoing border disputes with China and does not want to risk excessive military tension by provoking China too much. South Korea is highly dependent on China economically, trading more with China than with the United States and Japan put together. In addition, China’s cooperation is indispensable if South Korea is to have any hope of solving the North-South reunification issue.

The higher the tension between Washington and Beijing, the more likely it will be that countries with less risk tolerance fear being caught in the middle, take a neutral position, and avoid supporting the United States. Beijing knows this, of course, and will continue to paint Washington as the interloper increasing military tension in the region. To avoid such consequences, the Biden administration would be wise not to escalate its deterrence by words. Instead, it should quietly engage like-minded countries.

Specifically, U.S. Indo-Pacific policy must aim for two medium-term goals. The first is to rebuild the trade system and reintegrate the United States so that Indo-Pacific countries can gradually reduce their economic dependence on China. Second, the United States must work with its partners to prevent the military balance in Asia from leaning further toward Chinese dominance.

On trade strategy, the Biden administration has been significantly behind—if it even has a strategy at all. The anti-trade Trump administration withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). Given domestic opposition to trade agreements and the 2021 midterm elections to win, it will be difficult for the Biden administration to return to trade negotiations for the time being.

If this situation continues, China’s domination of the Indo-Pacific trade system is likely to become overwhelming. And if China takes an irreversible lead in the regional economic order, it will have a deep impact on the security order as well.

In November 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed a clear desire to participate in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the revised TPP signed in 2018 by 11 countries, not including the United States. There is a strong view in Washington that China will not be able to meet the agreement’s required standards and that Xi may be bluffing. But Beijing should not be underestimated. According to a Japanese government source, Beijing is seriously studying how Vietnam—whose economic system is closer to China’s than to Japan’s—was able to join the agreement with an aim to prepare for future negotiations.

Global repositioning notwithstanding, allies such as Japan know they must play a greater security role.

If it remains difficult for Washington to return to trans-Pacific trade talks, it should at least engage deeply in other areas that will define economic competition with China in the 21st century, such as rules and standards on digital trade and data protection. But the time left for the United States is not very long. Since the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the TPP in 2016, Washington has lost many years during which China’s economic dominance of the region has only strengthened. In November 2020, for example, 15 countries in the Indo-Pacific region—led by China and excluding the United States—signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement, establishing the world’s largest free trade zone.

On the military side, U.S. strategy seems more straightforward. The Biden administration is trying to shift resources to the Indo-Pacific to deal with China’s military expansion. The U.S. military is conducting reconnaissance activities and exercises in the Indo-Pacific at roughly the same pace as during the Trump era. However, these efforts alone are not sufficient to maintain a stable military balance in the region.

China’s massive expansion of its defense capabilities has upended U.S. military superiority in Asia. China has about five times as many fighter jets deployed in the Indo-Pacific as the United States. That is projected to rise to eightfold by 2025, according to an estimate by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. Similarly, by that year, China’s regional superiority in submarines will be about 6 to 1 and in warships, 9 to 1. China is also believed to have deployed about 2,000 ground-based intermediate-range missiles, whereas the U.S. military has none in the region. If these gaps keep widening, U.S. naval activities in the Indo-Pacific could be severely constrained.

To address this imbalance and shift resources to the region, the U.S. Defense Department is currently drafting a global posture review, a worldwide restructuring plan for the U.S. military. The completed withdrawal from Afghanistan could affect this restructuring and allow greater resources to be concentrated on the Indo-Pacific. There also seems to be ongoing debate in Washington over which military assets to deploy along the so-called first island chain in the East and South China Seas and the second island chain extending from Japan via Guam to Papua New Guinea in the Western Pacific. The Biden administration should share as much information as possible about these discussions with its regional allies since it will have a deep impact on future security cooperation.

In September 2013, then-President Barack Obama declared that the United States would no longer play the role of world policeman. Eight years have passed since then, and Obama’s remarks seem to be turning into reality—as the world just witnessed with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Global repositioning notwithstanding, allies such as Japan know they must play a greater security role. That much is clear. What’s missing are concrete measures for the United States and its allies to establish a new division of responsibility and maintain stability in the Indo-Pacific.

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