WeChat QR Code

Home>Events>>News & Events

Ukraine war has undermined US aims in the Indo-Pacific as small countries seek to avoid the same fate

2022-05-16 11:18:46       source:NISCSS

April 29, 2022

The US Indo-Pacific Strategy aims to disrupt China's hegemony in the region through greater coordination with allies and partners "across warfighting domains". The success of the strategy depends on this network and a willingness to go along with it.


But the US has struggled to elicit cooperation from Asian countries, and the war in Ukraine has now further undermined its diplomatic efforts.


From the outset, Washington's emphasis on a militaristic approach has had little appeal. Indeed, the US military build-up in the region and its thinly-veiled threats to use force against China in the South China Sea worry Asean members who risk being caught in the crossfire of a US-China conflict.


Other obstacles to a militaristic approach include India's non-alignment and Japan's constitutional restraints on the use of its military. Moreover, many Southeast Asian states are reluctant to offend China.


The Indo-Pacific Strategy states its 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 favourable to the United States, our allies and partners, and the interests and values we share".


But few countries in the region share US values. Asean autocracies like Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam eschew democratic ideals like freedom of the press and free and fair elections. In fact, the only Southeast Asian countries invited to the US-organised Summit for Democracy were Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and East Timor.

What the strategy is essentially saying is that the only US-Southeast Asia commonality is a fear of China.

And yet, states like Cambodia and Laos have accommodated China and do not fear it, while others will continue to hedge between both the US and China because of economic interests – not values.


Ultimately, the US vision of an implicitly anti-China, security-oriented Indo-Pacific may be fundamentally incompatible with Asean's inclusive (including China), less militaristic outlook for the region.


The crisis in Ukraine has now exposed the fragility of the "international order" and further strained US relations in Asia – the straw that may break the back of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Indeed, the Asian response to Russia's invasion has revealed yet more deviations from the US world view.


It is true that China-fearing US allies Australia, Japan and South Korea have wholeheartedly supported the US-led sanctions on Russia. But that's about it.


Unsurprisingly, China has so far chosen its strategic partnership with Russia over improving ties with the West, stating that "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 sided with the West, with Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan promising to "stand up for principles that are the very foundation for the independence and sovereignty of smaller nations".


But Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong qualified this by stating, "we think it is good that you [the US] 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".


Indeed, the takeaway lesson of the Ukraine tragedy for many small Southeast Asian nations is that they must maintain their neutrality. Otherwise, they risk becoming political pawns in the US-China "great game". Moreover, should they ever be invaded by a land or maritime neighbour, the US will not militarily come to their rescue.


Even long-time ally the Philippines may be further distancing itself from the US. Ferdinand Marcos Jnr, tipped to be the next president, has said he would not ask the US to help in its dealings 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," he said.


Although nine out of 11 Southeast Asian states voted for a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia's invasion, Vietnam and Laos abstained.


Indonesia initially criticised the invasion but has since become a fence sitter. Reluctant to rely on the US for advanced military weaponry, it has instead decided to purchase them from Russia.


Others–including Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines – have been relatively silent, reflecting the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' principle of non-interference.


The US tried to pressure India – the Western anchor of the Quad – to join it in condemning Russia, but it has remained resolutely neutral. It abstained from voting on the UN resolution.


India depends heavily on Russia for its defensive armaments and some of its energy needs. The US is threatening to make matters worse by sanctioning India for these deals – in which case, it can probably forget about a strong role for India in the Quad.


Vietnam, too, has refused to condemn Russia, which is its main supplier of arms and a major partner in oil exploration in the South China Sea. If it lost access to Russian weapons and technology, it would be more vulnerable to pressure from China.


Referring to Ukraine, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price recently asserted 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 US. Indeed, the war in Ukraine has cast a long shadow on Washington's Indo-Pacific Strategy and its effort to win over Asia.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.