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The poverty of American ‘Indo-Pacificism’

In the United States (US), there is an increasingly influential geostrategic perspective which asserts that the affairs of Eastern Europe are now largely peripheral to American interests. This ‘Indo-Pacificist’ geostrategic discourse goes something like this: 

  1. As the US and the rest of the free world has puffed the PRC up with investment and the offshoring of manufacturing, American power is no longer as overwhelming as it was in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War;
  2. The PRC has become an industrial colossus, a country of greater material strength than even the Soviet Union at its height, and it is investing its newfound wealth into the modernisation of its infrastructure and the global extension of its power, including Chinese military reach;
  3. While Russia may pose a threat today to its neighbours, in the longer term, systemic competition with the PRC will absorb more and more US resources, forcing the US to geostrategically rebalance towards the Indo-Pacific, even East Asia, similarly to the way the UK pivoted first to Europe and then the North Sea basin to confront Germany’s growing strength in the early twentieth century;
  4. Competing with the PRC makes it essential to placate the Kremlin in Eastern Europe so that the US does not need to use its diminishing relative power to stabilise two geopolitical theatres – the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific – simultaneously, especially when European allies are wealthy enough to secure the Euro-Atlantic region by themselves.

Without a shadow of doubt, the Indo-Pacificists are right in one sense: the long term systemic challenge posed to the US by the PRC is almost certainly more pronounced than the threat from Russia, or even the Soviet Union before it. But their solution, that the US should ‘give diplomacy a chance[↗]’ to ‘call Putin out through negotiating[↗]’ – essentially by attempting to placate him – is profoundly mistaken.

First, Vladimir Putin’s regime is not a sincere actor: recall that it has broken a slew of internationally-binding treaties, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, as well as the Budapest Memorandum it signed with the UK, US and Ukraine in 1994, which permanently guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The Kremlin did not break this latter treaty by invading Ukraine in 2014 because it felt ‘encircled[↗]’ by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Putin invaded the country to prevent it from becoming a successful democracy; he fears a wealthy and successful Ukraine because it may inspire the Russian people to demand the same freedoms, threatening his regime’s survival. Based on his opportunistic track record, Putin will not be ‘called out’ through negotiation; rather, he will simply bag any concession, before moving on to demand more.

Second, the challenge from Russia and the PRC is intrinsically connected. This does not mean that a ‘DragonBear[↗]’ is taking shape in the sense that the two authoritarian powers are working closely in tandem with one another. Rather, because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – politically-minded and decidedly strategic – thinks that the democracies are in retreat, it sees their unwillingness to constrain considerably weaker actors, such as Russia, as symbolic of their decay – even their greed and corruption. For the CCP, the democracies’ engagement with Russia acts, and will act increasingly as the PRC’s power grows, as a litmus test for their broader strategic resolution.

‘Give diplomacy a chance’: deter Moscow, dissuade Beijing

Insofar as US strategic discourse is pervasive, and given that Britons and Americans share a common language, the United Kingdom (UK) needs to be aware of how US geostrategic thinking may influence its own. To be sure, Indo-Pacificism has a weaker pedigree in Britain, not least because the Russian threat to the UK is more pronounced – Her Majesty’s (HM) Government has branded[↗] Russia a ‘direct’ and ‘acute’ threat – but also because the British Isles are located in the Euro-Atlantic. But given that the UK’s own interests are drawing it into the Indo-Pacific, it needs to get the balance right, just as it needs to be ready to weigh in on American strategic debates in order to shape them in accordance with its own preferences. For example, HM Government would be well advised to attempt to sculpt US strategic discourse to the extent that the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific are seen as intrinsically entwined[↗]

Moreover, from a British standpoint, it is fine to ‘give diplomacy a chance’ with the Kremlin, but only if diplomacy is properly conceived. When engaging with hostile and revisionist powers in a competitive age – the environment outlined[↗] by HM Government’s Integrated Review – diplomatic engagement needs first and foremost to deter opponents and dissuade competitors, particularly when they contemplate revisionist action. Deterrence involves denying an opponent access to something and/or threatening direct consequences for potential activities one deems unacceptable (and then punishing bad behaviour so as to deter undesirable action in future). Dissuasion involves the ‘deactivation’ of a competitor’s possible options, either through ‘discursive statecraft’, the creation of plurilateral groupings, or the establishment of red lines (as well as making examples of opponents through the imposition of punitive sanctions).

As the Kremlin amasses military forces on Ukraine’s eastern flank, HM Government would do well to deflate any possible US attempts to placate Russia’s kleptocratic regime, particularly if those attempts exclude close NATO allies in Central and Eastern Europe – Putin’s dream. Instead, the UK ought to use its ‘aligning power’ to weave together what Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, has described as a ‘network of liberty[↗]’, in this case a group of Euro-Atlantic nations with the power and determination to dislocate the Russian economy and provide Kyiv with more direct military assistance[↗] – even heavy weapons – so the Ukrainian Armed Forces can inflict grievous harm on their enemy in the event that Putin orders a renewed Russian offensive.

Besides deterring the Kremlin from mounting an invasion, these measures should remind Beijing how powerful and purposive the free world can be when geopolitical revisionism is attempted.

This was the second of a two-part series on Russia’s troop deployment to the Ukrainian border. For the first part, which focused on the Kremlin’s motivations for the deployment, please click here.

James Rogers is Co-founder and Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy

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