From Euro-Atlantic to Indo-Pacific, from pivots to pendulum movements

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

In the West, say in the North-American/Atlantic/European area, rallying together under US leadership gains strength with the extension of NATO to Finland and Sweden: Putin’s Russia and the ongoing aggression against the Ukraine offers the ideal motivation for such rallying, the tool of sanctions against Russia and support to Ukraine allow for an arm’s-length engagement. In the East, in the newly-coined area of the Indo-Pacific, things are more complicated – to say the least. President Biden’s arrival to South Korea, as the first stop of a 5-day-long trip to Asia, with Japan as the next stop and hopes that his visit will put some effective content to the AUKUS alliance thrown together last September to serve not only as a “pivot to Asia” for US foreign policy, but mainly as a clear sign of an anti-China grouping.

The Biden visit started with a tour of the Pyeonytack major Samsung semiconductor factory, the like of which is planned to be built in Taylor, Texas; this is supposed to give a more constructive tone to the Biden visit to the area – the notion of “advanced technology for growth to benefit the middle class” was used; the November midterms are never far from the U.S. President’s mind. But the main motive of such a renewed version of the “pivot to Asia” is clear enough: adding to the effort of containment towards Chinese power, now that the Beijing-Moscow rapprochement has gained in intensity due to the Ukraine situation and the efforts of the West to curtail the capabilities of Russia through a series of unprecedented sanctions, energy embargoes, tough baking restrictions and so forth. Which added urging to the “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination for a New Era” (of 2019) and the 5.000 – word China-Russia statement reaffirming the no-limits relationship of the two (of spring 2022).

The problem is that the Indo-Pacific region is not an easy one to manage, as the rumblings that started with the AUKUS initiative have shown. The wounds sustained by France, when it lost to the US the extremely profitable – but also strategically important – sale of nuclear subs to Australia may well have blurred away with the resurgence of NATO (under clearer than ever US leadership) when Russia invaded Ukraine. But American efforts to rally further support in the Indo-Pacific have met with resistance – not to mention inherent flaws of such a policy.

Japan may well come on-board due to the menace it feels ever-growing China constitutes from a security point of view in the area; Australia may also feel it has to fall in step, for fear of economic satellisation on part of China. But American efforts to give new content to another security configuration – the Quad/Quadrilateral Security Dialogue of the US, Japan, Australia and (yes!) India, a brainchild of Shinzo Abe and Dick Cheney 15 years ago – do not meet with enthusiasm. India under Narendra Modi is not the same as under Manmohan Singh (N. Modi may have been invited to address the US Congress back in 2016 and get s standing ovation there; but the “rally of liberal democracies against autocratic leaders” championed by the US to put Putin in a lonely corner cannot easily extend to Modi. Moreover, Indian ties to Russia run deep, if for no other reason because of its armaments dependence on Moscow).

So, while diplomatic and security initiatives are going strong and the US allies marvel at the succession of American policy pivots to pendulum movement, the core issue for the West remains the same: if ratcheting up the pressure to China comes to the moment of truth who/how/to what extent can envisage effective sanctions imposed to Beijing? The perspective of high energy prices, of an unpleasant/underheated winter and of cost pressures to industry is one thing – already not an easy matter as things go. But decoupling from the “factory of the world”, the cornerstone of globalization and so forth is quite another. Sanctions to China would be a totally new game…

So, when Biden left Washington for South Korea, then Japan, he carried along in his presidential luggage a draft for an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) designed to counter China which is rapidly increasing its power and trade presence in the region. IPEF is supposed to have four pillars: infrastructure, clean energy, supply-chain resilience and digital trade. But internal politics in the US deny any such agreement the possibility of granting market access – which is exactly what is demanded by Indo-Pacific countries. So, while the IPEF draft in the presidential luggage initially used language about “launching negotiations”, it gradually shifted to preliminary/exploratory talks so as to get “some countries” on board.