2022 Yearender: The US, Asia, the war

Hussein Haridy
Tuesday 20 Dec 2022

The Indo-Pacific region occupied a central position in US global strategy this year, as it will continue to do for decades to come.


Asia, or the Indo-Pacific region, has occupied, and will occupy for decades to come, a central position in US global strategy since the well-known “pivot to Asia” strategy of former US president Barack Obama.

Since then, and spanning two administrations, one Republican of former president Donald Trump and the other Democrat of present President Joe Biden, US-Asia relations have been the focus of the country’s foreign relations.

To give just one example, there was the unprecedented handshake between a sitting US president, Donald Trump, and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the Demilitarised Military Zone between the two Koreas in 2019. But at the same time the same administration slapped tariffs worth more than $450 billion on Chinese exports to US markets in retaliation for what it called China’s unfair trade practices. These tariffs are still in place under Biden.

The Biden administration demonstrated how strategically important the Indo-Pacific region is to its global strategy when the Secretaries of State and Defence Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin, travelled to Japan and South Korea in February 2021 in the first foreign trip for senior officials from the then new administration less than one month after Biden took office.

Moreover, the first summit hosted by the Biden administration was a virtual one in March 2021 for the leaders of the QUAD group of the US, India, Japan, and Australia, and by May 2022 Washington had organised another three similar summits, the fourth taking place in Tokyo in Japan during the first visit of the US president to the country in a tour of the region that began with a visit to South Korea. 

During both visits, the US, South Korean, and Japanese leaders vowed to go ahead with plans for extended deterrence in the context of the growing trilateral alliance among the three Indo-Pacific powers. Three months later, the US, the UK, and Australia announced the establishment of a new military alliance known as AUKUS, an acronym, in the region. 

The principal objective of this strategy for setting up alliances or strengthening existing ones has been to keep the Indo-Pacific region “free and open” in the context of the “rules-based international order.” It goes without saying that these alliances and the principles that underlie them have been questioned by both China and Russia.

Probably in response to the US Indo-Pacific strategy, these countries announced their “alliance without limit” at the summit meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing on 4 February some 20 days before the latter ordered Russian troops to cross the Ukrainian border in what the Russian government called a “special military operation.”

The resulting war has shaken the international order with far-reaching consequences for the vast Indo-Pacific region, with the US using its network of allies and partners to forestall any Chinese support for Russia or circumvention of the harsh sanctions imposed by the US-led West and NATO on Moscow. 

More importantly, the US has also sought to dissuade China from invading Taiwan. The message that the US and its allies have stressed over the last ten months since the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine is that China should expect a well-rehearsed international response under Western leadership if it attempts to use force to recapture Taiwan, something that China has consistently denied that it intends to do, and in the absence of third-party measures that would run counter to the “One China Policy.” 

The countries of the Indo-Pacific region have thus been caught up in a geopolitical triangle that comprises China, the US, and Russia. Unquestionably, they, with the exception of US allies in the region, have no interest in becoming involved in a brewing confrontation, and they have accordingly decided that their interests would be best served by a position of neutrality both in terms of the war in Ukraine and in the growing strategic competition between China and the US. 

This was made clear at the succession of summits that took place in three Southeast Asian countries last November. The first was hosted by Cambodia in Phnom Penh on 11-13 November and brought together the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It was followed by the East Asia summit in the same venue that brought together 18 Indo-Pacific countries together with the US, China, and Russia. The third was the G-20 summit in Bali in Indonesia, and the fourth was the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in Bangkok.

At all these summits, regional leaders expressed their deep concerns about the possible impact of the US-China competition on the region, particularly in the fields of trade, supply chains, and the manufacture of semiconductors, given the curbs and controls that the US has imposed on Chinese industries, notably those producing semiconductors.

The leaders gathered at these summits two months after tensions rose in the region after the visit of Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August and the near sabre-rattling that ensued between China and the US around the future of Taiwan and the security situation in the Strait of Taiwan. The naval exercises and sorties of the Navy and Air Force of China’s People’s Liberation Army rung alarm bells around the Indo-Pacific.

The first in-person summit between Biden and Xi Jinping in Bali, Indonesia, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in November reassured governments in the Indo-Pacific that the US and China have the political will to sit down and talk about their bilateral relations, as well as other international and regional issues of strategic importance, for instance Taiwan and the war in Ukraine, and that they share an interest in managing their strategic competition responsibly.

While this summit did not smooth over their respective positions vis-à-vis the war in Ukraine, the rejection by the US and China of the use of nuclear weapons or the threat of their use in this war was a reassuring message.

The neutrality of the majority of the Indo-Pacific countries comes as a counterweight to any strategy by the great powers, including the US, to push them to choose sides in what remains a highly polarised region.

* The writer is former assistant foreign minister. 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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