The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Putin is threatening to wreck Biden’s Asia strategy

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida delivers remarks in a virtual meeting with President Biden on Jan. 21. (AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

The Biden administration is caught in a dilemma, compelled to turn its foreign policy focus and resources once again to Europe despite promising — like its predecessors — to switch its priorities to Asia. If Russian President Vladimir Putin’s escalating aggression on Ukraine is calculated to force the attention of the world back on Russia, it’s working — to China’s benefit.

This is at least the third administration to promise a version of the “pivot to Asia,” only to be confronted by disaster it did not anticipate. This is how Washington works. Government, Congress and the media really only have enough bandwidth to deal with one major foreign policy crisis at a time. Just this week, Putin’s threats and Ukraine’s pleas for help drowned out several ominous Asia-related stories that would otherwise have received lots of attention.

North Korea launched ballistic missiles for the sixth time this month. China flew 39 warplanes in Taiwan’s direction, the largest group of the year. A U.S. F-35 plane crashed in the South China Sea and the U.S. Navy is racing with China to retrieve it from the ocean floor. And this past week, Iran, China and Russia held joint military drills in the Indian Ocean.

The U.S. government has officials tasked with handling each of these developments. But as Politico detailed in an article Thursday, all of the Biden administration’s senior level diplomats and national security officials are working day and night on one issue: Ukraine. CIA Director William J. Burns has visited Moscow and Kyiv. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been crisscrossing Europe. National security adviser Jake Sullivan, a host of U.S. ambassadors, and even President Biden himself have been working the phones in a worldwide full-court press. Their singular mission is get everyone on board with a tough stance toward Putin and tough sanctions if he attacks.

Considering the high stakes in Ukraine, that all sounds like necessary work. But in Asian capitals, some see the Biden administration as distracted.

“The contrast could not be starker: Biden turns Russian troop buildup near Ukrainian border into a global crisis … but is mum on PRC’s [People’s Republic of China] frenzied Himalayan buildup that threatens to unleash war on U.S.'s strategic partner India,” tweeted prominent Indian commentator Brahma Chellaney on Wednesday.

Biden administration officials say they are aware of this perception and have an ambitious plan to address it. Biden held a 90-minute virtual summit this past week with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Biden plans to visit Japan soon and then host a meeting of the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), minus Myanmar, in the spring. There are several regional economic proposals in the works.

The Biden team knows that Asia is watching its actions in Ukraine closely. But managing the Ukraine crisis while allaying Asia’s fears of neglect is easier said than done.

“It’s a dilemma for the administration,” said former National Security Council senior director for Asia Michael Green. “If they are too passive in their response and Putin gets away with it, that undermines Asian allies’ confidence in American resolve. But if they get completely distracted by it and lessen their focus on Asia, that also undermines Asian allies’ confidence and resolve.”

It’s not just about whether China will invade Taiwan if Ukraine falls to Putin. Signaling to dictators they can crush democracies with impunity is only one way the Ukraine crisis is important for Asia. The region fears that the United States is a declining global power, politically divided beyond repair. There’s skepticism that the Biden team can muster the sustained attention and resources needed to fulfill its pledge of a foreign policy centered around strategic competition with China.

Asia is waiting for Biden to make good on his promises on a range of fronts. The Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific economic strategy has yet to be revealed. Several Asian countries don’t even have U.S. ambassadors. The overwhelming majority of U.S. economic assistance and military aid still goes to governments in the Middle East. The Biden team should mount a diplomatic and economic surge in Asia to restore confidence in the U.S. commitment to the region as soon as possible.

If war in Europe does come, the U.S. government and Congress must resist the urge to delay or divert current plans to shift our focus to Asia. We must not once again sacrifice the future for the sake of the present.

Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping is staying out of the Ukraine fray. While expressing lukewarm support for Putin, he is largely content to continue pushing China’s interests in the region while hoping that the United States remains distracted. In stark contrast to Putin, Xi is pursuing a strategy that depends on us not paying attention to what he’s doing. Let’s not play into his hands.