The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can the United States focus on China while countering Russia?

Will the urgent overtake the important yet again?

President Biden in Washington on Nov. 6, 2021, and China's President Xi Jinping in Brasília, Brazil, on Nov. 13, 2019. (Alex Brandon/AP; Eraldo Peres/AP)
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It is worth remembering that in the year before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Biden sought a “stable” relationship with Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin. The reason he wanted stability in that relationship was so the United States could shift its attention toward China and the Indo-Pacific region. Indeed, in the week before Biden’s June 2021 summit with Putin, the Group of Seven and NATO communiques focused more on building a coordinated response to China. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was also keyed on a reorientation toward China.

Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine obviously pushed “countering Russia” to the top of the policy queue. Putin’s continual ratcheting down of war aims from “regime decapitation and occupation of Kyiv” to “let’s take the entire Donbas region” to “let’s take Luhansk oblast” suggests that U.S. support of Ukraine has been a foreign-policy success.

The war in Ukraine raises the awkward question of whether the United States can still reorient toward the Indo-Pacific region, however. Biden administration officials sure think so. Many of them told Bloomberg News’s Peter Martin earlier this month that they “see the conflict’s toll and the slew of sanctions placed on Moscow as leaving Russia hobbled for years to come. Combined with bolstered European defense spending, that means the U.S. may have a freer hand to accelerate its long-term shift toward China, viewed as America’s biggest future challenge.”

Such a supposition holds up in theory. Russia’s actions in Ukraine have caused a sea change in European perceptions of Russia. This explains Germany’s increased military spending, Sweden’s and Finland’s applications for NATO membership, and even Switzerland’s flirtation with more cooperation with NATO. A better-armed Europe and a depleted Russia should free up U.S. time and resources to focus on the Indo-Pacific. And China experts such as Andrew Nathan argue that the Biden administration has the necessary strategic acumen to counter China.

In practice, one can envision a few complications. It is not at all clear that Europe will be able to coordinate on Russia policy absent U.S. diplomacy. As Matthew Karnitschnig noted in a recent Politico story, there are a host of issues on which European countries have areas of disagreement with the United States and one another: for starters, what a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine should be and what the postwar relationship looks like with Russia. Much like Turkey’s recalcitrance on Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO applications, none of this is insurmountable. But the United States cannot just go on autopilot in Europe; more diplomatic and security resources will be needed.

Even if the United States could focus entirely on the Indo-Pacific, there is the awkward question of what the Biden administration would be able to offer up as a strategy. As Martin noted in his Bloomberg News story, “16 months into Biden’s presidency, the administration hasn’t publicly detailed its strategy toward China.”

To be fair to the Biden administration, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to deliver the big China speech until he contracted the coronavirus. So that will happen soon. The content of that strategy is murky, however. As Martin writes, the Biden administration “has shied away from promoting freer trade as a counterweight to Beijing in Asia.” There are way too many other stories out there confirming these issues. Trade, a vital component of any foreign-policy outreach in the Indo-Pacific, does not seem to be on the table in the Indo-Pacific.

Maybe the Biden administration will be able to prioritize the important over the urgent. That is no guarantee that it will display the necessary skill to manage multiple great-power threats.

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