White House retreat to Cold War 1.0 posture causes concern in Asia

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The CCP leadership is calculating that assistance to Russia provided in the event of a kinetic conflict involving NATO would not result in any except token sanctions against China, writes Prof. Madhav Nalapat

The manner in which the White House has become obsessed with telegraphing its anxieties about an “imminent and unprovoked” invasion of Ukraine by Russia is raising concerns in the Indo-Pacific about the policy direction being taken by President Biden. This is because President Biden has allowed the administration to get distracted from the mounting risk of the PRC establishing its dominance over the Indo-Pacific. Such a development is taking place even as an expectedly energized Sino-Russian alliance is strengthening its primacy over the Eurasian landmass, where it has already moved ahead of the US in influence.

Changes in the relative positions of the US and China have compelled many European powers to (in effect) delink themselves from their previous path of simply following the US lead. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is the only European leader of a major power to align completely with the US on Russia, anticipating a revival of the era of the “Special Relationship” between London and Washington. The hysteria whipped up by embedded Atlanticist media of a Russian invasion “within days” that has yet to manifest itself has helped Boris Johnson to escape from the shadow of Partygate. Who remembers lockdown-era parties at 10 Downing Street when, as claimed by the Biden-Johnson duo, Russian missiles may soon be hitting parts of Europe for the first time since the 1941-45 war between Stalin’s USSR and Hitler’s Germany?

Russophobes in Ukraine such as former President Petro Poroshenko are calling for even harsher Atlanticist sanctions to be placed on Russia, even when no invasion of Ukraine has taken place. In his view, a premature imposition of sanctions would be the best way of ensuring that Russia does not invade Ukrainian territory. They may instead be an effective way of convincing President Vladimir V. Putin that there is no longer any utility in adopting a policy of restraint holding back annexation of the eastern part of Ukraine. Such forbearance would no longer be of any use if even without such a move, sanctions of the magnitude sought by Poroshenko were imposed by Biden, his eager ally Boris Johnson, and less enthusiastic allies such as Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz.

The Social Democratic Party under Willy Brandt and Gerhard Schroeder was known for its Ostpolitik, the (West) German outreach to Moscow. Chancellor Scholz, who is from the SDP, is aware that the cutting off of Nord Stream I & II gas supplies from Russia would cripple the German economy. The fallout would render his party unelectable to national office for more than a decade, in the manner that Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder’s harsh economic reforms ensured that the rival Christian Democratic Union came to power in the next election, surrendering control of the national government only after the Merkel era ended.

CHINA THE ONLY GAINER

As President of the Ukraine, billionaire Petro Poroshenko oversaw an attempt at military occupation of the Russian-speaking eastern districts of Ukraine. This attempt happened after receiving encouraging signals from the EU and NATO about prospective membership. Both these promises have receded. His successor Volodymyr Zelensky may have looked for a while on achieving glory by militarily re-occupying the estranged eastern regions, but seems to have accepted that such a move would trigger a Russian invasion. This would plunge Ukraine into chaos, as to a lesser extent it would much of Europe. As has been the case during the past two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, the only major power to gain out of such a situation would be China, which would get a much freer hand in the Indo-Pacific now that Washington and its European allies were distracted by a major European war. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin may speak in public of his confidence in the ability of the US military to prevail in a simultaneous kinetic war against Russia in the Europe front and China in the Indo-Pacific. The problem is that China, Russia, India, the EU, Japan and Southeast Asia know that Austin is unaware of, or uncaring of, the factual situation while expressing such confidence.

War is not simply a function of current US capabilities, but equally its willingness to enter into a two-front conflict. Contrary to those who claim that action against Russia would deter China from aggression against Taiwan for instance, a major European war would hobble any US attempt to kinetically interfere in the event of a similar conflict involving China in parts of Asia. Unlike some in the NATO leadership, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping would be well aware of this. The saving grace is that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is unlikely to risk another Crimea fiasco, this time in the eastern parts of Ukraine. Such an outcome would result, were Zelensky to order the military to occupy the Russian-speaking provinces. President Putin, who is not a gambler, would not invade the eastern territories of Ukraine the absence of such a provocation. Despite this, President Biden continues to hype up rhetoric of an immediate invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Why is he, in a way, goading Putin into going to war? Has President Biden been assured by the DIA and the CIA that Putin will, as Gorbachev and Yeltsin did, accept such a humiliation with no reaction beyond a sulk? Biden’s Cold War 1.0 posturing comes just months after the humiliating manner in which the US military left Afghanistan after kneecapping the Afghan military.

The 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan by Biden gifted not merely a country but tens of billions of dollars worth of military and other assets to the very enemy that NATO had at great cost in lives and resources been fighting for two decades. France and Germany would not wish to risk the future of their populations by doing what was avoided during Cold War 1.0, by the initiation of a military conflict with Russia. US President Biden cannot be unaware that Moscow is being assisted by Beijing against the US in the manner that North Vietnam was kept going during the 1960s and until the US withdrawal. This was through help from Beijing and Moscow to enable Ho Chi Minh to kinetically defeat Washington’s bid to prevent the North’s conquest of South Vietnam. The Vietnam War diverted US attention away from eastern Europe in the same way as a conflict involving NATO with Russia would divert the attention and resources of that alliance away from PRC activities in the Indo-Pacific for an indefinite period. Small wonder that it would be in the PRC interest to keep the flames burning in Europe.

BIDEN FAMILY LINKS WITH UKRAINE

An explanation given by Beltway insiders for President Joe Biden’s fixation on Russia and Ukraine that is still at the whispering stage, but is gaining traction, is that some in the Biden family (since the time the 46th President was US Vice-President) had developed lucrative links with Ukrainian oligarchs who were intensely Russophobic. The oligarchs sought US backing to humiliate and politically weaken Putin by accepting Ukrainian military occupation of the Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine. Their claim is that President Biden will face a Ukrainegate by 2023 that could result in his removal from office. This is possible, they say, should the Republican Party look energetically into Biden family links with Ukraine in the way that Democrats did in the matter of an investigation into Trump’s links with Russia. Given that the personal integrity of Joe and Jill Biden are impeccable, it is unlikely that the President himself would have fallen under the spell of any oligarch. The possibility remains that a few others close to him may not have had the same level of integrity, and may be influencing Biden’s high-decibel Cold War 1.0 policy towards Russia.

What is assisting Biden in his Russian obsession is the persistence of a similar Cold War 1.0 fixation in Washington, despite the USSR having collapsed more than thirty years ago. This has ensured that his tough line towards Russia, even when opposed to US interests in the Indo-Pacific and its global primacy, is securing bipartisan support in a manner not seen since Barack Obama became the first African-American President of the US in 2009. It helps efforts at preventing an investigation of a possible Ukrainegate that the Sino-Wahhabi nexus has friends in both the Republican as well as the Republican Party. Elements in both remain united in seeking to draw US attention back towards Russia and away from the PRC, or to PRC linkages with Wahhabi groups.

The Sino-Wahabi lobby would have an interest in seeing that its friends in the Washington Beltway avoid mention of any Ukraine connection by some close to Biden. Under Xi, China has strengthened two complementary alliance structures, (a) its partnership with Russia and (b) its assistance in asymmetric activities by the Wahhabi International. Both alliances are being leveraged by Xi to establish PRC primacy, supplanting the US. NATO posturing and force reinforcements involving the Ukraine situation that are being promoted by the White House and 10 Downing Street acts as a sponge absorbing the oxygen of that alliance away from China and the Indo-Pacific and back towards Russia. Unfortunately, rather than reconfigure itself to meet the challenges of Cold War 2.0, NATO appears to be more eager to return to its Cold War 1.0 mode and concentrate on Russia rather than China.

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During the just concluded meeting of Quad foreign ministers, efforts appears to have been made by Australia and Japan to persuade Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to consent to mention of Russia in the context of Ukraine in the Quad joint statement. According to informed individuals, Jaishankar pointed out that such a mention would draw attention sharply away from the main preoccupation of the Quad, which remained the securing of a free, inclusive and open Indo-Pacific. Neither Japan nor Australia pressed the point, perhaps aware that what Jaishankar argued was the truth. Mention was therefore avoided of Russia and Ukraine in the joint statement of the Quad foreign ministers. The gesture may have been reciprocated by Russia through avoiding mention of the Quad in the latest joint statement issued by the Foreign Ministers of Russia and China.

The External Affairs Minister was forthright in his public utterances during the Quad foreign ministers’ meeting, identifying China as a worry, as a country that refuses to abide by its commitments, and which ignores settled international laws and conventions whenever it regards it as expedient to do so. There is unease not just within the Quad but within ASEAN at the Biden pivot back to Cold War 1.0, reversing the Obama-era (somewhat half hearted) pivot to the Indo-Pacific, now that the lightning withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan has already generated substantial doubts about the will of the Biden administration to fight in theatres in ways more substantive than verbal exchanges and breathing fire in television studios.

OUTREACH BY KAMALA HARRIS

The good news for countries in the Indo-Pacific that are concerned about the manner in which the PRC has been encroaching on the land and territorial waters of several countries is that US Vice-President Kamala Harris has quietly been establishing ties with the leaders of several key countries in the Indo-Pacific. She appears to have succeeded in giving a view of Administration policy that inspires more confidence than recent words and actions by the White House do. The worry for countries in the Indo-Pacific with access to information from Ukraine is that Russophobic elements within the Ukrainian military may launch attacks on the two regions in eastern Ukraine that are presently outside the control of the Ukrainian military. The expectation of such Russophobe adventurers may be that NATO would assist them in a war against the Russian-speaking population of the two breakaway districts. They expect that this would be in the manner that the Atlantic Alliance helped anti-Assad groups in Syria and anti-Gaddafi groups in Libya, this despite the visible extremism of several such “freedom fighters”. Given that President Putin may launch an invasion of the Baltic states (that are members of NATO) as an “escalation dominance” reaction to NATO backing of irregular Ukrainian troops making war on the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine, the alliance may have to choose between doing nothing or going to war with Russia (which would be assisted by China in order to sink NATO in a European quagmire).

That may not, however, stop elements of the Ukrainian military from attacks on the Russian-speaking population in these two districts, the only inhibiting factor being not NATO and its warlike signalling but the seeming determination of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to prevent such provocations from the Ukrainian side. From the separatist side as well , provocations may be attempted on populations to their west, so as to draw Russian troops into the conflict. Such moves are likely to be disfavoured by President Putin, who is well aware of the manner in which a European war would strengthen China while it weakens both NATO and Russia. What is likelier than an outright invasion to mortar fire into the east would be an expansion of Russian supplies to the Russian-speaking population in east Ukraine, thereby possibly sparking off another civil war in Ukraine. This after the previous episode ended in disaster for Ukraine, with two eastern districts being detached from the control of Kyiv.

Despite his slim resume in geopolitical problem solving, President Zelensky has shown himself to be realist, no matter what his stage roles were in the past. He is avoiding the traps set either by Moscow or by Washington and Brussels, and holding back his hotheads from risking a conflagration. Ordinary Ukrainians and the President himself have chided Washington, London and Brussels publicly for their panic-mongering. The messaging from the White House and 10 Downing Street in particular is reminiscent of statements that generated fear within several countries. This was caused by the doomsday signalling of the WHO since March 2020 about Covid-19. The doomsday signalling caused a fear of Covid-19 that resulted in measures such as lockdowns that set back the world economy (barring a few countries such as China) by several years. The CCP leadership is calculating that assistance to Russia provided in the event of a kinetic conflict involving NATO would not result in any except token sanctions against China, and thus far, actions by NATO member states appear to be proving them right. The good news is that a Zelensky rather than a Poroshenko in the Presidential Palace in Kyiv is unlikely to light the spark that could kindle the flames of a war with Russia that may subsequently, in an action-reaction dynamic, engulf NATO.

A PASSIVE FOE

The White House, assisted by the NATO leadership and 10 Downing Street, has sought to justify its activism over Russia by warning that if Moscow is not deterred by the Atlantic and indeed the Indo-Pacific alliance, Taiwan would be the next domino to fall, this time to China. CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping as well as President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan would have factored in the pacifism in deeds despite the fire in rhetoric that characterises the response of the Biden White House to the prospect of war with Russia. Unlike in Ukraine, where the Russian-speaking population is being treated as outsiders, in Taiwan, even those who openly support a PRC takeover, such as the formidable KMT leaders Hung Hsiu-chu face no harassment from the Tsai government. Indeed, the opposition party (KMT) is characterised by its pro-PRC approach, as distinct from the party in power, the DPP. Nor is President Tsai about to declare the independence of Taiwan publicly, thereby giving hawks in Beijing a reason to initiate a kinetic conflict with a fellow Han population, which would result in Han killing Han. Most importantly, should the PRC succeed in invading and occupying Taiwan, the brainpower that has powered Taiwan’s rise as an Information Technology superpower since the 1990s would in the initial stages itself take non-stop flights to US and European destinations, where they would be welcomed for their expertise. Territory in Taiwan is of little value in the absence of the willing compliance of the few tens of thousands of innovative and entrepreneurial minds that have ensured that the per capita income of Taiwan is several times higher than that of the PRC. This is something that those around CCP General Secretary Xi who understand the complexities of a modern economy better than the fire-breathing PLA higher staff.

Rather than deter China, the ongoing retreat by President Biden in lockstep with the NATO higher command back towards Moscow rather than continue onwards in the direction of Beijing would only energize the CCP leadership into multiplying efforts at seeking primacy over the Indo-Pacific. Unlike the daily barrage of barbs and military movements sparked by Russia conducting kinetic exercises within its own borders, the response to PRC provocations of the US, UK and NATO have consisted only of symbolic actions, such as media-directed ship movements accompanied by statements from NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

The NATO Secretary-General appears to have been assigned the aggressive role, even as the leaders of major members of NATO remain passive in action, especially while they make bi-annual pilgrimages to Beijing. Small wonder that President Putin may reach the conclusion that a kinetic demonstration of the deadly capabilities of Russian forces would ensure that NATO members, both collectively and individually, follow their approach to China and in the case of Russia as well put emphasis on non-violence, first in Ukraine and subsequently in the Baltic states. Ukraine and Taiwan have been linked together by the White House. Such passivity by NATO is after all what the alliance displays to multiple PLA incursions into Taiwanese air and sea space (with land possibly to follow), and to hostile takeover of territory in countries such as the Philippines and elsewhere None of these have resulted in any sanctions of consequence against the PRC. With NATO as a foe, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping has no need of friends.

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