Will Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy survive the war in Ukraine?

As the United States slides deeper into a proxy war with Russia, Indo-Pacific countries are increasingly concerned about the long-term implications of the Ukraine crisis for America’s power and position in this part of the world.

And so they should be. While President Joe Biden’s initial approach to Ukraine struck the right balance of resolve and restraint—marshalling global allies in support of sanctions against Russia and funnelling military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine—the war is now sapping more and more American attention and defence resources.

A dangerous tit for tat is taking hold. Washington’s lethal military aid and economy-breaking sanctions signal an investment in the war that could slip beyond Biden’s original articulation of limited interests. Russia’s nuclear threats and increasingly brutal operations have triggered further US involvement, including the deployment of advanced F-35 fighters and expensive Patriot missile-defence systems to NATO frontlines in Eastern Europe, and a massive US$13.6 billion Ukraine emergency bill passed by Congress last week. Calls are getting louder for a ‘limited no-fly zone’ which, though rebuffed so far, may become politically harder to resist.

All this is understandable given the humanitarian carnage. But hot on the heels of the release of Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy, it’s unsettling to watch Washington’s strategic gaze drift, once again, away from a robust ‘pivot to Asia’.

As we argue in a new United States Studies Centre report, these developments are especially worrying given that the Biden administration has so far failed to deliver on key defence components of its regional strategy.

Senior US officials insist that events in Europe will not see the Indo-Pacific or efforts to balance Chinese power deprioritised. Earlier this month, the White House’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, Kurt Campbell, again promised that Washington was capable of sustaining ‘deep commitments’ in both theatres simultaneously, even at great cost, just as it had in the past.

But while America can—and must—continue to buttress European security, it doesn’t enjoy the luxury of riches or unchallenged military primacy required to underwrite an expansive global strategy against two great-power rivals.

Matching ends with means in the Indo-Pacific—America’s so-called ‘priority theatre’—requires difficult trade-offs between competing priorities, including in Ukraine. A more sustainable division of US and allied defence responsibilities in Europe and Asia is urgently required.

Biden understands this and deserves credit for attempting to match US global interests and commitments in his first year. Poor execution aside, his Afghan withdrawal showed a willingness to make tough, politically unpopular trade-offs. His initially restrained approach to the Ukraine crisis suggested he would keep it in global strategic perspective.

But Washington won’t be able to sideline Moscow from its foreign policy agenda the way it had hoped. Delays to the publication of the US national defence strategy and national security strategy suggest that Russia is forcing a hurried reassessment of Biden’s global priorities. In a worst-case scenario for the Indo-Pacific, it’s possible these documents will return US military strategy to an equally weighted focus on Asia and Europe—contradicting hard-fought efforts in recent years to make China the Pentagon’s outright priority.

This is not a callous point to make. America simply doesn’t have the military resources required to prosecute an effective multi-theatre strategy in an era of great-power rivalry. Nor is it spending enough to change this equation: while the 2018 national defence strategy recommended 3% to 5% real growth in defence spending annually to keep pace with China and Russia, not a single defence budget since has met these targets.

Biden’s budget continues this unsatisfactory trend. And in contrast to the stark warnings from top brass at US Indo-Pacific Command, who see conflict with China as a possibility this decade, the administration’s defence budget prioritises long-term military modernisation in anticipation of high-end conflict in the 2030s—leaving the US underprepared to deal with Chinese military coercion over the next few years.

Budget shortfalls are mirrored by slow-moving efforts to realign US forces globally. While Canberra and Washington have agreed to new posture arrangements for US forces to undertake expanded training, sustainment and military operations from Australian soil, the administration’s global posture review offered little else for the region. By contrast, it put on hold further Middle East drawdowns and made no significant cuts to troop numbers in Europe, which have since risen as a result of the war in Ukraine.

Even the Pentagon’s new Pacific deterrence initiative falls short of the mark in the quantum of investment in forward military posture, logistics, air defences, and fuel and munitions stockpiles.

There is nevertheless a silver lining for allies like Australia: the Biden administration appears highly responsive to our ideas when it comes to regional defence initiatives.

The unprecedented AUKUS defence industrial partnership is the clearest win for Australia on this front, offering rare access to nuclear-powered submarine technology and deeper industrial and technology integration—a result of sustained Australian lobbying in Washington.

Other allies have benefited too. Japan secured more extensive collaboration with the US on cutting-edge defence technologies and South Korea is reaping the rewards of decades-long efforts to lift US restrictions on its ballistic missile technology.

These efforts to empower US allies are even more important as Washington is once again pulled in conflicting global directions. Indo-Pacific allies should advocate for more. As a priority, Australia should caucus with Japan and other close security partners to push for overdue reforms to US export controls on defence technology. Realising the full promise of AUKUS, establishing a sovereign guided weapons and explosive ordnance enterprise to build high-end missiles in this country, and achieving Australia’s full integration into the US national technology and industrial base all depend on such revisions.

Indo-Pacific allies should also press Washington for greater insight and input into its regional military planning. A credible collective defence strategy requires clarity on when, where and how to address shared defence challenges. Biden’s effort to build support among regional allies for a Taiwan contingency is a step in this direction. But while Taiwan is the Pentagon’s ‘pacing challenge’, regional countries face Chinese military coercion across a far wider range of lower intensity scenarios, as China’s intimidation of an Australian military aircraft in the Arafura Sea last month attests. New strategic planning initiatives must reflect these realities.

In the end, however, these initiatives can’t change the strategic physics of the Indo-Pacific. A favourable balance of power with China can only be upheld with unprecedented US support. Alliance modernisation is a necessary component of this strategy, but it’s not a substitute for a robust US military posture and presence in the Indo-Pacific.

As the conflict in Ukraine grinds on, America’s capacity to deliver an effective defence strategy for the region will depend on its ability to keep its escalating involvement in check and in global strategic perspective.