There’s a new president in town. And as happens when new administrations come into power—especially of opposing political parties—there have been some missteps. The transition from President Trump to Biden, however, was especially challenging, not least of which because the domestic political scene was divided between the supporters of the two leaders (and continues to be contentious).
Once in power, the Biden team began reviewing every aspect of the previous administration’s policies. Sadly, that review process has created a bit of a mess for American strategists. Whether it be in the Middle East or with Russia, there is clearly a recalibration of American priorities and policies…and not all of them for the better.
Some of this is understandable and welcome. When it comes to the Indo-Pacific, the most important area of the world for the United States, such a recalibration is wasteful—even dangerous.
This is especially true because former President Trump left a fairly strong hand for the United States to play.
Trump had put China on notice; forced a renegotiation of some of the bad trade deals that had long favored China; and Trump had started the necessary process of enhancing America’s allies in the region, by clearly defining for them what the United States was planning to do—and what was required of them to remain partners of the United States.
The Biden Administration and Its Weird Attack on India
The Biden team has stepped on its own feet, notably in their recent dealings with India, an essential country in the Indo-Pacific that is vitally needed to help contain China’s rise.
On a trip to India, the Biden Administration’s secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, apparently threatened the Indian leadership with sanctions because New Delhi was purchasing Russian-built S-400 air defense missile systems. Austin wants the Indians to buy American—not least because Austin wants to build out a pro-American alliance of Indo-Pacific states to contain China.
Just as with NATO, Washington needs potential partners to embrace American technology to enhance interoperability between the US military and those of potential partners, such as India.
While Austin’s frustration with India is understandable, there is a way to conduct diplomacy with a potential partner—especially one as vital as India to any containment strategy as it relates to China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific.
Yes, New Delhi was playing footsie with the Russian Federation. No, it is probably not in their interests, particularly in light of Moscow’s vow to stand “back-to-back” with Beijing against the United States. Although, a new administration threatening to sanction a fellow democracy with sanctions that could be instrumental in forming a coalition to contain China’s rise is counterproductive, to say the least.
It is puzzling that India would be so inclined to purchase Russian weapons systems, in light of what transpired last summer between Moscow and New Delhi. After all, there is reason to believe that India had asked for insight from Russia regarding Chinese troop buildup along India’s shared northern border with China.
Moscow apparently told Indian policymakers that it was not anything for them to worry about. Shortly after those reassurances were issued from Moscow, China invaded northern India, and a nasty little war between India and China took place in the summer of 2020.
Nevertheless, India continues to do business with Russia. Indian astronauts are receiving intensive—exclusive—training in Russia. India purchases weapons systems and shares intelligence with their Russian counterparts.
This is all very vexing for an American administration that is both new and seeking simplicity in a region that is anything but simple. Fact is, India is a foreign country with a rich history and a fundamentally different culture from what we in the West have. What’s more, India is ruled by a nationalist government that has serious historical reservations about relying entirely on a Western power, like the United States. It likes to diversify its geopolitical relations. Washington is going to have to accept this reality.
What works for India does not necessarily make sense to Washington. But forcing New Delhi to do something against their will—and humiliating Indian leadership publicly as SecDef Austin had done with the threat of sanctions—is the least effective way to get a potential partner to do what one wants.
And taking on China, while I believe (as do most Indian strategists) is in India’s best national interest as well as America’s, is not an easy task. In fact, it’s downright thankless for those countries, such as India, that will be on the frontlines of this new geopolitical confrontation. In essence, the Biden Administration should give India a break.
The Biden Administration’s recent threats against India represents a strategic setback to Washington’s dire need to enhance regional coalitions. Until the outbreak of the novel coronavirus out of Wuhan, China last year, and until the Chinese made war upon India last summer, many of the nations that the United States looked to as potential counterweights to China’s rise were ambivalent about overtly challenging China.
Even when these states, such as Japan, were interested in balancing against China, it was usually in a far more limited fashion than what Washington had envisaged. It was not until the events of 2020 that serious momentum was generated in the context of creating an actual regional military alliance aimed at curbing China’s seemingly inexorable growth.
Understanding The Quad–Not Quite Like NATO
The so-called “Quadrilateral Alliance,” or simply, “The Quad,” has been the dream of many American strategists for the last decade. Comprised of four great Indo-Pacific powers, the United States, Japan, India, and Australia (as well as other, smaller powers, like Vietnam or possibly even South Korea), The Quad has been solution to a grave problem American power faces in the vital Indo-Pacific region.
Yet, these disparate powers, spread out across vast territory, with fundamentally different cultures, political systems, geography, and foreign policy objectives have always avoided the appearance of creating what amounts to an Asian NATO.
Unlike Europe, which is a compressed geographical area with a shared history and common threats—making NATO a viable defensive alliance—the Indo-Pacific powers have rarely aligned on many issues.
Had it not been for COVID-19 and the subsequent brinkmanship that Beijing engaged in last year, it is likely The Quad would still be a theory. Since that time, coupled with necessary policies the former Trump Administration enacted, The Quad was coming online.
So, why did the Biden Administration’s unfortunate and unnecessary row happen with India—especially as the Biden team insists that the recent meeting between Chinese and American representatives in Alaska highlighted to the Biden team how dangerous and serious the China threat is?
Competing Centers of Power in the Biden Administration
Well, as far as I can tell, there are three groups of players in the new president’s administration: the hawks, as represented by long-time China hands, like Kurt Campbell. The engagers, or doves, as represented by people like John Kerry or Susan Rice (even though neither Rice nor Kerry have direct influence in U.S. foreign policy as they did during the Obama Administration). And lastly, Biden’s political handlers.
Many of my friends on the Right were convinced that Biden would fall under the sway of the doves. Yet, in recent weeks—notably on the issue of China—Biden has not fully fallen under their sway.
The reason is simple: the political handlers who surround Biden care only about one thing: protecting his brand at home. Presently, every time President Biden dings China publicly, his approval ratings go up. I have heard from sources inside the administration that their quiet goal is to keep Biden’s approval rating at, or around, the 60 percent mark.
So, if Biden has to appear tougher on China, even if he is naturally inclined to play nicer with Beijing than his predecessor was, that’s what the White House will do. Thus, the hawks in the administration are aligned with the political hacks, outnumbering the engagers/doves.
The question must be asked: for how long will this paradigm last? What’s more, how will the United States formulate long-term defense strategy predicated solely upon the fickle whims of domestic American politics and the internal jockeying of the Biden Administration itself? What’s more, if China is the great strategic bugaboo then why is Washington nowadays fixated on Russia?
The Russian Bogeyman
Certainly, Russia is a threat. It is a near-peer competitor with revanchist aims. Yet, the Russian threat is one that can be mitigated and, if necessary, contained. China’s threat is far more diffuse. Even if The Quad were to form without a hitch—and remain united—China’s threat is not entirely military. Its threat is cultural, political, and economic.
Every second America wastes in the Middle East or worrying about Russia is another minute Beijing moves ahead of the United States. And every time Washington hits out against Moscow, the Kremlin moves closer to Beijing, forming a Mackinderian nightmare scenario of a possible unified Eurasia that is inimical to American interests and united in autocracy.
Accept The Failings of Your Friends
Going forward, the Americans must learn to grant a degree of grace to their potential allies, if only to ensure that the creation of The Quad cannot be stopped. Once The Quad coalesces, a new paradigm in the Indo-Pacific—one based on necessary competition—can be created and China can possibly be contained and forced to comport with the rules of the American-created international order.
But Washington is starting at close to zero. The last thing the Biden team should be doing is complicating an already difficult task, like forming The Quad, by threatening one of the primary players in The Quad with sanctions for buying systems from Russia that many technical experts believe are superior to American air defense systems.
Besides, if Washington is so concerned about the Russian S-400 system, why not encourage an ally to purchase these weapons, keep that ally happy, and then get that ally to share the technical designs of the S-400 with the Americans?
Brandon J. Weichert is the author of “Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower” (Republic Book Publishers). He can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon and via Clubhouse @wethebrandon. Be sure to check out his new website, http://www.brandonweichert.com for more information as well.