Will The Wars in the Middle East and Ukraine Distract The Us from The Indo Pacific

Sub Title : With its increasing engagement with Ukraine and West Asia, does the US have adequate bandwidth to keep an eye on the Indo- Pacific

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 5 Nov – Dec 2023

Author : Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM & BAR (Retd)

Page No. : 31

Category : Geostrategy

: November 28, 2023

A history of US efforts on the creation of a world order which could allow it to remain focused on the countering of developing threats from China in the Indo Pacific

Understanding the World Order

The world of international geopolitics operates within a framework of order, where nations are grouped based on common interests, shared geographies, ideologies, economic factors, resource availability, and more, collectively referred to as “National Interest.” This concept of national interest often takes precedence over group interests. The world order is in a constant state of flux, shaped by events, evolving relationships between nations or groups, and changing aspirations. It largely revolves around the efforts of powerful nations and groups to maximize their advantages while trying to curtail the rise of potential competitors. The grouping of nations to control resources, the development of technologies, and the flow of information are all part of the power politics that aim to shape the world order in accordance with the perspectives of dominant powers, usually those at the top of the hierarchy.

Throughout the 20th century, the balance of power shifted or remained stable during critical junctures. Major events and trends often triggered shifts in the world order. This was evident in the aftermath of World War I in 1919 and during the course of World War II, especially after the United States’ entry following the attack on Pearl Harbour. After 1945, the onset of the Cold War ushered in a binary world order, characterized by both advantages and disadvantages. Additionally, socio-economic issues like hunger and poverty played a role in shaping the order, particularly for less affluent nations. The United States successfully dismantled the former Soviet Union (FSU) without military conflict, primarily by creating economic disparities. A pivotal moment during the Cold War was the rapprochement between the United States, under the leadership of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, and China between 1969 and 1974. This diplomatic achievement set the stage for China’s rise and its alignment with the United States in the early stages of its economic recovery following the disruptive Cultural Revolution. China’s ascent had profound implications, ultimately contributing to the Soviet Union’s disadvantage in the closing stages of the Cold War. Charles Kraus, in an article about Nixon’s visit to China, emphasized the transformative nature of the visit – “Nixon’s visit was not only symbolic; it was also substantive. It was a stunning development in international politics, one that has often been hailed as a week that changed the world.”

China’s growth after 1978, when Chairman Deng Xiaoping launched the Four Modernizations, heavily relied on the United States and its growth model. This entailed the application of manufacturing technologies, high-value branding, and an entrepreneurial approach to the economy, with a lesser emphasis on the armed forces. This strategy allowed China to lift 750 million people out of poverty and achieve remarkable economic growth, eventually leading to an economy worth 18 trillion US dollars.

The New Order After 1989

Starting in 1989-90, with the end of the Cold War, the United States recognized China’s potential, foreseeing its ability to transition from a cooperative and acquiescent nation to a power-seeking adversary. It became evident as early as 1978 that China had the potential to challenge the United States for global dominance. Consequently, the United States ensured that while Europe’s threats diminished, the focus of engagement shifted to the Asia Pacific region, where China’s influence needed to be countered. West Asia remained a high priority, but after the first Gulf War, the United States began experimenting with introducing liberal democracy to the region. The Arab Spring in the early 2000s struggled to gain traction against the rising forces of Political Islam.

The Tiananmen Square incident of June 1989 served as a pivotal event that signalled China’s commitment to retaining the U.S. development model and resisting ideological changes. This likely solidified the U.S. perception and determination to counter China’s geopolitical rise, which they believed would not be entirely peaceful.

The Rise of Global Terror and Islamic Extremism

Attention returned to West Asia during the 1990s as the gradual rise of Islamic extremism posed a threat to the gains made after the Cold War. The United States found it challenging to shift its focus to the Asia Pacific while safeguarding the achievements in Europe and West Asia. During the 1990s, conflicts erupted in Africa as the former Soviet Union’s stabilizing influence waned. To address this, the United States wisely delegated these conflicts to the United Nations’ Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), resulting in a multitude of peacekeeping missions across Europe, West Asia, and Africa.

The Clinton Administration’s tenure witnessed various small-scale wars in Africa and Southeast Asia, along with the terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. While the administration resisted the urge to fully commit to countering global terrorism, the turning point came with the presidency of George Bush. The 9/11 attacks left the United States with no option but to respond vigorously. The terrorists had taken a bold gamble by targeting the U.S. mainland, particularly its financial centre. The epicentre of the Global War on Terrorism emerged in Afghanistan and certain regions of Pakistan, but events took a global turn with the onset of the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Gulf kingdoms, as well as other nations in West Asia, faced threats, and the Palestinian issue began to fade from the spotlight, except for intermittent outbreaks of Intifada that had started in 1987. West Asia became increasingly complex due to energy related geopolitics, the rise of Political Islam, the sectarian divide between Shia and Sunni factions led by the Iran-Saudi rivalry, the discovery of Iran’s nuclear program, and reports of chemical weapons in Iraq. The United States could not afford to shift its focus away from this region to prioritize the Asia Pacific. If events happening in distant regions could impact the U.S. mainland, the U.S. leadership deemed it necessary to play a more active role in West Asia. This, combined with concerns about nuclear threats, led to Gulf War II, as unverified intelligence information prompted premature decisions and extended U.S. involvement from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Persian Gulf. This prolonged engagement only afforded China more time for its own development.

The text above provides a comprehensive overview of the dynamic nature of the world order, its historical shifts, and the role of major players like the United States and China. It highlights how events, ideologies, and geopolitical considerations have shaped the global landscape. Additionally, it underscores the challenges faced by the United States in balancing its priorities between different regions and issues, particularly in the context of global terrorism and West Asia’s complex dynamics.

The Shale Gas Phenomenon and the Dilution of US Interest in West Asia

The discovery of Shale Gas in the US and the development of its extraction technology gave the US an opportunity to relook at energy geopolitics. While President Obama continued to back Saudi Arabia on the basis of the past relationship, President Trump was not so wont to do it. Once independent in energy needs and having become a net exporter the US continued to work on such formulae as the I2U2 group and the Abraham Accords to stabilize conflicts and allow it to move its focus to what was now being termed the Indo Pacific.

The withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 was considered by many as a fiasco and termed premature. Obama’s compulsion was the campaign mandate he had taken up for withdrawal from Iraq. It resulted in faulty conflict termination, with none of the post withdrawal events under control of the US. The Baathists and the Republican Guard who ran Iraq’s government dispersed into anonymity only to emerge as Daesh or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an organization founded by renegade Al Qaida leaders. The US did not commit itself to battle ISIS, leaving it to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Turkey, aided by Russia. It was perhaps a wise decision. The ISIS menace as a physical entity lasted four years although it yet remains in networked state. Terrorism in Europe expanded as immigrants flooded the continent creating a major crisis.

From 2014 onwards, US attention focused on creating the structures for the Indo Pacific. The Quad started to find more meaning and AUKUS was founded, more as a military grouping; possibly a seeding effort which could draw others to it when needed.

The Pandemic, Economic Downturn, Attempts at a New Order in West Asia and the Initiation of the Ukraine War

The Coronavirus pandemic of 2020-22 was a medical, scientific and geopolitical event rolled into one. It brought about an economic downturn worldwide, initially put China on the defensive and then saw it respond with the doctrine it had developed – Wolf Warrior Diplomacy. To offset the negative effects of the pandemic on the economy the US decided to make a drawdown and eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan where it had a deployment for 20 years.

A fresh war broke out in Eastern Europe, perhaps the most serious of wars since the end of the Cold War. It involved Russia and a former republic of the Former Soviet Union, Ukraine. The causes of the war are well known and therefore suffice to say that the US and NATO have both been pulled back to the European theater, to safeguard what they commenced in 1989 after the fall of the Berlin Wall; the eastward march of NATO. The war was in the making from 2014 when Russia launched an effective hybrid proxy war in the Donbas region of Ukraine and annexed Crimea. The spark was Ukraine’s decision to join NATO, something Russia had to counter as an existential measure; war was perhaps the only option. An unwinnable war ensued on 24 Feb 2022, consuming the entire stockpiles of  ammunition of NATO and forcing the US and other NATO countries to shell out huge budgets to arm Ukraine.

Did the above affect US strategic priorities? It did to a large extent with attention from West Asia receding and shifting to Europe. The speed of development of Indo-US relations, although on fast track, may have witnessed a more energetic spurt after US withdrawal from Afghanistan if the Ukraine War did not break out. India’s virtual neutrality in the war could have slowed the pace with efforts to pressurize India through repeated instances of  support to Pakistan; visits of US Ambassador to PoK and 450 million US$ support for refurbishment of the PAF’s F-16 fleet. China’s relationship with Russia strengthened by leaps and bounds although it did not directly support the war effort. China took the battle of influence deep into West Asia, bringing about an attempted rapprochement between rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, civilizational and ideological battles do not find rapprochement that easily. China will need some more years before it can fully comprehend the ideological differences which convert to geopolitical rivalry.

The Hamas Attack – 07 Oct 2023 – and its Effect

The Hamas action on 07 Oct 2023, too well known to be described, has ignited West Asia. It has created the potential to widen the conflict once again and neutralized every US effort of the recent past to stabilize the region through larger mutual acceptance between nations. Israel was deceived by its own hubris and the event was meticulously planned by Hamas to bring back international interest towards resolving the Palestine-Israel conflict.

For the US it was unrealistic to imagine that the various accords and arrangements that it was sponsoring in West Asia would stabilize enough for Israel to live in peace with Palestinians without the realization of the latter’s nationhood. A few points in this regard are relevant.

 The sheer ferocity of the Hamas attack was designed to create enough turbulence through an expanded war; the only way that it perceived that the world would look at Palestinian aspirations.

 Hamas may have been initially assisted by Hezbollah and Iran but a full military commitment by either has been missing and  unlikely to manifest.

 Hostage taking and brutality, methods adopted from the ISIS model, have brought intense reprisal from Israel into Gaza without remorse towards humanitarian considerations. A Palestinian state is considered by the majority of the world as the only final solution subject to Israeli acceptance and correct identification of the real estate.

 The two-state solution is itself no guarantee for peace. However, the low-key support for Hamas within the Arab world, even after the Israeli attack on Gaza, should sufficiently project that Hamas cannot presume the leadership of the Palestinian people. The Palestinian National Authority is the official leadership of the people, although it is hugely disempowered due to nepotism, corruption and inefficiency.

 The end state of the war in Gaza cannot be estimated. Hamas is unlikely to be decimated and Israel can ill afford to keep Gaza occupied.

 Israel has lost much support internationally but the US continues to support it unequivocally and with lesser control over its actions.

The surmise is therefore clear the US has to learn to manage the international order with a clear balance of focus on potential conflict zones; for now Ukraine and West Asia, and in the near future fuller attention towards rising trends of global terror. The Indo Pacific will remain a lower priority much to China’s advantage.

In the bargain India’s significance could enhance as one of the bastions of reliability. Greater intimidation of India to challenge the US will remain a distinct probability. The interplay of conflict regions and the world order will get far more complex as we approach 2035, by which time China’s aspiration will look to achieve landmark aspirations.