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The Indo-Pacific strategy’s fatal blind spot

Mar 26,2024 - Last updated at Mar 26,2024

STOCKHOLM — Is the dominance of “Indo-Pacific” thinking leading Western strategists astray?

Originating in Australian foreign-policy circles, the United States adopted this label in 2018, when the Hawaii-based US Pacific Command was officially renamed the Indo-Pacific Command. The status of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”), comprising Australia, India, Japan and the US, was duly elevated, and Europe, too, got on board, with a minor avalanche of policy documents bearing the same label.

In pushing the Indo-Pacific line, Western strategists usually emphasise the importance of bringing India into the fold. But the real objective, though it is seldom stated explicitly, is to contain China in the region.

The Indo-Pacific narrative undoubtedly has merits. It rests on a strong historical foundation, and the policies it has inspired are important for meeting many looming global challenges. The problem is that it also threatens to distract us from an equally important alternative narrative: the Eurasian one.

Which is more immediately relevant to the challenges the West faces? While the Indo-Pacific framework has an obvious maritime foundation, framing the Indian and Pacific Oceans as the single most important geopolitical theatre, the Eurasian one is almost completely terrestrial. Each reflects a different approach to empire, which in recent centuries has been established either through naval power, or through old-fashioned land wars. For obvious historical reasons, the Indo-Pacific narrative comes more naturally to much of the Anglo-Saxon world, while the Eurasian perspective makes intuitive sense to policymakers in Beijing and Moscow.

That being the case, Western strategic thinking urgently needs to adapt. Not only have China and Russia announced a “no-limits” partnership; they also happen to dominate the vast Eurasian landmass. Though there remain significant differences between the two powers, not to mention a sometimes-fierce historical rivalry, they are now united by a common determination to revise both the regional and the wider global order.

For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to resurrect the Russian Empire, starting in Ukraine, where his war of aggression is now in its third year. Similarly, Chinese President Xi Jinping, invoking memories of China’s “century of humiliation”, hopes to establish an empire that will cast its heavy shadow over East, South and Central Asia.

Each project depends on Russia and China maintaining a basic strategic alignment. Ukraine today could be East Asia tomorrow. The two theaters are deeply interconnected, not least by Russia, which shares a border with Japan. The outcome of one conflict will determine the shape of others to come. If Putin succeeds in conquering Ukraine, Xi undoubtedly will feel emboldened to move on Taiwan. This is where Eurasian thinking leads, even if neither Putin nor Xi would openly describe the situation in these terms.

True, China does not appear to have been especially enthusiastic about Putin launching his war. But once he made his move, China’s leaders saw a Russian victory as being in their interest. The fall of Ukraine would weaken the Western periphery of Eurasia, shatter confidence in American power, and create new opportunities for China to expand its own influence in other parts of Eurasia and adjacent areas.

Putin may well have been emboldened by America’s shambolic abandonment of Afghanistan the previous summer. He (and Xi) probably envisioned the spectacle of US helicopters evacuating the embassy in Kyiv, just as they had done in Kabul in 2021 and Saigon in 1975. But it is important to remember that the logic of Sino-Russian alignment works in reverse, too. Were Putin clearly to fail in Ukraine, Xi’s own options would be narrowed dramatically.

Western strategists neglect this key strategic relationship at their peril. Indo-Pacific thinking views China as the paramount force, and Russia as a secondary, more peripheral European issue. But if the two Eurasian powers are driven by the same historical urge, that fact must not be ignored.

This Eurasian perspective will not be as obvious in Washington or Canberra as it is in Tokyo. As for Delhi, Indian policymakers seem to be under the illusion that maintaining friendly relations with the Kremlin might prevent Russia from getting too close to China. Yet, it should be obvious where Russia will stand in any new confrontation in the Himalayas.

The stronger the two Eurasian powers are, the greater the advantages that each can derive from the other. Both will be emboldened by their perceived triumphs, and the region’s peripheries will be the first to face the consequences. The West urgently needs to start applying a Eurasian lens. Relying too heavily on the Indo-Pacific perspective would be a big mistake.

 

Carl Bildt is a former prime minister and foreign minister of Sweden. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024. www.project-syndicate.org

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