25.08.2021 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

After Afghanistan, the US Eyes China


The US withdrawal from Afghanistan is going to allow the US “deep state” to focus even more keenly on the rapidly rising military and economic threat to the US unilateralism: China. When the US secretary of Defense recently visited Southeast Asia, the message he delivered was unequivocally about countering this very threat. Although the US was already lacking any credentials to present itself as a credible alternative to China, the US debacle from Afghanistan is going to make it all the more difficult for the Biden administration to present itself as a ‘reliable’ partner. Practical difficulties notwithstanding, the US rhetoric remains focused on China. In a recent interview with the ABC, Biden stressed that the US commitment with allies in Southeast Asia – South Korea and Taiwan, for instance – to ‘protect’ them from external threats like China remain firm. “We have made – kept every commitment,” to the stated allies, Biden said, adding that “We made a sacred commitment to Article 5 that if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with – Taiwan. It’s not even comparable to talk about that.”

In his recent visit to India, Biden’s Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, followed a single point agenda: China. As it stands, Blinken’s visit was aimed to reassure that India remains within the framework of the QUAD as a US ally. The message that India was/is playing a critical role within the QUAD was made clear when Blinken met Tibetan representatives in India, a meeting that largely and effectively symbolised an Indian centrality to the US’ overall policy vis-à-vis China.

While the QUAD has so far played a dismal role against China, this has been due largely to the fact that the US-China ties, ever since the creation of the QUAD, had never deteriorated to the extent as they have today, necessitating the need to reinvent, revive and even expand the QUAD as a regional mechanism against ‘Chinese political and economic expansion’ to protect the US regional/global interests.

To re-affirm the US commitment to the region that China borders, Kamala Harris, too, is going to visit Southeast Asia to broaden the “scope” of US engagement with Southeast Asia, a region that was neglected, as many among the Democrats and the Republicans believe in the US, by the Trump administration for its overt focus on “America First” and ‘trade-war’ with China. The US, where a bi-partisan consensus around tackling China more “effectively” is now emerging, is staging a come-back to Southeast Asia, aiming to devote a lot more political, economic, diplomatic resources than the Trump administration did. As the White House statement issued last month about Harris’ visit shows, China continues to underpin the US’ ‘Asia Pivot 2.0.’

“During the trip, the Vice President will engage the leaders of both governments on issues of mutual interest, including regional security, the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and our joint efforts to promote a rules-based international order” the statement said, adding that “President Biden and Vice President Harris have made it a top priority to rebuild our global partnerships and keep our nation secure, and this upcoming visit continues that work – deepening our engagement in Southeast Asia. Vice President Harris will be the first Vice President to ever visit Vietnam.”

The focus on China is not an outcome of the US exit from Afghanistan; rather the US exit from Afghanistan is an outcome of the US’ increasing focus on China, as well as its renewed interest in beefing itself up in Southeast Asia. As Biden asserted in his interview with the ABC, it was important to get out of Afghanistan because China (as also Russia) wanted the US to remain entangled for a lot longer than the US would have wanted, imposing an unwanted cost on the US. Therefore, to defeat China’s plans and to take the fight closer to their home, the US is now focusing on a region that, in eyes of the US policy makers, ‘needs’ US help to tackle the ‘China threat.’

That the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is an outcome of its increasing focus on China is also evident from the fact that soon after his inauguration, even when Biden was still struggling with, and undecided about, whether or not to withdraw from Afghanistan, he had started staffing himself up with ‘experts’ on Southeast Asia both as a means to engineer a renewed focus on China and to re-engage Southeast countries to develop a ring of allies around China. A crucial example of such appointments is Kurt Campbell as the National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific affairs coordinator, who will be handy, because of his familiarity with the region, to push Washington back into the fold. Let’s not forget that he, along with Biden, were two of the few men mainly credited for the Obama administration’s ‘Asia Pivot.’

Now that the same folks are back in the White House, with the administration’s new vigour vis-à-vis China without mediated and blocked by Washington’s pre-occupation with Afghanistan and even the Middle East on the whole, the US’ increased focus on China/Southeast Asia speaks for itself, a region where, in the words of Biden, a new superpower rivalry will be played out. Last April, in his speech to the US Congress, Biden was quick to re-invent the ideological rivalry that underpinned the Cold War. While the present era lacks the capitalism vs. communism ideological division, Biden has been paying attention to the importance of framing his ideas along ideological divisions underpinned by the West’s identification with democracy and China’s with authoritarianism.

In simple words, the superpower struggle that Biden is cooking up to lead during his stay in the White House has elements of what can be called a ‘Cold War 2.0.’ Although the US officials seemingly acknowledge that the Southeast Asian states do not have to ‘choose’ between the US and China, it remains that the very reason for why the US is pivoting to the region is China, which means that all the actions that Washington takes and the policies it implements will have an obvious China-focus – something that a lot of Southeast Asian states, many of which have deep economic ties with China, are already finding it very hard to digest because of the lack of desire to get caught in the superpower rivalry.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.