The floundering strategy of the US: Shifting Retreat to Re-orientation

Another major speculation is in a state of disarray, as the US is allegedly breaking down its long-held “strategic ambiguity” with explicit remarks by President Biden on extending help to Taiwan in case of any incursion by China. A security emphasis has also been pronounced in the US over the Indo-Pacific region with the formation of a trilateral security alliance, Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS). Not to forget, Russia too, is on the radar this time as NATO offices were locked down amidst rising tensions between the US and Russia. The US, with a renewed focus, is seeing Russia as more of a persistent rather than a declining power with the ability to substantially impact global affairs. All this is coming against the backdrop of the US failures in Afghanistan.

It is seeming that the logic of simultaneity in all these manoeuvres lies in the significance of their political messaging. This messaging, in particular its strategic side, points towards two important departures in the US policy: 1) It represents a likely embrace of the balance of power logic in the Indo-Pacific getting two of its prominent Anglo-Saxon allies in an alliance that is explicitly against China, 2) It indicates that the US is willing to use force and technology to counter any attack on its “hegemonic” status.

While US President Joe Biden recently stated that Washington’s days of international nation-building efforts are gone, it is apparent that the Americans have not lost their zest for a global military expedition. The AUKUS states have been accused of having a “Cold War mentality,” while North Korea has warned that the nuclear submarine arrangement might trigger a regional arms race. Malaysia has also claimed that the agreement will act as a “catalyst for a nuclear arms race.” Unfortunately, following failed military actions in the Middle East and Central Asia, the Western bloc looks to be testing the waters in East Asia and the Pacific Rim, maybe to advance Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” doctrine.

Any clarity subsiding ambiguity can be potentially harmful not for the US and China alone but also for those in the Indo-Pacific now involved in the strategic equation of these two competitors.

Arguably, the US is in a state of relative decline but historically it has indicated a tendency of shifting declinism into reinforced strategic influence. However, right now, the US is under the Chinese bluff. Rush Doshi, a founding director of the Brookings China Strategy Initiative and a fellow in Brookings Foreign Policy, suggests that the Chinese strategy is based on blunting the hegemon and building one’s own control through coercive capability, consensual inducements, and legitimacy. The weltanschauung through which these two powers, the US and China, are looking at each other and the world are strikingly different. While China is bluffing, the US is inducing bipolarity and exaggerating an ideological competition with a deep miscalculation. Beijing, unlike the former Soviet Union and the present-day US, is not looking to transplant its systems throughout the world.

Efforts to form exclusive partnerships are frequently misunderstood. The conventional notion of a colliding group of comparable great powers does not fit the US-China bipolarity. The US and China are two great powers vying for primacy, but the role of the European Union, Russia, Japan, and India, and their strategic autonomy might disturb the power balance. Beijing has established an anti-American alliance, with Russia, Iran, and other aggrieved states in the developing world. But these shared grievances are based on complementary complaints against the challenges posed by the US, rather than on any kind of ideological backdrop. China’s strategic alliances are transactional rather than emotive. Beijing is unlike any other adversary Washington has ever faced. The bipolarity’s longevity has been determined by the two powers’ inability to dominate each other. It is unlikely that the US would accept China’s alternative as a competitor in the international order. Neither it can be expected that China is likely to change its course of attaining regional preponderance while vying for international outreach.

In such a scenario, it is pertinent to hold restraint against strategic clarity. Any clarity subsiding ambiguity can be potentially harmful not for the US and China alone but also for those in the Indo-Pacific now involved in the strategic equation of these two competitors. The balance, unlike the Cold War, is more multi-dimensional; it encompasses not just a balance of military powers and alliances, but technological strength, global images, and most importantly economic stability. To keep this balance, the two states must be balanced with appropriate European strategic autonomy that can simmer down the tensions in the region and beyond.

Nothing is more dangerous in these times than abandoning strategic ambiguity. The saner strategies must prevail to prevent any imbalance that can unleash a new spate of proxy war, arms race, and global instability.

Rida Fatima

Rida Fatima is a graduate of the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid -I-Azam University. She serves as a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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