Friday News Roundup — June 24, 2022
Roe Overturned; Real Solutions for Economic Bottlenecks; State of the UK Army; Artillery in the Ukraine War; Russia-Kazakhstan Relations; Shangri-La Dialogue & U.S.-China Differences
It is the final Friday of June in Washington, D.C., where the Supreme Court has issued a seismic decision. From behind sets of barriers, a 5–4 decision has overturned Roe and Casey, which have defined abortion rights in the United States for decades. Along with the rulings handed down this week on church-and-state and gun control, these decisions — and ones to come — are part of the legacy of former President Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell. Millions of Americans in the pro-life movement will see today as a victory; millions others see it as a leap backwards. The court’s decision will fuel the fires of culture war politics as state legislatures will be empowered to make decisions impacting women’s reproductive rights and health care writ large, to possibly include fertility treatments and biomedical research.
While the court struck down aspects of New York state’s gun control laws, Senate bipartisan negotiations resulted in a compromise measure that would provide resources for mental health care and “red flag” laws, restrict straw purchasing of firearms, expand protections regarding domestic abusers’ access to firearms, and expand the records available in background checks — particularly for younger purchasers. While it will go too far for some, and not far enough for others, it reflects the hard work of lawmaking and compromise.
This week, Joshua C. Huminski, the Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs reviewed Ali Wyne’s “America’s Great-Power Opportunity” for the Diplomatic Courier. Wyne dissects the concept of “strategic competition” arguing that it is artificially constraining and an inaccurate representation of the challenges that Russia and China represent. He suggests that more nuance is needed and that a national rejuvenation project would help address foreign and security challenges.
Next week, join us here at CSPC for a virtual discussion with Lt. Gen. David Barno (Ret.), Dr. Nora Bensahel, and Michael Kofman on Russian and Ukrainian Military Adaptation over the course of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Register here for access to what will undoubtedly be a fascinating window into the future of the war in Ukraine and warfare itself.
If you missed our conversation with Oliver Bullough on his new book “Butler to the World: Butler to the World: How Britain Helps the World’s Worst People Launder Money, Commit Crimes, and Get Away with Anything,” you can watch the whole conversation on YouTube. In his conversation with Joshua Huminski and Oliver Bullough cover the role the UK plays in the world’s offshore economy, and what measures can be taken to combat it.
In this week’s roundup, Dan discusses the importance of forgoing politics to overcome economic vulnerabilities, Joshua looks at warnings by the head of the British Army that the UK should expect a future war with Russia, Ethan analyzes how artillery has been used during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Wes dissects the sudden deterioration of Kazakhstan’s relationship with Russia, Alan investigates this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, and Hidetoshi takes a critical stance, from the region, on the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF).
Our Economic Vulnerabilities Require Solutions, not Politics
Supply chains are an Achilles’ heel. If that is not made abundantly clear by the past two years’ events, then what we are seeing with Russia and European gas should make it clear. We are also seeing this at home in our own energy prices, where the geopolitical effects have combined with headwinds from our own policies and lack of capacity — particularly in refining. When we talk about addressing the strategic challenges of the future, and understanding the interrelationship of geopolitics, economics, energy, and technology, these supply chains and the security of them are of critical importance. We are also doing this at a time when we hope to transition our energy portfolio to address climate change, as we embark upon a technological revolution with networked technologies, and with the world increasingly competing over political ideologies and the ground rules for how we do business.
How we arrived at the issues facing both American and European energy supplies could take up more than a column — in fact, it could be a whole project. The crux of Europe’s crisis is a geopolitical one, where the over reliance on Russia has come home to roost. In the United States, the main issue hitting inflation particularly in the price of gasoline and diesel is the lack of refining capacity. The past year has seen the closure of refineries, others have been damaged by increasingly severe hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, and a new refinery has not been built in the United States since 1977. The blame for this is not on one president, one CEO, or even a whole industry. This reflects a failure in policymaking and the allocation of capital. Any changes to the gas tax will likely go back to refiners, as capacity is already constrained, and summer demand continues to increase.
Of course, we do understand the threat of climate change and the need to transition to new energy supplies. however, as we move to green energy, renewable energy, and the broader transformation in infrastructure and jobs that will result, this will still require the building of infrastructure, improvement of the electric grid, continued capacity for growth, and access to the minerals and components needed for batteries, microelectronics, and all the components of an industry like green vehicles. Decades of underinvestment in and misguided fear of nuclear power have denied us clean energy. Even with a well-planned and speedy transition to a green, renewable energy portfolio, our demand for petrochemicals will not disappear. As the American public and private sector move forward, our political leaders seem trapped between climate ignorance and economic malpractice. Throw in an unwillingness to address our reliance on unfriendly despots, and we arrive at where we are at today.
These circumstances are not unique to our energy supply chains. Our reports, as well as Washington policymakers, have all expressed their concern about the foreign supply chains upon which we rely for advanced semiconductors, rare minerals, precursor chemicals and lifesaving pharmaceuticals. All are vulnerable to either enemy action or happenstance. At the same time many of the other economic pressures we face at home come from bottlenecks in supply chains or over regulatory burdens that prevent development and growth. Look no further than the issues that we face related to baby formula, food supply, or the housing stock. Arming Ukraine to resist Russia’s onslaught has shown that our supply lines and storage depots of munitions would struggle to keep up with a modern conflict.
The commonsense solutions to this are not a partisan issue; it helps to get outside of the Washington mindset or the white elephant mega projects of our major cities — though we will need quite a bit of investment to replace the 19th and turn of the 20th century infrastructure upon which they rely. The solutions we need do not come from performative proposals like gas tax holidays or go nowhere votes on pipelines and leasing. The underpinnings in life blood of our economy and prosperity cannot continue to be sacrificed for political talking points.
One item that I recently took note of, partially because of historic family ties to Michigan City, Indiana, where the bipartisan officials announced the expansion of the historic South Shore Line commuter railroad that connects Michigan City with Chicago. Here was an expansion of public transit lauded by Indiana’s Republican governor and senator, because it presented new opportunities for development and growth in a region that can benefit from the proximity to Chicago and the new infrastructure, without the regulatory burden or politics of the city or the state of Illinois.
The expression “lead, follow or get out of the way” is often overused, now to the point of cliché. We can have a reasonable debate on whether the government should lead or follow when it comes to fixing these economic vulnerabilities and bottlenecks, but I think we can all agree that it can get out of the way. Yet, for example on semiconductors, where we agree on the vulnerability and the importance of domestic production, the deadline for the Bipartisan Innovation Act conference continues to slip, with some even saying it’s at a “make-or-break point”. As we have talked about the need for a strategic approach to the global challenge we face, the government and the private sector should be working together, not trading letters and barbs. History tells us that such challenges as the Civil War, World War Two, the space race and Cold War, our ultimate success came because of coordination, strategic thinking, and a focus on solutions — not gimmicks or zero-sum politics. If we’re extending the automotive metaphor, given the price of gas, we would be working so that all cylinders are firing together, not mashing the brake and gas at the same time.
New Head of British Army Warns of Russia Threat
Joshua C. Huminski
General Patrick Sanders, the new head of the British Army, warned that the United Kingdom needed to prepare to face Russia on the battlefield in a message to the service. According to Sanders, “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine underlines our core purpose — to protect the UK and to be ready to fight and win wars on land — and reinforces the requirement to deter Russian aggression with the threat of force.” He added “the world has changed since the 24th February and there is now a burning imperative to forge an Army capable of fighting alongside our allies and defeating Russia in battle.”
This should not be taken to mean that London is expecting to fight Russia in the Fulda Gap in the near future. Rather, it reflects both the strategic realities of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and, just as importantly, doctrinal evolutions within the British military, both of which are driving overdue changes to the British Army’s role in the United Kingdom’s defense posture.
Sanders’ remarks are unsurprising and not unexpected. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ended the long-held assumption that conventional war on continental Europe could never happen again. The United Kingdom was one of the first and most prominent providers of arms and equipment to Ukraine, and has continued as a staunch supporter of Kyiv’s defensive fight. The war has reinvigorated NATO and renewed attention within partner countries on domestic military and defense expenditures. London has also forward deployed considerable assets to NATO’s eastern front.
Whilst Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the driver of Sanders’ remarks, the Army Chief’s comments also reflect a broader and longer-running challenge within the service. Of all of the United Kingdom’s armed services, the Army has consistently received less funding and less attention than the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. In March 2021, as part of the Integrated Review the government announced that it would further draw down the Army to 72,500 soldiers by 2025 — the smallest force since 1714 — down from an official number of 82,040. Yet, that did not accurately reflect the state of the Army at the time. The service had only 76,350 members, some 6,000 short of its official target.
Ostensibly this drawdown is part of the government’s shift to drones and cyber warfare, but reflects an assumption by Whitehall that the Army would deploy at most a brigade at a time to combat non-peer adversaries, while the country would pivot (along with the United States) to the Indo-Pacific. This is reflected in the preponderance of defense resources going to the Royal Navy to support the acquisition of two aircraft carriers: HMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister HMS Prince of Wales. The purchase of those two vessels was so significant, it dwarfed other acquisition programs and sharply limited the Royal Navy’s ability to afford escorts or aircraft for the carriers in question.
That pivot is part of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Integrated Review. The review itself and the document it produced sought to refocus the United Kingdom’s foreign and security policy. At its core, the review is quite solid, reflecting a changing geopolitical environment and the country’s post-Brexit position. It lays out a series of priorities, but doesn’t specify how those competing priorities will be resources. On top of that solid foundation is a very patriotic and nationalist sheen about “Global Britain” which is a touch at odds with the sober and sensible analysis. A key component of the review is the country’s prioritization of the Indo-Pacific. While abstractly sensible, in the main it doesn’t accept London’s limited ability to project force to the region or the critical role London plays in European security — one being vividly illustrated in the present conflict. The United Kingdom — whether in or out of the European Union — could and indeed should act as a security anchor for the continent (arguably it never should have withdrawn its Army of the Rhine).
There is some irony, then, that in November 2021 Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that “We have to recognise that the old concepts of fighting big tank battles on European land mass are over and there are other better things we should be investing in.” To be fair, big tank battles are not precisely what is seen on the battlefields of Ukraine — small Ukrainian kill teams are making fairly swift work of Russia’s main battle tanks and Moscow, in turn, is reverting to heavier artillery bombardments and grinding war.
There is, however, an evolution in modern conventional war taking place in Ukraine. Those kill teams are using small, man-portable anti-tank weapons, coordinated by commercial off-the-shelf drones, backed by modern artillery paired with SpaceX’s Starlink terminals. While not the fully networked battlefield promised by the proponents of the “revolution in military affairs”, it is an interesting development and one that will likely have long felt effects. The British Army itself has suffered from consistent acquisition challenges, particularly as it pivots away from the Middle East and Southwest Asia, and low-intensity warfare. Most notably, the Army’s Ajax program — a family of six tracked armored vehicle variants, a program worth £5.5bn — went so poorly that it resulted in a full legal investigation into the service’s acquisition culture.
Artillery in Ukraine is a heightened form of war’s brutality
Artillery is one of the most devastating and terrifying tools in modern warfare. Unlike the 21st century’s onslaught of precision-guided weapons, artillery — the massive projectiles fired through a long barrel in the general direction of an intended target — is arguably the most destructive weapon still employed by militaries today. This system has seemingly become the weapon of choice for the antagonists in the Ukraine war to push the other side into capitulation.
By admission, a senior member of the seperatist Donetsk People’s Republic forces, Maksim Fomin, says that the Russian barrages do not aim to strike specific targets, but rather “entire neighborhoods or forested areas’”. The Russian surface fires inventory dramatically outpaces the Ukrainian forces to boot, which means that if this war is indeed going to be fought as a duel of the tubes, the manner in which these systems are employed by Ukrainian forces cannot attempt to trade blow for blow, but must be precise and subjective in when to expose dwindling Ukrainian forces in order to counter-fire.
Artillery is not a precision engagement system, even though modern artillery systems are capable of precision guidance projectiles where GPS devices are inserted into the nose-cones of shells. However, these systems are expensive, finicky, and not always reliable, which means that those rounds are still going to land somewhere near a general vicinity based on the gun-to-target line, maximum ordinant (height of trajectory), level of charge, wind, and other factors that generally make artillery the weapon for engaging an area, and not so much a specific site or target of this destructive weapon.
When I say destructive, the word scarcely encapsulates the severity and variety of damage that these weapons can inflict, particularly in densely populated urban centers. Heavy artillery — any caliber in excess of 100mm (about 4”) — ranges in weight from 45–95 pounds, and averages a muzzle velocity of 600–770 m/s [meters per second]. The impact force in newtons is difficult to quantify, but for reference, the blast radius of a 155mm shell, the likes of which have been shipped into Ukraine by the United States, U.K., and others, has an effective blast range of more than 150 meters from the impact sight. This means that anything within one and a half football fields of the blast is likely to suffer severe concussive damage. This does not include the potential for fragmentation, which is the metal slivers of the shell being forcibly ripped apart in 360° by the explosion of the round upon impact; and that of course presumes a point detonation fuse, and not an airburst fuse, which sends shrapnel even further. Those effects, per U.S. army publications on Joint Fire Support, require observers to be at least 600m from the impact in order to be considered out of lethal range. Artillery shells make an eerie, hollow whistling sound as they descend in their arch, and unlike a rifle round passing overhead which indicates some semblance of direction of the enemy, the influence of wind and environment on the acoustic signature on artillery shells means that there is no way to know about the rounds impending impact…until it is too late to evade.
These are the types of weapons being employed wantonly in Ukraine as the Russian and Ukrainian antagonists attempt to move the needle on which side is gaining ground. Artillery has taken center stage in the conflict across Ukraine, both for the brutal and sweeping carnage levied by Russian ‘tubes’ across the eastern front in places like Donbass, Luhansk, and Donetsk, as well the universal surge of military aid pouring in from the United States and the European Union to offset the Russian military supremacy.
For all the technological advances militaries have made since the First World War in the early twentieth century, rival armies are still slinging these fatal projectiles over miles of battlespace at one another. The issue at play in the Ukraine, however, is that Russian artillery batteries still outnumber those on the Ukraine side by a significant margin. According to Mykhailo Podolyak, a special advisor to President Volodymir Zelensky, Russian artillery pieces outnumber the Ukrainians ten-to-one, and the use of shelling is reflective of that level of destruction. Why Russia has opted for the use of traditional, unguided artillery may reflect the poor evolution of its more advanced weapons options, or that their total precision-guided inventory is much lower and less capable than initially assessed by western intelligence. The news in recent months that older equipment, like T-62 tanks being spotted near front line combat, doubles-down on the belief that Russia has embraced artillery — a familiar tactic from Chechnya, Syria and years prior in Ukraine — to bolster its offensive momentum.
The war has been labeled as one of attrition, which certainly seemed to work so well in the trenches of the Somme and the Marne a century ago… (sarcasm). Yet in that circumstance, both sides were relatively equal until the United States and Czarist Russia were able to fully marshall against the German and Austro-Hungarian juggernaut. Ukraine enjoys no such surplus of manpower in this conflict, particularly since every other Moscow-opposed nation is restraining from engaging ground forces via coalition and risking the conflict breaking out into a global escalation. Just this month, Ukrainian casualties were reaching highs of 100–200 fighters per day as a result of wide-spread Russian shelling, airstrikes, and the savage urban warfare taking place in the streets of locales like Severodonetsk. Those numbers are comparable to some of the most bloody battles of World War Two in the same theater. Fighting house to house is bad enough, but adding artillery barrages — which can be arranged to cover parking-lot sized target solutions with dozens if not hundreds of individual shells at a volley — to the mix makes this conflict particularly bloody and atrocious with regards to the cost in human life.
Thus, while artillery has inexplicably become the preferred tool for killing the enemy, these weapons are large, difficult to maintain, and not easy to maneuver across the battlefield, let alone transfer across oceans and continents to actually get these pieces into the hands of the defenders. Ukrainian forces have little choice but to endure these sweeping barrages and be selective and critical of when and where to employ their counter-fire solutions, while prioritizing combined arms (air, electronic warfare, and loitering munitions against Russian key targets like command and control architecture).
This is proof of how modern warfare has fundamentally changed state on state conflict — the team with the best weapons and most-proficient personnel typically wins the fight, at least when the willpower to prevail is intact. The only chance that Ukrainian personnel have of besting an overpowered opponent will be like the fight between a sledgehammer and a rapier: the sledgehammer is capable of much more carnage and violence, but the precisely aimed smaller weapon is just as effective if employed properly.
Tensions Between Russia and Kazakhstan over Ukraine: Irreversible Decline or a Temporary Roadbump in Relations?
It is not far-fetched to declare 2022 to be one of the most eventful, if not impactful, years in the development of the Russia-Kazakhstan bilateral relationship since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. At the beginning of the year, Kazakhstan seemed as if it had never been closer to Russia after Moscow led a Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) mission to rescue the government of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev from unrest across the country and intra-elite jockeying. However, Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine seemed to have touched a very sensitive nerve in the Kazakhstan capital of Nur-Sultan, causing relations with Moscow to take on a highly standoffish tone.
In January 2022, the relationship between Kazakhstan appeared to reach unprecedented heights of trust, when Russian troops led a quick and limited intervention in the country to shore up the embattled Tokayev government. Russian President Vladimir Putin noted at the time that Moscow would not allow “color revolutions” to take place in allied states such as Kazakhstan. In turn, President Tokayev expressed gratitude to his Russian counterpart for his diplomatic and military support. Kazakhstan’s founding membership in a wide variety of Russian-dominated multilateral organizations such as the CSTO and Eurasian Economic Union (which was in many ways a project of ex-President Nursultan Nazarbayev as it was a project of the Kremlin), indicated its willingness to work closely with its northern neighbor in a variety of fields. Kazakhstan did, however, show willingness to break with Russia in certain cases, as it did upon Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine.
Within weeks of the 2022 invasion, Kazakhstani humanitarian aid began to arrive in Ukraine. While the aid was non-lethal, this assistance package was a clear rebuke of Russia’s decision to attack Ukraine. Although some in Russia may have hoped that Kazakhstan would serve as a conduit of goods to avoid Western sanctions, President Tokayev forcefully rejected the prospect that Kazakhstan would help Russia evade Western penalties. Even before the beginning of Russia’s invasion, Kazakhstan refused to consider the participation of CSTO forces in Russia’s assault and rebuffed the idea of Kazakhstan recognizing Russia’s LNR and DNR statelets in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Nonetheless, Kazakhstan officials appeared to tread lightly at home on the subject of Russia’s invasion in the opening stages of the war, as seen by the obstruction of a pro-Ukraine rally in Almaty in March. Russia’s attempts to justify its invasion of Ukraine on the premise of rescuing ethnic Russians in Ukraine raises fears in Kazakhstan, whose northern regions are home to significant Russian and eastern Slavic populations. Kazakhstan’s energy industry has also been impacted by Western sanctions on Russia; this has led Nur-Sultan to reroute some energy exports through Caspian routes that avoid Russia and to rename the Kazakhstan-origin crude oil blend “Kazakhstan export blend crude oil” so it is not mistaken for Russian oil as it is exported through Russian ports on the Black Sea. Kazakhstan’s anxiety about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was also highly visible in the Kazakhstani Ministry of Defense’s notable decision to cancel its May 9 Victory Day parade on the grounds of “combat readiness and mobility.”
However, the most dramatic break in this period of stress in the Russia-Kazakhstan relationship came in a joint panel at Russia’s Saint Petersburg Economic Forum. As one of the only foreign heads of state in attendance at the forum, President Tokayev’s presence there would have been interpreted as a loose endorsement of Russia had the Kazakhstani president not pointedly refused to join Russia in recognizing the LNR and DNR while sharing a stage with President Putin at a June 17 panel. Putin went as far as to claim that the lands of the former Soviet Union were historically Russian at the Forum, a point which surely was received with worry in Nur-Sultan. Soon after Tokayev’s rebuke of Putin on stage, Russian authorities announced that they would intermittently close oil terminals that process imports of Kazakhstani oil, purportedly to neutralize “unexploded ordinance” from the Second World War.
Kazakhstan’s concerns about its own sovereignty give it good reason to oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but its geographic location also forces it to maintain some form of relationship with Russia, and to a different degree, China. Russia will likely use every coercive lever it can to try to bring Kazakhstan back into alignment with Moscow. Looking forward, significant questions remain as to whether strained relations between Kazakhstan and Russia portend a new default state of the bilateral relationship, or if this rift will pass with time.
Shangri-La Dialogue Underscores U.S.-China Stalemate
The annual Shangri-La Dialogue hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies took place in Singapore June 10–12. The Dialogue is a defense summit that addresses security challenges in the Indo-Pacific and serves as a neutral platform for countries to engage in “track-one” diplomacy and promote transparency. This was the first session held since 2019, and 59 countries participated this year. Notable attendees included Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Australia’s Defense Minister Richard Marles, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and PRC Defense Minister Wei Fenghe.
The 2022 Shangri-La Dialogue provided a much-needed update to the security strategies and outlooks of key Indo-Pacific nations during a time of growing geostrategic competition in the region. The most newsworthy highlight was arguably the direct interaction between the U.S. and Chinese delegations, with each presenting a very different vision for the Indo-Pacific regional order. The Dialogue demonstrated that U.S.-China relations remain at an impasse. While both sides called for compromise and cooperation, neither seemed prepared to move from their entrenched positions. The United States and China each reiterated their contrasting but carefully tailored narrative. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin asserted that the PRC’s aggression is unilaterally undermining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe blamed the United States for creating military alliances that isolate China and further western interests. Wei also emphasized that any interference with regard to Taiwan would not be tolerated and he threatened to use military force to secure Beijing’s interests. To counteract the expansion of PRC influence, the United States has been reinforcing its alliances in the Indo-Pacific, including via the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and AUKUS. Beijing has criticized these alliances as western efforts to undermine Chinese development and foster a new cold war mentality. Accordingly, neither the United States nor China offered room for compromise as they continued to deflect blame onto each other.
For some policymakers, the stalemate between the United States and China, as illuminated by the Shangri-La Dialogue, is a signal that the U.S. strategy of isolating and pressuring China is failing. They would point to China’s rapid development of its ability to project power at the expense of American interests in the Indo-Pacific, despite western condemnations. China has also increased its nuclear capabilities via the construction of additional missile silos and nuclear warheads, purportedly for defensive purposes. Through its Belt and Road Initiative, China has reinforced its ties with a number of Pacific islands even though many in the West, particularly the United States, have voiced well-founded concerns about the Chinese loan conditions and debt trap risk for participating countries. Aside from using financial aid as leverage for political influence, China is also utilizing its expanding navy to solidify its claim to a large portion of the South China Sea. Since 2015, China has invested heavily in shipbuilding, which has resulted in a considerable increase in the quantity of new military vessels. China will soon have a third aircraft carrier, which will allow it to project power and expand its territorial claims. The United States and its allies have condemned the PRC’s violations of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, but Beijing claims that it is only protecting its territorial waters.
Moreover, tensions between the two superpowers have only escalated as President Biden has appeared to break from the policy of “strategic ambiguity” by stating that the United States would defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion. Although the Administration has dialed back these statements, the point of friction remains. Worse still, U.S. allies in Asia might see the retraction of these statements as a lack of American commitment, which may lead Beijing to believe that the United States does not have the resolve to protect Taiwan and that a military invasion of the island would be feasible. German Marshall Fund Asia Program Director Bonnie Glaser, tweeted that “the confusion and misstatements are more likely to undermine deterrence than strengthen it.”
The Biden Administration seeks to assure free nations of the Indo-Pacific region that the U.S. commitment to the region is rock solid, despite the fact much of the world’s attention is focused on the conflict in Ukraine. The stalemate on display at the Shangri-La Dialogue reflects and affirms the fact that China has no plans to curb its aggressive economic, diplomatic, and security overtures in Asia in spite of rising tensions in the region. How this will inform and shape the Administration’s next moves in the U.S. Indo-Pacific will be a process worth watching.
Greatly Out of Focus: Rethinking Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework
US president Joe Biden officially launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) with much pomp and fanfare along with his Japanese counterpart, prime minister Fumio Kishida, during his first summit in Japan on May 23. Following the tumultuous four years of the Trump presidency, America’s perceived absence in Asia had grown particularly palpable among many regional capitals, and Biden’s IPEF agenda appeared poised to bolster the rules-based order increasingly overshadowed by the rise of authoritarian competitors across Eurasia. Such a perception seemed promising especially in Southeast Asia, the emerging center of gravity of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Yet, the IPEF’s sole focus on normative rules at the expense of substance would likely risk alienation among member states and paradoxically aid their pivot to Eurasia’s authoritarian alternatives. The IPEF would therefore need bilateral engagement particularly with Southeast Asian states to complement its effectiveness.
The IPEF emerged as the Biden’s administration’s solution to the perceived decline of the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific after the turbulent Trump years. Indeed, Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2017 and his subsequent trade war with China unnerved the regional capitals. Against this backdrop, Biden envisioned the IPEF as “writing the new rules for the 21st century” to spur regional economic growth “faster and fairer.” His commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo, even touted the new economic framework as “the most significant international economic engagement that the United States has ever had in this region.” The IPEF revolves around the following four pillars: 1) connected economy with a focus on rules for digital economy; 2) resilient economy promoting supply chains capable of withstanding disruptions; 3) clean economy supporting green energy commitments; and 4) fair economy promoting rules to combat corruption and effective taxation. Biden’s regional economic framework is the largest in the world in terms of total GDP and population, even dwarfing Beijing’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The regional leaders lauded Washington’s launch of the IPEF as symbolizing the return of the US during the inaugural summit-level meeting on May 23.
Despite the high expectations for the IPEF, it is largely hollow in substance. Most significantly, the IPEF is a radical departure from the TPP in that the new regional framework provides member states with no access to the US market. This peculiar arrangement reflects Washington’s growing desperation for addressing China’s regional clout, especially in the economic field. Yet, it is a crippling disincentive potentially dissuading member states from fully committing themselves to Washington’s vision for a rules-based Free and Open Indo-Pacific. In other words, the IPEF seeks to wield sticks with no prospect for granting carrots in exchange for adherence. As if to note such a peculiar disincentive, the Biden administration crafted a special scheme allowing member states to selectively commit themselves to any of the aforementioned four pillars in exchange for membership. Therefore, absent a clear incentive and enforcement mechanism, the IPEF is essentially a status symbol potentially encouraging the abuse of the rules-based order under the veneer of membership.
Crucially, the IPEF emerged at a time competing authoritarian alternatives increasingly overshadow the Indo-Pacific, especially Southeast Asia. Indeed, Southeast Asia is strategically ensconced directly adjacent to China and India and encompasses some of the world’s most dynamic sea lines of communication (SLOC) via the Malacca Strait. It is the emerging center of gravity of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, but largely remains a pivot area engulfed between the US-led maritime rules-based order and the continental spheres of influence by Eurasian autocracies. Just as Southeast Asia was once home to Imperial Japan’s illiberal Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and its invasions during WWII, it could succumb to a similar fate in light of the ascendancy of authoritarian Eurasian alternatives to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
The cold reality is that the IPEF alone cannot simply provide a solution to Southeast Asia’s growth potential. Many regional countries, particularly Indonesia, are rapidly moving up the value chain and are transitioning to manufacturing hubs from resource providers. This in turn signifies that the regional countries must export their goods to mature consumption-driven economies, including the US, to maintain their current growth trajectory. Indeed, post-WWII Japan followed in the same steps by exporting value-added goods, such as automobiles, to the US, allowing the defeated country to rapidly emerge from the postwar ashes to the world’s second largest economy. The IPEF’s formula effectively denies its member states in Southeast Asia similar futures while zealously demanding commitment to the various norms which are often foreign to them.
This is a recipe for an impending disaster, beginning from growing alienation among member states. In fact, such a trajectory is already palpable. Indonesia has recently begun talks with Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) for the conclusion of a free trade agreement (FTA). In other words, Jakarta has already pivoted to Russia in search for economic frontiers to support its nascent export-oriented economy. Moreover, although being one of the founding members of the IPEF and even the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), India has consistently demonstrated neutrality vis-a-vis Russia and even defied Washington’s pressure on anti-Russian sanctions, evoking memories of its non-alignment strategy during the Cold War. New Delhi has also been in FTA talks with the EAEU, casting additional doubt on the future of the IPEF. The greatest irony is that Washington’s singular focus on China and its concern for anti-free trade voices at home have paradoxically spurred the pivot of many Asian countries to Russia.
While the IPEF itself is a sound concept especially in light of China’s rise, it would need bilateral engagement to add substance. Indeed, Trump’s aggressive bilateral deal-making strategy significantly advanced US-Japan trade agreements toward a full-fledged FTA in 2019. His feat occurred against the backdrop of decades of wavering US-Japan trade talks. Trump’s pugnacious predilection for bilateral, face-to-face engagement finally added substance to the otherwise hollow dialogue between Washington and Tokyo. Biden could draw inspiration from his predecessor in securing the future of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific by bilaterally engaging with Southeast Asian countries. Unlike India, many Southeast Asian countries pivot to Eurasia simply because the IPEF does not offer access to the US. Bilateral engagement would significantly remedy the crippling flaw of the IPEF.
The IPEF is a welcome regional framework at a time China’s RCEP and Russia’s EAEU look to thrust into the Indo-Pacific from Eurasia. The Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy long remained a concept but lacked substance. The IPEF initially emerged as a solution, but largely turned out to be hollow despite its noble intentions. The emerging alienation of member countries, such as India and Indonesia, augurs ill for the future of the regional economic framework. Biden could take a page from his predecessor’s playbook in remedying the crucial flaw of the IPEF even if doing so may be politically untenable at home.
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On June 20, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced that he would move to dissolve parliament and step down from his post after disagreements regarding the rights of Jewish settlers in the West Bank bogged down the coalition government. Specifically, the dispute occurred over whether legal protections for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank would be renewed, protections that Palestinians do not have. Earlier this year, Bennett lost his majority in parliament that would have secured the renewal of legal protections. This marks the end of Israel’s multi-partied government which included the United Arab List party. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is expected to take over the position from Bennett. Elections that will likely take place in October could see the return to power of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to expert observers.
On June 22, Afghanistan was struck by a 6.1 magnitude earthquake, killing 1,000 people and injuring over 600. The earthquake traveled 27 miles from Khost, Afghanistan, to Pakistan. Experts believe that this is the deadliest earthquake to strike Afghanistan since 2002. Due to the country’s economic situation, Afghan authorities are challenged to serve their communities as best they can. The country has lost billions of dollars in development funding since the Taliban took charge last year. As a result, the Taliban is requesting international assistance, and the United States Agency for International Development and other partners are now evaluating the United States’ response options. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated, “We count on the international community to help support the hundreds of families hit by this latest disaster. Now is the time for solidarity.”
Beginning on June 21, 40,000 UK rail workers walked off the job to take part in strikes which have significantly complicated passenger and cargo rail flows. Striking workers have indicated that this week’s strikes could mark the beginning of a “summer of discontent” as they demand improvements in pay. However, the action has proved to be unpopular with the wider British population, as a recent poll by YouGov found that 37% of Britons supported the strike while 45% were opposed. The strikes by members of Britain’s National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers was denounced by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as disruptions from the strike ripple through British society.
The views of authors are their own and not that of CSPC.