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Asia is more important to the US than Europe, and US leaders need to start acting like it

Sascha Glaeser, Defense Priorities   

Asia is more important to the US than Europe, and US leaders need to start acting like it
  • The US has led a robust international response to support Ukraine following Russia's brutal invasion.
  • But US leaders should not fixate on punishing Russia in Europe at the expense of prudent foreign policy in Asia.

The Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore recently wrapped up. As a forum to discuss Asian security issues, it was curious that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed attendees.

Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine has rightfully dominated global attention. But as the Biden administration surges US troops to Europe, now numbering 100,000, and provides upward of $54 billion in aid to Ukraine, it risks making a strategic foreign-policy blunder — prioritizing Europe over Asia.

Regardless of how much the United States sympathizes with Ukraine's tragic circumstances; even the mighty United States must make tradeoffs. With a myriad of domestic issues ranging from a shrinking middle class, record inflation, a stagnating economy, and the ongoing Covid 19 pandemic, US policymakers cannot afford to pursue the status-quo in both Europe and Asia.

With 4.6 billion people (60% of the world's population), and an economy that is set to account for 50% of global GDP by 2040, Asia will be the key region of the 21st century. China, now the world's largest economy when adjusted for purchasing power parity, seeks to throw its weight behind a more assertive foreign policy in pursuit of its own national interests.

As the only near-peer power capable of challenging the United States, Beijing will utilize all three levers of power — economic, diplomatic, and military — in an attempt to expel US influence from its backyard. This dynamic will fundamentally shape the coming decades.

Washington should not become so fixated on punishing Russia in eastern Europe at the expense of pursuing a prudent foreign policy in Asia that creates favorable conditions for long-term responsible competition with China.

The United States should leverage its wealthy and capable allies in Europe to do more of the heavy lifting when it comes to balancing against the threat of Russia.

NATO's 28 European members enjoy a combined GDP more than 10 times that of Russia's and in 2020 collectively spent $302 billion on defense compared to Russia's $62 billion. China on the other hand is a leading economic power and maintains the second highest defense budget globally, spending $293 billion in 2021.

Other regional powers such as India and Japan have sizable but lagging defense budgets at $76.7 billion and $54.1 billion, respectively. While the United States should encourage its allies in Asia to invest more in their own defense to deter potential Chinese aggression, such a power imbalance points to China, not Russia, being the more viable threat to US power.

The United States should prudently utilize the current window of time, where it still enjoys a favorable balance of power vis-à-vis China, to establish guiderails that mitigate the potential for tensions to transform into direct conflict.

Such efforts would include reaching a mutual understanding of red lines, more robust mechanisms to avoid naval and air incidents, regular leadership summits, crisis management hotlines, arms control agreements, and shared rules to reduce the risk of escalation in the cyber, artificial intelligence, space, and nuclear domains.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union pursued many of these initiatives to help deescalate tensions. However, détente only occurred after periods of immense insecurity — particularly following the Cuban Missile Crisis — often considered the closest the world came to nuclear catastrophe.

To that end, Washington would be wise to reflect on the lessons of the Cold War when formulating its foreign policy in regard to China today. Taiwan is the most dangerous flashpoint in the region with China claiming its reunification with the mainland is only a matter of time.

During his time in office, President Joe Biden has on three separate occasions erroneously claimed the United States has an obligation to come to Taiwan's defense in the case of a Chinese invasion. White House officials quickly walked back the President's comments each time, but his careless rhetoric only increases regional tensions.

While the United States does not want to see China subjugate Taiwan, the reality is that an island 80 miles off the coast of China does not warrant sacrificing the lives of American service members or risking a very real possibility of nuclear escalation. Rhetoric to the contrary does little but diminish US credibility to defend its real core strategic interests, including actual treaty allies in Asia.

Responsible competition with China will require clear-eyed realism, astute statecraft, and an acceptance that Asia has supplanted Europe in terms of geopolitical importance. Whether US leaders like it or not, the United States and China will need to learn how to live with one another. With both countries maintaining sizable nuclear arsenals, the stakes are too high for anything less.

Sascha Glaeser is a research associate at Defense Priorities. He focuses on US grand strategy, international security, and transatlantic relations. He holds a master of international public affairs and a bachelor's in international studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.