Guest Column

Under Biden, US Pivots to a Free, Open Indo-Pacific

By Thitinan Pongsudhirak 4 September 2021

If former United States President Barack Obama is known for his “pivot to Asia” geostrategy and President Donald Trump for the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, there is now a geostrategic synthesis under President Joe Biden. It can aptly be called the US “pivot to the Free and Open Indo-Pacific”.

While Asia remains the scope and the Indo-Pacific the main arena of US-China rivalry and competition, the Biden pivot focuses on China’s shadows and influence in Southeast Asia. Doing so is likely to put more pressure on ASEAN’s unity and central role as the broker for regional peace and security. In turn, when ASEAN is more apart than together due to superpower rivalry, the regional neighborhood will likely become more unstable.

Although the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has received sensational and dismal media coverage in view of the Afghan government’s precipitous collapse and the Taliban’s swift takeover, Biden is rightly standing by his decision. While CNN and other international media have lambasted the US president for leaving Afghanistan to its own devices and endangering countless lives, particularly women who have benefited from greater rights and freedoms, pulling the plug was a calculated gamble that was overdue.

As Washington has spent more than US$2 trillion over the past two decades, Afghanistan’s uneasy peace and order can only be maintained with continuing American largesse and military intervention. As Biden noted, if the Afghans are unable to hold their own country for their own future after so much US financial and military assistance to train and prop up a 350,000-strong army, then Washington’s efforts have been futile and a lost cause.

To be sure, the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater was originally about going after Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in the Washington DC area two decades ago. It was President George W Bush and his inner sanctum, driven by the “neo-conservative” movement, that twisted a limited war against Bin Laden and al-Qaeda along with their Taliban backers in 2001 into a broader “democratic globalism” of making democracies out of the congenitally tribal Middle East, featuring the capture and occupation of Iraq from March 2003. The original mission deviated so much that the US military became an indefinite occupying force in both Afghanistan and Iraq long after Bin Laden had been hunted down and killed in Pakistan in May 2011.

America’s 21st-century folly and failure in the Middle East is thus attributable to the misguided and disastrous misadventures driven by the “neo-cons”, who were bent on dominating and reshaping the region in a gung-ho fashion. At issue now is what happens next as the US leaves Afghanistan now and Iraq by the end of the year.

The new challenge will be to keep Taliban-ruled Afghanistan from becoming a haven for Islamic militants and militias intent on exporting their ultra-conservative ideology elsewhere. The same goes for the Iraq-Syria theater and the broader Middle East that previously faced the expansionist threat of the Islamic State (IS) and its ambition to set up Islamic caliphates to re-create Islam’s civilizational glory and influence from its peak a thousand years ago.

If Islam-inspired terrorist networks can be managed without spilling over into other parts of the world, then the Middle East neighborhood will likely revert to the pre-Sept. 11 status quo of internal conflicts, tribal warfare, internecine strife, and major-power competition for influence through client regimes in power.

Afghanistan is a case in point. No major power from the British and the Russians in their 19th-century “great game” and the Soviets in the 1980s to the Americans over the past two decades could subdue Afghanistan. Those who tried ultimately left bruised and battered. In turn, as soon as foreign invaders leave, the Afghan clans and tribes go back to fighting among themselves. This is an age-old pattern that is now likely to unfold anew. The Taliban was one of the anti-Soviet forces in the 1980s that happened to come out on top to take power in Kabul. The mistake the Taliban made was to become a bedfellow with Bin Laden and a sanctuary for al-Qaeda.

Southeast Asia has a major stake in the Middle East quagmire because it is home to the largest Muslim country (Indonesia) which, together with Malaysia and Brunei, generally practise moderate and secular forms of Islam. Southeast Asia also harbors significant Muslim minorities in the southern Philippines, southern Thailand, and the westernmost Rakhine state in Myanmar.

The mid-2000s saw the rise of a regional terrorist outpost, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which became a serious regional threat based out of Indonesia. But Indonesia and other Southeast Asian governments coordinated and worked effectively together to address the JI challenge. Muslim grievances in the southern Philippines and Thailand’s southernmost provinces also have been rooted more in ethno-nationalism rather than Islamist expansionism as inspired by IS.

But this is the time to step up vigilance. It bodes well that the Taliban and IS are at odds, but terrorist expansionism in Southeast Asia may regain vigor from the US withdrawal. The ethno-nationalist Malay-Muslim insurgents in southern Thailand may also become more radicalized if their aims continue to be thwarted without compromise and accommodation from Thai state authorities.

On the other hand, the US pullout from Afghanistan and later Iraq enables Washington to refocus and re-channel attention and resources elsewhere. This is how the recent high-level visits of Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, followed by Vice President Kamala Harris, will be seen in Southeast Asia. ASEAN governments and policymaking communities have been decidedly quiet in response to the short-term loss of US credibility and prestige from the Afghanistan controversy because they anticipate a shift in focus towards Southeast Asia within the Indo-Pacific geostrategic frame. Getting out of Afghanistan can be vindicated only if Islamist expansionism is contained while the Biden administration gears up and resources its Indo-Pacific pivot to balance China’s aggressive manoeuvres in the South China Sea and the Mekong region.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, PhD, is professor at the Faculty of Political Science and director of its Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

This article first appeared in The Bangkok Post.

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