The United States will not take its eye off the Indo-Pacific despite the Ukraine crisis, engaging in two theaters simultaneously as it had done during World World II and the Cold War, said the White House’s Indo-Pacific policy coordinator.
“It’s difficult. It’s expensive. But it is also essential, and I believe that we’re entering a period where that is what will be demanded of the United States and this generation of Americans,” said the official, Kurt Campbell, at a Feb. 28 virtual event hosted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“There is a deep recognition and intention here inside the government, in the White House, to sustain every element of our engagement in the Indo-Pacific,” he added.
In the long-awaited Indo-Pacific strategy released two weeks earlier, the White House deemed the region as critical in countering growing aggression from Beijing.
Campbell said that Washington will show a “determination” to sustain high-level engagement in the coming months. President Joe Biden is set to host a summit of Southeast Asian leaders in Washington in late March. Biden will travel for meetings in the region later in the year, he added.
The administration is also sending an unofficial delegation of former defense and security officials to visit Taiwan this week in a show of support for the island that the regime has long claimed as its own.
“You will see a whole range of activities across the board diplomatically institutionally,” and in the fronts of economic and trade, Campbell told the panel.
Mira Rapp Hooper, director for Indo-Pacific strategy at the White House National Security Council, said she was “quite confident” that the war against Ukraine will not divert U.S. focus away from the region.
She noted that the administration’s Indo-Pacific report was made public “within minutes” after national security advisor Jake Sullivan walked off the podium from a speech warning Americans to leave Ukraine due to the high risk of a Russian attack.
That timing, she said, was to “signal both to the region and to the world that no matter what happened in Europe, we had a plan for Asia that was already unfolding.”
“We had a set of steps that we intended to take in the next 12 to 24 months, no matter what horror was inflicted on the people of Ukraine,” she said, noting that the Secretary of State Antony Blinken had made four trips in a year to Asia, the most recent one during the strategy’s release.
While there’s urgency in both theaters, the aid going to Ukraine is “quite distinct” from that allocated for Indo-Pacific, said Hooper.
“That does not mean that we will feel moments of resource scarcity. But it does mean that we can plan for both simultaneously.”
‘Awkward’ China-Russia Relationship
Campbell said that the United States is determined to keep communication lines with the Chinese regime open despite concerns about its deepening relationship with Moscow.
“We have to acknowledge that there are elements of the Russia-China relationship that are even playing out as we speak, that are worrisome and regrettable, and they have to be watched carefully,” he said.
“China is occupying an awkward nexus in which they’re trying to sustain their deep and fundamental relationship with Russia,” he added, while making a reference to the “no limits” partnership that the two leaders declared ahead of the Winter Olympics’ opening ceremony.
It’s too early to know what position Beijing will ultimately take, said Campbell, who added that the circumstances are “difficult” for Beijing at the moment. He said he believes Beijing authorities have been “concerned” by both the solidarity displayed by the West since the invasion and “the brutality that is playing out every day” in Ukraine.
“It’s clear from our perspective that the association, so public and so deep, between Russia and China is indeed quite uncomfortable right now.”
China has refused to denounce the Russian attack as an invasion and criticized Western sanctions as ineffective. It abstained from voting last week on a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Russia’s war on Ukraine. On Monday, China’s foreign ministry told reporters it will “continue to conduct normal trade cooperation” with Russia so long as they are mutually beneficial.
“Our relationship features non-alliance, non-confrontation, and non-targeting of any third party,” said spokesperson Wang Wenbin, who described the relationship as “China and Russia are comprehensive strategic partners of coordination” in a press briefing.
Reuters contributed to this report.