Rethinking Tradeoffs Between Europe and the Indo-Pacific
How should the United States and its allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific prioritize across these two key regions? Prioritization is central to any strategy, but today too many experts act as if U.S. strategy must be all or nothing. Some argue that Eurasia now comprises a single region and that standing together against Russia in Europe is necessary to deter China in Asia. Others insist that there is little tying the two regions together and that the war in Ukraine is distracting Washington from addressing the long-term systemic challenge posed by Beijing.
But instead of arguing over whether the United States should prioritize, the right question is how best to do so. Europe and the Indo-Pacific are separate but increasingly interconnected theaters that require prioritization across three dimensions: time, capabilities, and policy areas.
On prioritizing across time, addressing Russia’s threat to European security, degrading Russian military power, and stimulating Europe’s remilitarization can help to set the foundations for a sustainable U.S. prioritization of the China challenge in the Indo-Pacific. If simultaneous contingencies involve both regions, Washington should be prepared to hold in Europe and shift its main focus to first defeating China. Better integrating European and Indo-Pacific allies into U.S. defense planning can help to square such a two-front predicament.
On prioritizing with regard to capabilities, Washington should emphasize new capabilities that are China-focused, while leveraging legacy assets to deter and, if necessary, defeat Russian aggression. This means creating a mixed force but with a focus on the maritime and air capabilities most needed in the Pacific.
Finally, in prioritizing areas of competition, Europe may not be a primary military player in a China contingency, but it can still play an important diplomatic, economic, and technological role. The United States should therefore ensure that its European and Indo-Pacific allies and partners are cooperating on issues ranging from an anti-coercion instrument to diplomatic messaging.
Prioritizing Across Time
The war in Ukraine has led to much speculation about whether Europe and the Indo-Pacific constitute a single theater. Thus far, the imperative of supporting Ukraine’s defense seems to have brought U.S. allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific closer together. Nonetheless, the fact that stability in Europe and in the Indo-Pacific revolve around the same factor — U.S. military power — underscores the existence of strategic tradeoffs between both regions.
Russia’s underwhelming performance in Ukraine suggests it may not be in a position to overturn the European balance of power anytime soon, let alone the global one. However, Moscow has formidable nuclear capabilities, and can still threaten U.S. allies in Europe with its conventional forces. Beyond Europe, it can continue to act as a strategic spoiler and undermine U.S. and allied interests across the globe.
The United States recognizes the growing disparity between Russia and China, calling Russia an “acute threat” while describing China as the “pacing challenge.” This puts the Indo-Pacific on a higher level strategically. But ultimately, temporal tradeoffs depend on whether China and Russia probe or strike simultaneously. The fact that China has opted not to use Russia’s war in Ukraine as a window for opportunistic aggression against Taiwan does not mean that Russia would act similarly if the tables were turned.
Determining whether simultaneous aggression in Europe and the Indo-Pacific might occur requires a careful and systematic assessment of the evolving Sino-Russian relationship. The 2022 U.S. National Defense Strategy warns that China and Russia “could seek to create dilemmas globally for the joint force in the event of U.S. engagement in a crisis or conflict with the other.” Russian and Chinese views of the war in Ukraine could go a long way in determining the likelihood of them launching simultaneous challenges in each region.
China may calculate that a protracted war in Ukraine could push the United States to pivot back to Europe, undermine trans-Atlantic and Atlantic-Pacific political cohesion, and erode America’s defense-industrial capacity. However, this is by no means a foregone conclusion. The war could also revive U.S. and allied defense industrial capacity, strengthen a trans-Atlantic/trans-Pacific front against autocratic revisionism, and generate important operational lessons for the United States and its allies. Ultimately, the critical question of whether the United States, China, or Russia will benefit or lose more from the war cannot be answered with any degree of certainty.
So far, the war appears to have impacted the Sino-Russian relationship in two main ways. First, it has strengthened ties between Moscow and Beijing. Far from backing away from Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping appears to be doubling down by visiting Russia and echoing Moscow’s talking points. Second, the war appears to have altered the balance within the relationship, underscoring Russia’s growing dependence on China for diplomatic support, energy supplies, and economic diversification.
Indeed, the notion that China has all the leverage in the relationship and Russia has become the junior partner is increasingly widespread. Some have even argued that China is leveraging its influence over Russia — and supporting its actions in Ukraine — to get Moscow to deplete U.S. national security resources. While such considerations may well inform Chinese calculations, we should also avoid falling into the trap of assuming that Russia is completely beholden to China.
If Beijing sees itself as Washington’s main competitor, then it should have a strong interest in preserving an amicable relationship with Moscow. The fact that a junior status is antithetical to Russia’s foreign policy tradition — let alone Putin’s own inclination — raises questions about the sustainability of this model. Conversely, Europeans cannot rule out the possibility of further Russian aggressive behavior, should a contingency in Asia pull away America’s attention.
If two simultaneous conflicts occur, the United States would likely put Asia first. Washington would work with its European allies to hold a Russian advance while turning its main focus to terminating a conflict with China, before shifting attention and resources back to Russia. The acknowledgment that the Indo-Pacific would likely come first may lead some to reach the conclusion that U.S. force structure should be designed only to deal with China, and China’s challenge in the Indo-Pacific more specifically. But as we argue below, this logic is problematic.
Prioritizing Military Capabilities
Just as important as prioritizing across time is prioritizing across capabilities. After all, a war with Russia in Europe would primarily be a ground conflict with a significant air component, while a contingency with China in the Indo-Pacific would revolve around allied maritime and air capabilities. The fact that many of the ground forces that the United States has parked in Europe are unlikely to be required in a Taiwan contingency suggests that tradeoffs can be avoided in certain areas. On the other hand, the debate over how the United States should spend its defense dollars highlights important tradeoffs regarding the extent to which Washington should prioritize Asia-specific assets over Europe-specific ones.
To what extent should the United States prioritize fungible assets over theater-specific ones? Some assets, such as bomber aircraft and nuclear-powered ships, are highly fungible — they can be transferred relatively quickly across theaters. Others, like heavy ground units, are logistically intense and less easily moved. In addition, some assets are moveable but are likely to have more operational impact in one region — such as anti-ship missile launchers, which are more critical in an Indo-Pacific contingency.
Some experts are tempted by the idea that the United States should invest in a “global swing force” while its European and Indo-Pacific allies prioritize in-theater capabilities and logistics-intense assets. From a pure efficiency standpoint, this may make good sense. But it raises questions about the willingness of U.S. allies to trade security for autonomy by accepting a functional division of labor that reinforces their dependence on the United States. This dilemma becomes particularly acute as allies worry about being de-prioritized by Washington, or the unlikely but not unimaginable prospect of U.S. abandonment.
Others argue that Washington’s current approach to Ukraine could be an attractive model moving forward. The logic is that preparing to fight simultaneous high-intensity wars against two major competitors is far more challenging than preparing to fight one war directly and another indirectly. Thus, the United States would provide military and security assistance to European allies and partners but limit the involvement of its own forces in this secondary theater. Yet it takes time to train and equip other militaries, so this approach could not be implemented overnight. Ukraine was not ready to fight effectively in 2014 — it took years of training and close cooperation to prepare its military appropriately.
Even if Washington decided to prioritize preparing for one war, there is still the question of whether it should be a war against China or any war involving a great power more generally. The former would require Pacific-centric capabilities, the latter all-purpose war capabilities. Due to Washington’s global responsibilities, U.S. force structure will probably strike some balance between the two. The U.S. military’s large legacy force will ensure that many existing capabilities (armored brigades, artillery, etc.) continue long into the future, even if defense strategists adopt the “divest to invest” logic advocated by some in President Joe Biden’s team. This implies that the United States will remain capable of playing a meaningful strategic role in Europe for decades. As a result, Europe is likely to count on U.S. capabilities to deter and defend against threats to European security.
Beyond this legacy dimension, the United States will probably shift its focus towards enabling European operations through command, control, and communications as well as the provision of strategic cover via missile defense, cyber defense, and nuclear deterrence. As the 2022 US National Defense Strategy notes, U.S. posture in Europe “will focus on command and control, fires, and key enablers that complement our NATO Allies’ capabilities and strengthen deterrence by increasing combat credibility.”
Prioritizing Areas of Competition
Although the security domain is important, it is by no means the only area of competition, nor arguably the most important. America’s European and Indo-Pacific allies have important roles to play in each other’s regions and around the world when it comes to diplomacy, economics, technology, global governance, and other issues. Indeed, NATO may not have a major direct role in the Indo-Pacific, but that does not deny the importance of addressing China’s actions in the Euro-Atlantic area, the potential value of European cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners, or the importance of European engagement in non-military domains. All three will be critical in the years ahead. So just because Europe and the Indo-Pacific do not constitute a single military theater does not mean that the interdependencies across the regions are unimportant.
Beijing’s coercive actions against a number of trans-Atlantic allies have helped to consolidate a unified front from NATO. Lithuania has been the top target recently, but the Czech Republic, Canada, the United States, and others have all had to deal with various forms of economic coercion, risky military behavior, and political pressure. To tackle this challenge, Euro-Atlantic allies should speak with one voice, coordinating closely on China policy in the years ahead. In a Taiwan contingency, European allies would likely be asked to take part in an economic campaign to compel Beijing to cease the use of force.
European leadership on trade, technology, and values will remain critical. The European Union, and individual member states, have a central role to play in determining the global economic rules of the road. Many European players are vital to technological innovation in key sectors, as is the case with the Netherlands on advanced semiconductors. And Europe’s support for the rules-based international order and international law plays an important role in setting expectations for behavior worldwide.
Diplomatically, Europe also plays a key role in the Indo-Pacific, and vice versa. Regular political consultations should facilitate a convergence of views between both sets of alliances on Russia, China, and their evolving relationship. Ideally, these efforts would result in a collective framework and narrative to navigate such challenges. A shared set of economic responses to coercive practices are needed, building on the European Union’s anti-coercion instrument, among other initiatives. The G7 has an important role to play in this regard.
Finally, when it comes to the security domain, there are still many questions left unanswered. To the extent that the European and Indo-Pacific theaters are linked, it makes sense for countries to deepen their alignment on defense cooperation. Even though mutual defense commitments may remain intra-regional, regular consultations on burden-sharing, force planning, and force posture could optimize the allocation of U.S. and allied resources. In particular, the United States and its European and Indo-Pacific allies should achieve greater economies of scale and efficiencies in formulating regional strategies, procuring shared capabilities, and conducting combined exercises. This would help to align their strategic approaches.
But what, specifically, might Europe contribute in a Taiwan contingency? The deployment of small numbers of European assets is unlikely to shift the military balance in a decisive manner in the Indo-Pacific, even if it may be helpful to the United States and its Asian allies. That being said, the provision of certain high-demand, low-density items could be critical, such as undersea capabilities, basing access, and intelligence gathering. In this regard, it is important to distinguish between two Europes: one that will decisively prioritize theater-specific capabilities to hold the line against Russia, and the other that will complement theater-specific capabilities with global power-projection ones.
In a protracted war, much emphasis would also be placed on resupplying Taiwan. Europeans could play an important role in this regard by helping to protect vital supply lines, which could be critical to operational success. In addition, Europeans could help to ensure that the United States and its regional allies and partners have the munitions, supplies, and equipment needed to effectively prosecute a protracted conventional conflict in Asia. All in all, Europe could play an important set of roles in an Indo-Pacific contingency. As such, a strong European signal of commitment to peace and stability in the region could affect Beijing’s cost-benefit analysis, and help to contribute to deterrence.
Europe and the Indo-Pacific are by no means the only theaters of importance in the world today. But they are the theaters that draw the bulk of U.S. military attention and capabilities, so the tradeoffs between them are particularly difficult. Under Putin, Russia once again presents a direct threat to U.S. allies in Europe. NATO should reinvest in its ability to collectively deter and defend allied territory and populations, which will require the sustained focus of its European members. But the solidarity shown by Japan, Australia, and South Korea — not to mention China’s tacit support for Russia — underlines how European security is increasingly intertwined with Indo-Pacific dynamics. Moreover, the willingness of some Asian partners to sanction Russia and provide assistance to Ukraine will no doubt spur European debate about taking reciprocal action in the event of a crisis in the Indo-Pacific, particularly one involving Taiwan.
It is therefore high time to shift the discussion from whether Europe and the Indo-Pacific are interdependent or not to how interdependence in different areas should alter strategic decision-making. Doing so can help to inform decisions about how to strike an appropriate balance between the need to set priorities on the one hand, and the existence of cross-theater synergies on the other.
So far, analysts have heaped too much responsibility on the United States, without paying adequate attention to how European and Indo-Pacific allies can help alleviate the challenge of strategic simultaneity by stepping up their roles in their respective regions and assisting efforts in each other’s regions. To get the mix right, leaders in the United States, Europe, and the Indo-Pacific should collectively reflect on how best to prioritize across these two regions in terms of time, capabilities, and policy areas. This is no easy task, but the time to have these debates is now, before like-minded countries are confronted by a more serious risk of simultaneous two-front contingencies.
Luis Simón is director of the Centre for Security, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Brussels School of Governance, and director of the Brussels office of the Royal Elcano Institute.
Zack Cooper is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a lecturer at Princeton University. He co-hosts the Net Assessment podcast for War on the Rocks.
This commentary was developed as part of the Bridging Allies initiative, led by the Centre for Security, Diplomacy and Strategy of the Brussels School of Governance.