ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA JUNE 7, 2019: China’s President Xi Jinping (L) and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin at a plenary session at the 2019 St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF).
Sergei Bobylev | TASS | Getty Images
President Joe Biden faces a nightmare scenario of global consequence: stepped up Chinese-Russian strategic cooperation aimed at undermining U.S. influence and at upending Biden’s efforts to rally democratic allies.
It is the most significant and underrecognized test of Biden’s leadership yet: It could be the defining challenge of his presidency.
This past week, Russia and China simultaneously escalated their separate military activities and threats to the sovereignty of Ukraine and Taiwan respectively — countries whose vibrant independence is an affront to Moscow and Beijing but lies at the heart of U.S. and allies’ interests in their regions.
Even if Moscow’s and Beijing’s actions do not result in a military invasion of either country, and most experts still believe that is unlikely, the scale and intensity of the military moves demand immediate attention. U.S. and allied officials dare not dismiss the certainty that Russia and China are sharing intelligence or the growing likelihood that they increasingly are coordinating actions and strategies.
“That [Russian] buildup has reached the point that it could provide the basis for a limited military incursion,” William J. Burns, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee this week. “It is something not only the United States but our allies have to take very seriously.”
On China, the annual U.S. Threat Assessment of the intelligence community said: “China is attempting to exploit doubts about U.S. commitment to the region, undermine Taiwan’s democracy, and extend Beijing’s influence.” Lost in media coverage of the report was a warning about “Russia’s growing strategic cooperation with China — to achieve its objectives.”
Seen independently, the Chinese and Russia challenges would be a handful for any U.S. president. Should China and Russia act more cohesively and coherently, and you’ve got a narrative more consequential than any Tom Clancy novel’s plot. It’s a scenario for which the U.S. and its allies lack a strategy or even a common understanding.
For any who doubt Sino-Russian ambitions, one of my favorite places to read Chinese tea leaves is the Global Times, often a mouthpiece for Beijing’s leadership. In an editorial late last month, under the headline “China-Russia ties deepen while U.S. and allies flail,” it wrote: “The most influential bilateral relationship in Eurasia is the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era.”
In an only thinly veiled warning to Japan and South Korea, it wrote: “China and Russia understand the weight of their ties … To be honest, no country in the region can stand alone against either China or Russia, let alone fight against the powers at the same time. It would be disastrous for any country which tends to confront China and Russia through forging an alliance with the U.S.”
Asked last October about the possibility of a formal military alliance with China, Russian leader Vladimir Putin said, “Theoretically it is quite possible.”
In any case, there’s nothing theoretical about the military escalations around Ukraine and Taiwan.
Over the past week, Russia has amassed the largest concentration of troops along Ukraine’s border since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Ukrainian government officials say Russian President Vladimir Putin has brought more than 40,000 troops near Ukraine’s eastern border for “combat training exercises” over a period of two weeks.
At the same time, China has ramped up its military overflight incursions into Taiwan’s air defense zone to unprecedented levels, having flown more than 250 sorties near the island this year. Last Monday, the Chinese military sent 25 warplanes Taiwan’s way, a record high since Taiwan began disclosing figures last year.
The Biden administration this week responded to Putin with the carrot of a summit meeting and the stick of new sanctions. On Tuesday, Biden called Putin, signaling he is not looking to escalate tensions with the leader he agreed was a “killer” only a month ago.
On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stood beside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg as they condemned Russia’s military buildup. The Biden administration’s strongest rebuke came Thursday when it announced new economic sanctions against 38 Russian entities accused of election interference and cyberattacks, expelled ten diplomats, and introduced measures banning U.S. financial institutions from trading newly issued Russian state debt and bonds.
China’s incursions over Taiwan came shortly after the State Department issued guidelines loosening the rules for U.S. government officials engaging with Taiwan. Blinken has said the administration is concerned by China’s “increasingly aggressive actions” and is committed to ensuring that Taiwan “has the ability to defend itself.” The United States further demonstrated its support to Taiwan on Wednesday by sending an unofficial delegation consisting of a former U.S. senator and two former U.S. deputy secretaries of state to Taiwan.
This unfolding great power drama couldn’t come at a worse time for the Biden administration, whose officials won’t even clock their 100 day in office until April 30. Yet that is probably the point for Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, as they look to gain advantage before Biden can secure surer footing through policy reviews and by staffing up key leadership positions.
These real-world events also complicate the Biden administration’s carefully laid plans to methodically sequence its actions, arguing reasonably that U.S. renewal is a prerequisite for effective global leadership.
Biden’s aim is to quell Covid-19 through accelerated vaccine distribution, to gin up economic momentum and competitiveness through $4 trillion of stimulus and infrastructure spending, and to restore relations with key allies, a goal reflected in Biden’s meeting this week with Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide.
The Biden administration also confronts a number of other foreign policy challenges simultaneously, ranging from the president’s announcement this week that he would withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 and efforts to restart nuclear talks with Iran despite last Sunday’s attack on Tehran’s Natanz nuclear enrichment facility.
That’s a lot for any new president to handle. However, how deftly Biden addresses the combined, growing challenge from Russia and China will shape our era.
Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week’s top stories and trends.
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