Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 17 April 2024


China’s Hands Are Tied Against Tangle of US Alliances

Beijing has few good ways to fight back against the multitude of new security partnerships the US is forging in the region.

Blocking more Philippines ships could backfire. 
Blocking more Philippines ships could backfire.  Photographer: Jam Sta Rosa/AFP/Getty Images


With last week’s trilateral summit between the leaders of the US, Japan, and the Philippines, China faces an ever-tightening cordon of alliances around its periphery. Chinese officials rail against this US-led network as an unwelcome and destabilizing case of “bloc politics.” In reality, there’s not much else they can do.

Developing a “latticework” of partnerships around the Indo-Pacific — through arrangements such as the US-Japan-Philippines relationship, a similar trilateral with Japan and South Korea; the AUKUS alliance with Australia and the UK; and the Quad grouping with Japan, India, and Australia — is a central pillar of US President Joe Biden’s strategy for containing China. Interlocking defense ties between all those nations greatly strengthen the US ability to deter Chinese aggression, especially toward Taiwan, and increase America’s chances of victory if a conflict does break out.

In many ways, Beijing has only itself to blame for Biden’s success. In the last decade, its in-your-face approach to Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines has thoroughly alienated nations that might otherwise have stayed on the sidelines of the Sino-American rivalry.

China now finds itself boxed in. Its options for countering the US strategy are all unappealing and, more importantly, unlikely to succeed.

One obvious temptation would be to retaliate. China could more aggressively confront Japanese vessels patrolling near contested islands known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, or it could block the Philippines from supplying its marines on a rusting warship beached on Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef which both countries claim. China could also seek to exert economic pressure on offending countries, erecting new import barriers or choking off exports of critical minerals.

Such actions, however, would likely hurt China more than its intended targets. The Sino-Japanese economic relationship, already strained by rising bilateral tensions, could deteriorate faster and further. After declaring an “ironclad” security commitment to the Philippines, Biden might order US naval vessels into the waters around the Second Thomas Shoal, forcing Chinese President Xi Jinping to decide whether he is prepared to escalate.

Alternatively, Xi could try to make nice with China’s neighbors, scaling back naval confrontations (Chinese coast guard ships have entered waters around the contested Japanese islands every day since mid-December last year) and seeking to offer economic carrots instead of sticks. China’s ailing economy has fewer of those in its arsenal than before, though, and even a tactical withdrawal now could lead to a loss of face. Worse, it would probably come too late: The security worries that have led countries such as Japan and the Philippines into the arms of the US are by now deeply ingrained.

Other moves all carry high risks. Providing North Korea more support to keep Japan and South Korea off-balance could instead lead them to deepen their partnership. Moreover, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would likely pocket the favor but keep his distance from Xi, who is not exactly a fan of the unpredictable young dictator. Having just boosted his own ties with Kim, too, Russian President Vladimir Putin may fear China is trying to undercut his influence.

Trying to distract the US by supporting its adversaries in the Middle East could backfire, too. Economically, a wider war in the region could hurt China just as much as the US if trade and oil shipments are disrupted. Providing Iran with weapons would fray Chinese ties with its other regional partners such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

The US would almost certainly retaliate, either by imposing more economic sanctions on China or by granting more military and diplomatic support to Taiwan. And, unless the US gets sucked into another land war in the Middle East — a quagmire Biden obviously wants to avoid — bipartisan pressure to stay focused on China will not lessen.

This leaves Beijing only one sensible option: to play for time. Rather than trying to break the new bonds the Biden administration has forged, China would be wiser to see whether internal tensions weaken them naturally.

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Fully realizing the potential of these partnerships will require sacrifices on all sides — from increased defense spending and tighter cyber-security from Japan to greater willingness from the Pentagon to share technology and intelligence with its new partners — which are far from guaranteed. Potential changes of administration in SeoulManila, and Washington could quickly erode support for deeper ties. A second Donald Trump administration might well be more interested in bullying allies than wooing them.

China has created many of its own problems in the region. Its best bet now may be to hope the US does the same.

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Minxin Pei is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of "The Sentinel State: Surveillance and the Survival of Dictatorship in China."
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If Only the West Backed Ukraine as It Did Israel

The contrast between Western allies’ response to Iran's missile attacks and Russia's was shameful.


It’s time to call ourselves out over Ukraine. Because if the approach of the West, and the US in particular, doesn’t change very soon, the country risks being first pulverized and then overrun at enormous cost — to Ukrainians, Europe and the US.

No contrast could be more stark, or frankly sickening, than the experiences this weekend of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and Israel, as each came under fire from intense combined missile and Shahed drone attacks.

Israel was left almost untouched by a vast barrage on Saturday, protected by its own richly resupplied air defense systems and the actions of the US, UK, French and Jordanian militaries that helped shoot down many of the warheads Iran fired before they could reach Israeli airspace. For all the well-deserved criticism that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gets for the way he has conducted a retaliatory war against Hamas in Gaza, this coordinated response was exactly how it should have been.

Such extensive and direct help cannot just be put down to Israeli exceptionalism. Jordan’s participation, despite an appalling relationship with Netanyahu and a population deeply sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, attests to that. Jordan simply recognized, as did the other participants, that Iran must not be allowed to succeed, because that would pose dangers well beyond Israel.

This is firstly because Iran has an aggressive, totalitarian and fanatically Islamist regime that’s engaged in suborning and destabilizing the Levant around it. Second, had Israeli cities and lives been destroyed in a hail of missiles and drones, it would have forced a rapid and harsh response, triggering a regional war that would send economic and security costs rippling across the globe.

Exactly the same is true of Ukraine, and yet it was all but abandoned when Russian missiles and drones struck earlier the same day. Nobody expected US and British pilots to take to the skies, but Ukraine’s allies are now starving it of the means to defend itself. As a result, Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million, just 32 kilometers (22 miles) from the Russian border, was unable to deflect what’s emerging as a systematic air campaign to make it uninhabitable and ripe for conquest.

The main power and heating stations were hit. So were apartment blocks, killing at least seven people. The attack was just part of an accelerating bombing spree against the major Ukrainian cities still in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sights, including so-called double-tap strikes aimed at killing civilians first and then the recue workers who arrive to help them.

Russia, like Iran, is an authoritarian state, captured by its own brand of fanaticism as it tries to resurrect a lost imperial glory at the cost of its neighbors. Putin has proved himself vengeful. He has put his economy on a war footing and is convinced he is in a civilizational war with the West. Anyone who thinks he wouldn’t follow up on military success in Ukraine by turning his attention to Moldova, the Baltic States and the Balkans, while forcing dramatic political and security shifts in Europe, has not been paying attention.

There is ample blame to go around for this turn of events, but in order of culpability, US House Speaker Mike Johnson, backed by his puppeteer Donald Trump, deserves top billing. His blockage of funding since October has played a huge role in ensuring that Ukraine now suffers a five- or six-to-one disadvantage in artillery fire, due to lack of ammunition, and has become increasingly exposed to missile attacks, for lack of interceptors that only the US can provide. Lives are being lost as a direct consequence.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban deserves a special mention in Europe, where he too has done all he can to delay European Union aid for Ukraine and ensure Russia prevails, dressing his stance in favor of Putin’s warmongering as a bid for peace. Less egregious, but also to blame for an inability to think and act strategically is Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who has provided significant help to Ukraine over time but has also consistently delayed the transfer of key equipment.

Delay matters in war because so much can change overnight. Like a central bank setting monetary policy, decisions on arms supplies and recruitment have to be made well in advance of when their impact on the front lines is needed. And here, Joe Biden’s and Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s administrations bear responsibility also. Biden and his advisers have drip-fed the types and quantities of arms Ukraine needs in such a way that it can survive but not end the war — even before Johnson blocked further aid. They’ve also been pressuring Ukraine not to strike at key Russian infrastructure, even as Russia fires on Ukraine’s from its territory.

Zelenskiy’s failure has been in summoning the political courage (no one can fault his personal bravery) required to mobilize more troops when the decision was needed last year. The result is that Ukraine now faces a severe manpower shortage at the front. Brigades are understrength, unable to replace dead and wounded or to rest soldiers who’ve been holding the line for as long as two years under a constant shower of Russian artillery fire now joined by high-powered glide bombs.

This darkening outlook can still be turned around. Johnson, after months of obstructionism, has promised to hold separate votes on aid to Israel, Taiwan and Ukraine as early as Friday. We’ll see what poison pills are inserted, as a package passed by the Senate in February is broken apart. Kyiv desperately needs all of the $60.6 billion that was in it, and more specifically the weapons and ammunition supplies that the cash should have released long ago.

On Tuesday, Ukraine’s Rada, or parliament, finally sent a much-amended bill on mobilization for Zelenskiy to sign, the success of which will depend in large part on whether potential recruits believe there will be weapons for them to use and ammunition to protect them. Despite not having a navy, Kyiv’s sea drones have won a significant battle against Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. The first F-16s should be be flying over Ukraine soon, and the Czech Republic has organized an admirable campaign to secure 800,000 shells for its artillery.

Two of the best Western analysts of the war in Ukraine, Michael Kofman, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, and Rob Lee, of Philadelphia’s Foreign Policy Research Institute, recently returned from a trip to Ukraine with the following bottom lines: They found the situation grim, but not yet catastrophic. The Russians have solved their manpower issues and are adapting, they said, but are still losing three times as many personnel and far more equipment than Ukraine to make only slow gains, despite all their advantages in troop numbers and fire power. To prevent a breakthrough, Ukraine must restore manpower, build defenses and secure ammunition supplies.

“I do think Ukraine can hold if those things are addressed,” Lee said in their post-trip podcast, adding that the officers and politicians they had spoken to were well aware of the task. At that point, they should define a strategy for winning that no longer includes the unlikely goal of retrieving all lost territories. “But again, it depends on key decisions being made, and the sooner the better.”

With a starting gun now fired on mobilization, the most important of these decisions will fall to Western leaders. Johnson, in particular, will bear a heavy and personal responsibility for the consequences, if Ukraine’s allies should fail or continue to procrastinate.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Marc Champion is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe, Russia and the Middle East. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal.
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