Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 1 May 2024

THE MAN WHO OUGHT TO BE THE NEXT US PRESIDENT: MATTHEW POTTINGER 

China Has Crossed Biden’s Red Line on Ukraine

Antony Blinken meets with Xi Jinping in Beijing, April 26. Photo: mark schiefelbein/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

President Biden warned China two years ago not to provide “material support” for Russia’s war in Ukraine. On Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken conceded that Xi Jinping ignored that warning. China, Mr. Blinken said, was “overwhelmingly the No. 1 supplier” of Russia’s military industrial base, with the “material effect” of having fundamentally changed the course of the war. Whatever Mr. Biden chooses to do next will be momentous for global security and stability.

Mr. Biden can either enforce his red line through sanctions or other means, or he can signal a collapse of American resolve by applying merely symbolic penalties. Beijing and its strategic partners in Moscow, Tehran, Pyongyang and Caracas would surely interpret half-hearted enforcement as a green light to deepen their campaign of global chaos. Mr. Xi sees a historic opportunity here to undermine the West.

This is a moment akin to President Obama’s 2013 red-line failure in Syria. When dictator Bashar al-Assad defied Mr. Obama’s warning not to use chemical weapons on his people, the president abstained from military action, and the consequences were dire. Six months later Moscow launched its 2014 invasion of Crimea—the beginning of the now-decadelong Ukraine War. A failure to act decisively against China now would open a path for Russian victory in Ukraine.

Mr. Biden drew his red line on March 18, 2022, three weeks after Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. “I made no threats,” Mr. Biden said after a video call with Mr. Xi that day. But Mr. Biden said he made sure the Chinese president understood he would “be putting himself in significant jeopardy” and risking China’s economic ties with the U.S. and Europe if he materially supported Russia’s war.

Mr. Biden’s cabinet reinforced his ultimatum with specific warnings. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo warned that the administration could “essentially shut” China’s biggest chip maker, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp., in response to its chips being used by the Russian military. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen threatened financial sanctions. She followed up with a pledge late last year “to take decisive, and surgical, action against financial institutions that facilitate the supply of Russia’s war machine.”

Trade data suggest Beijing was careful to avoid overtly crossing the red line in 2022. But in 2023, when the Biden administration applied only token sanctions on Iranian entities that provided thousands of kamikaze drones to the Russians—drones that have saturated Ukrainian air defenses and caused widespread carnage—the Chinese probably decided that Mr. Biden’s bluster was a bluff. In March 2023, Mr. Xi visited the Kremlin in a bold show of solidarity with Mr. Putin. It turned out to be a watershed in Moscow’s war, effectively turning the conflict into a Chinese proxy war with the West.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies found that Chinese support for Russia’s military manufacturing skyrocketed beginning in early 2023. Mr. Blinken specifically mentioned to his Chinese counterparts “machine tools, microelectronics, nitrocellulose—which is critical to making munitions and rocket propellants—and other dual-use items that Moscow is using to ramp up its defense industrial base.” News reports over the past year also point to China’s provision of military vehicles, drones, bulletproof vests, gunpowder and satellite imagery.

Fracturing the West through proxy wars in Europe and the Middle East fits neatly within Mr. Xi’s exhortation to his bureaucracy to seek opportunity in international turmoil. “The most important characteristic of the world is, in a word, ‘chaos,’ and this trend appears likely to continue,” Mr. Xi told a seminar of Chinese Communist Party leaders in January 2021. “The times and trends are on our side.” As Mr. Xi departed a Kremlin meeting in March 2023, he went further, effectively declaring himself and Mr. Putin agents of chaos. “Right now there are changes, the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years,” he said. “And we are the ones driving these changes together.”

As the Biden team contemplates the potential costs of imposing sanctions on major Chinese banks and other systemically important companies, it must also weigh the costs of failing to do so. China’s leaders are vulnerable to meaningful sanctions. In late 2017, the Trump administration quietly but firmly threatened to impose sanctions on China’s main energy producer after Beijing resisted U.S. requests to restrict oil exports to North Korea. China knew the threat was credible and quickly agreed to co-sponsor an unprecedented United Nations Security Council resolution capping exports.

Today, that credibility is looking threadbare. Beijing’s official statements after the Blinken visit made no mention of the American complaint, and a Chinese Foreign Ministry official said flatly: “The Ukraine issue is not an issue between China and the United States. The U.S. side should not turn it into one.”

Worse, there are signs Beijing and its axis of chaos, which includes Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, is planning the next phase of violent disruption. Beijing welcomed a delegation from Hamas on the same day Mr. Blinken left China—a fact Chinese officials kept from the American delegation. More ominously, Mr. Xi dispatched one of his most trusted aides, former spy agency chief and current Politburo member Chen Wenqing, to Moscow for a nine-day visit. The purpose of the trip was to tighten intelligence and security cooperation and pave the way for Mr. Putin’s visit to Beijing next month.

In a telling essay this month in the Chinese Communist Party’s top ideological and policy journal, Chen Yixin—the current head of China’s premier spy agency—promoted the idea of waging “struggle” far beyond China’s borders. Mr. Chen’s essay in the magazine Qiushi included a line that may as well serve as the informal slogan of the axis of chaos: “Seek advantages and avoid disadvantages in chaos.”

Mr. Pottinger served as deputy national security adviser, 2019-21. He chairs the China program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and is author of “The Boiling Moat: Urgent Steps to Defend Taiwan,” forthcoming in July.

Wonder Land: Joe Biden and Donald Trump know the details of the nation’s security threat. Does either have a plan to meet it? Images: AP/Reuters Composite: Mark Kelly

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Appeared in the May 1, 2024, print edition as 'China Has Crossed Biden’s Red Line on Ukraine'.

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