WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden has decided to finally complete the “pivot to Asia,” a long-sought adjustment in U.S. foreign policy to better reflect the rise of America’s most important military and economic competitor: China.
But Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has made this upsetting decision even more complicated. The Chinese government has wavered between full buy-in and more measured responses as Russian President Vladimir Putin continues his war, making decisions for Biden much more layered.
“It’s hard. It’s expensive,” Kurt Campbell, White House National Security Council coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, said at a recent forum on maintaining high-level American attention in two regions.” But it’s also essential, and I believe we’re entering a period where that’s what will be required of the United States and this generation of Americans.”
This forces the Biden administration to focus simultaneously on East and West, balancing not only economic imperatives, but also military imperatives.
The president has been deeply invested in rallying NATO and Western allies to respond to Russia with crippling sanctions, providing an overwhelmed Ukrainian military with $2 billion in military assistance — including $800 million in new aid announced on Wednesday – and dealing with a growing humanitarian crisis.
Allies on NATO’s eastern flank, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania, have made it clear to the Biden administration that they want the United States to increase its military presence in the region and do more to deal with the worst humanitarian crisis in Europe since the world war. II. More than 3 million Ukrainian refugees have fled their country in recent weeks.
Although the war in Ukraine has dominated Biden’s attention lately, White House officials insist they haven’t lost sight of China – and are watching closely to see how Xi Jinping decides to play his hand.
In recent months, Biden announced the sale of nuclear submarines to Australia and raised the profile of the Indo-Pacific security dialogue known as the Quad (Australia, India, Japan and United States). He also called out China for its military provocations against Taiwan, its human rights abuses against ethnic minorities and its efforts to stifle democracy advocates in Hong Kong.
Biden’s national security team was somewhat surprised that the Pacific partners – Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea – moved so quickly to hit Russia with sanctions after the invasion, according to a US official familiar with the administration’s thinking.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak in private discussions, said the Pacific allies recognize that Beijing is watching how the world reacts to Russia while China calculates how aggressive it can be with its smaller neighbors in the region. By supporting the sanctions, Pacific countries were trying to send a message to Xi as well as Putin, the official added.
From the earliest days of his presidency, Biden has said his China policy goals were to find ways to cooperate with Beijing on issues of mutual concern — such as preventing North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and persuading Tehran to return to the Iran nuclear deal with the United States, China, Russia and other world powers – and to avoid confrontation.
To that end, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Senior Chinese Foreign Policy Advisor Yang Jiechi met earlier this week for an intense seven-hour conversation about the Russian invasion and other questions. They spent some of their time together discussing North Korea’s recent intercontinental missile tests.
However, Beijing’s approach to the Russian invasion worries Washington. The White House has made it clear to Beijing that throwing a lifeline to Russia’s collapsing economy or aiding its battered military would be dangerous for a country that sees itself as the world’s next great power. The White House has not publicly specified what action it would take if China came to Russia’s aid.
“We don’t need China to be with us. We just need them not to be against us,” said Frank Jannuzzi, president of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, which focuses on US-Asian relations.
Xi and Putin met in early February, weeks before the invasion, with the Russian leader traveling to Beijing for the start of the Winter Olympics. During Putin’s visit, the two leaders issued a 5,000-word statement declaring unlimited “friendship”.
In the days following Putin’s invasion order, Xi’s government tried to distance itself from the Russian offensive, but avoided criticizing Moscow. The government offered to act as a mediator and denounced trade and financial sanctions against Russia.
At other times, Beijing’s actions have been provocative.
Last week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian echoed unsubstantiated Russian claims that there were 26 bio-laboratories and related facilities in Ukraine that “the US Department of Defense has absolute control”. The UN said it had not received any information supporting such accusations.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki took to Twitter to accuse the Russian request of being “absurd” and could be part of an attempt by Russia to lay the groundwork for its own use of such weapons of mass destruction against Ukraine. She also blamed China for “apparently approving this propaganda”.
Xi’s government has also sought to use the conflict to accentuate China’s ascendancy and the West’s decline.
But China has its own internal problems, including a major economic slowdown, difficulties that sanctions against Russia could aggravate.
“The war in Ukraine unfolded in a way that China did not expect, and the war is not conducive to China’s rise or development,” said Xiong Zhiyong, a relations professor. studies at China Foreign Affairs University.
Still, fears that China could come to Russia’s aid have only deepened in the White House in recent days.
On the same day of the Sullivan-Yang meeting, the United States informed Asian and European allies that American intelligence had determined that China had signaled to Russia that it would be willing to provide both military support to the campaign in Ukraine and financial support to help with the impact of harsh sanctions imposed by the West.
White House officials said Sullivan made it clear there would be “serious” consequences if China helped Russia.
Ryan Hass, who served as the NSC’s director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia during the Obama administration, said Beijing faced a “crucial decision” on whether to help Russia.
If Xi decides to do so, “it’s hard for me to see how the path remains open for China to maintain non-hostile relations with the United States and others in the West,” Hass said.
At the White House, Psaki said any country doing business with Russia should “think about where you want to be when the history books are written at this very moment.”
Associated Press researcher Yu Bing contributed to this report from Beijing.
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