Wednesday, Feb 21, 2024

Ukraine War Deepens U.S.-China Crisis

Last week, on the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China issued a 12-point document that it claims could serve as a blueprint for peace talks to end the war in Ukraine. But in fact, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s proposal for a “political settlement of the Ukraine crisis,” was little more than a vague restatement of the consistently pro-Russian positions that China has taken since the war began.

It encouraged the start of a dialogue between Russia and Ukraine “so as to gradually de-escalate the situation and ultimately reach a comprehensive cease-fire,” but it lacked a number of essential ingredients for any viable peace plan. It did not suggest any specific territorial settlement for ending the war, nor a timetable for starting the peace talks. The document also made the claim that China “stands ready to provide assistance and play a constructive role” in promoting post-conflict reconstruction, again, without offering any specific details.

What it did include was a call for a cease-fire in place which would enable Russia to keep the territorial gains it has made in Ukraine since starting the war one year ago, as well as its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. Such a cease-fire is unacceptable to Ukraine and its allies because it would effectively reward Russian president Vladimir Putin for his shameless act of aggression by ordering his army to invade Ukraine.

Michael Auslin, a historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, dismissed the Chinese peace proposal as “a content-free diplomatic position to take. It says everything and commits to nothing.”

While the Chinese document endorsed the principles of respecting the sovereignty of all nations and protecting civilians during war, it ignored the fact that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its deliberate targeting of Ukrainian civilian population centers has violated both of those principles.

The Chinese proposal was released a day after the United Nations General Assembly voted by a 141 to 7 margin to approve a non-binding resolution, which called upon Russia to immediately withdraw from Ukrainian territory, despite strong opposition from Russia and an abstention by China.

CHINA BLAMES U.S. AND NATO FOR PROVOKING PUTIN

The Chinese proposal also blamed the war upon the U.S. and its allies, without mentioning them by name. It called upon them to “abandon the Cold War mentality” and “stop unilateral sanctions,” against Russia. It also suggested that the U.S. and NATO were backing Ukraine to bolster their “own security at the cost of others’ [Russia’s] security” which is one of the arguments that Russian President Vladimir Putin used to justify the invasion.

China had previously accused the U.S. and its NATO partners of provoking the invasion of Ukraine through its efforts to support the democratically elected pro-Western government in Kiev, which Russian President Vladimir Putin sees as a threat to Russian security and its traditional Eastern European sphere of influence.

Last week, China accused the U.S. of prolonging the Ukraine conflict in order to profit from the war by flooding other countries with American-made weapons. “American military enterprises have made a lot of money from the war in Ukraine,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters.

Western officials have reacted to China’s peace plan with great skepticism. China’s refusal to publicly condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine while continuing to provide Russia with significant financial and technical assistance has fatally undermined China’s efforts to portray itself as a neutral third party capable of mediating a fair agreement to end the war.

ECHOES OF A 1939 SOVIET-NAZI PACT

Supporters of Ukraine’s independence also recall that during the days leading up to the invasion of Ukraine, Putin and China’s President Xi met to make a public pledge of mutual support and declared a “no limits” partnership between Russia and China. Their statement recalled the notorious 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, which cleared the way for the German invasion of Poland one week later, starting World War II in Europe.

China had previously maintained cordial relations with Ukraine, as evidenced by a friendly phone call between President Xi and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to mark 30 years of productive contact between the two nations, just weeks before Russian troops invaded Ukraine. But since then, Xi has not spoken with Zelensky.

By contrast, the Chinese leader has maintained frequent and friendly relations with Putin through video calls and face-to-face contact. According to the Wall Street Journal, plans are now being made for Xi to visit Russia for a summit meeting with Putin, most probably in April or May.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has said publicly that it has credible intelligence showing that China is seriously considering supplying weapons to help Russia fight the war in Ukraine.

During a meeting on the sidelines of the annual Munich security conference two weeks ago, Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a clear warning to China’s most senior foreign policy official, Wang Yi, against China providing arms and ammunition to help Russia in its war with Ukraine.

“The concern that we have now is, based on information we have, that they’re considering providing lethal support to Russia in its efforts in Ukraine,” Blinken said in a CBS interview shortly after he met with Wang in Munich. “And I was able to share with him, as President Biden had shared with President Xi, the serious consequences that would have for our relationship.”

CHINA UNDERMINING SANCTIONS ON RUSSIA

Blinken also urged China to stop helping Russia to evade the impact of Western sanctions by buying large quantities of Russian oil at a deep discount from current world oil market prices.

The U.S. says that China has also been providing Russia with important technical. support. According to a Wall Street Journal report, customs records show that Chinese state-owned defense companies have been shipping militarily useful navigation equipment, jamming technology, and jet-fighter parts to Russian government-owned defense companies that are under U.S.-sanctions.

Last week, China also angrily rejected the U.S. allegation that China may be about to send arms to Russia and tried to turn the accusation around. “It’s the U.S. side, not the Chinese side, that’s providing an endless flow of weapons,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said at a press briefing. “The U.S. side isn’t qualified to point fingers at China or order China around, and we never accept the U.S. criticizing Sino-Russian relations.”

Over the weekend, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan and CIA Director William Burns repeated the U.S. warning to China against arming Russia in separate interviews.

Sullivan told CNN that the White House will continue to send “a strong message” to Beijing against giving military aid to Moscow “when they are using their weapons to bombard cities, kill civilians and commit atrocities.”

Such a move “would be a bad mistake, and China should want no part of it,” Sullivan warned. But he added that “at present, China has not moved forward, as far as we can discern. We have not seen them do it.”

CIA director Burns told CBS News that there is U.S. intelligence “suggesting” China is “considering” giving Russia lethal military equipment, but then added, “We also don’t see that a final decision has been made yet, and we don’t see evidence of actual shipments of lethal equipment.”

INVASION OF UKRAINE COULD LEAD TO A CHINESE INVASION OF TAIWAN

Meanwhile, Republican Congressman Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview with ABC News that intelligence reports suggesting that China may be considering sending 100 drones to Russia were “very disturbing” because it indicates China’s hostile intentions, especially with regard to Taiwan, which China’s leaders regard as a renegade province under U.S. military protection. “While it may be Ukraine today,” McCaul warned, “it’s going to be Taiwan tomorrow.”

If China does start arming Russia, it would be widely viewed as an explicit demonstration of China’s hostile intentions toward the U.S. and its allies. Such an open challenge would require an equally firm U.S. response, exacerbating the current rift in the U.S.-China relationship.

The most obvious first move for the U.S. would be the imposition of additional sanctions on American imports from China. Maia Nikoladze, the assistant director of the GeoEconomics Center at the Atlantic Council, notes that sanctions are likely to be more effective at deterring China than they have been against Russia because “China is a lot more intertwined with the world economy than Russia is.”

In an interview last week with the Atlantic magazine, Secretary of State Blinken said, “I’m hopeful but in a very clear-eyed way that China will get that message, because it’s not only coming from us, it’s coming from many other countries who do not want to see China aiding and abetting in a material way Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.”

Sergey Radchenko, an international-relations professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said that “Chinese military support [for Russia] would of course be a serious game-changer in the [Ukraine] conflict…

“The message [to the West] here would be that if we miss the opportunity to freeze things now, China’s potential support for Russia will make the war much more costly down the road, with potentially dire consequences for Ukraine and for regional stability.”

LONG WAR INCREASES THE RISK OF ESCALATION

Another danger is that the longer the war in Ukraine drags on, with the U.S. and its allies supplying Ukraine with steadily more sophisticated and deadly weapons, the greater the risk of a disastrous escalation that could put Russia in direct conflict with NATO.

Chinese-U.S. relations have been severely strained since last August when then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi paid a widely publicized visit to Taiwan despite strenuous objections from the communist government in Beijing. China reacted by sending warplanes and warships and firing missiles around the island in exercises meant to register protest and display the military capabilities the mainland government might use to stage a temporary blockade of the island.

Last February 24, prior to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration tried to deter him by making public declassified intelligence on the Russian military buildup. But that did not work. Putin went ahead with the invasion.

It now appears that the Biden administration is trying the same strategy to deter China from providing Russia with the additional weapons and ammunition it needs to mount a new offensive in Ukraine which may already be underway.

In January, the United States imposed sanctions on a Chinese company called Spacety China for giving satellite imagery of the Ukrainian battlefield to the Wagner group, the Kremlin-affiliated mercenary force that is spearheading the Russian attacks in Ukraine, especially around the embattled city of Bakhmut.

Meanwhile, both American and Chinese officials stressed that their governments do not want to start a new Cold War, referring to the 45-year period following the end of World War II when the Soviet Union and Communist China engaged in a series of bloody proxy wars with the U.S. and its allies, in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan.

BLINKEN VISIT TO CHINA WAS SCUTTLED BY THE SPY BALLOON

Blinken had been scheduled to visit China to begin the process of mending diplomatic fences at the start of February, but his trip was canceled due to the controversy created by the discovery that a Chinese spy balloon with sophisticated surveillance equipment had violated American airspace by overflying several extremely sensitive U.S. military nuclear installations. The balloon, which was under the control of the Chinese military, was shot down on February 4, in the shallow waters off the coast of South Carolina, on President Biden’s orders.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the cancellation of Blinken’s visit to China was a serious setback to U.S.-China relations. “Political fallout from the balloon incident is dashing expectations for a Biden-Xi summit soon.” the newspaper reported. “Some Chinese officials had hoped that Blinken’s planned visit could pave the way for a leaders’ summit even before an annual meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders in San Francisco in November.”

When Blinken met with Chinese diplomat Wang at the Munich security meeting last month, he strongly rebuked China for sending a spy balloon to inspect U.S. territory without permission.

Blinken said that he was disappointed that Wang had offered him no apology from China for the incursion of its spy balloon. “This was an opportunity to speak very clearly and very directly about the fact that China sent a surveillance balloon over our territory, violating our sovereignty, violating international law. And I told him quite simply that that was unacceptable and can never happen again.”

BLINKEN’S WARNINGS TO CHINA

During the Munich conference, Blinken told a panel discussion on Ukraine, “We’ve made clear to our Chinese counterparts…that we would view any provision of military assistance [to Russia] or evading sanctions as a very serious problem.”

Vice President, Kamala Harris, in her speech to the Munch conference, also warned China against providing lethal equipment to Russia, which she said has been committing crimes against humanity in its attacks on Ukrainian civilians.

According to a State Department spokesman, during their conversation at the Munich conference, Secretary Blinken expressed his “deepening concern” to Wang over China’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, and that he had a “candid [read: hostile] exchange” with the Chinese diplomat over Taiwan.

Blinken repeated the public warning to China against supplying arms to Russia last week. In a CBS News interview, he said, “The concern that we have now is, based on information we have, that they’re considering providing lethal support, and we’ve made very clear to them that that would cause a serious problem for us and in our relationship.”

President Biden had previously said at a news conference that because it appears that the three other flying objects that had been shot down likely were not linked to China’s spy balloon program, he is still willing to remain in communication with China’s President Xi.

U.S.-CHINA TENSIONS INCREASING OVER TAIWAN

Nevertheless, U.S.-China relations have continued to deteriorate, not only due to China’s continued support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but also with regard to the increased level of Chinese military activity threatening Taiwan.

Following an intensive Chinese military buildup in recent years, China’s People’s Liberation Army has increased its aggressive maneuvers, sending warplanes and ships near Taiwan, and challenging the U.S. right to operate its warplanes and naval vessels in the international waters off Taiwan.

U.S. PUSHING A “PORCUPINE” STRATEGY FOR TAIWAN

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, the Pentagon has redoubled its efforts to get Taiwan to adopt a so-called “porcupine” strategy, focusing on tactics and weapons systems that would make the island harder for Beijing’s military to assault.

The U.S. has militarily supported the independence of Taiwan since the communists gained control of mainland China in 1949. Since 1979, the U.S. has maintained a deliberately vague position on the status of Taiwan after adopting the so-called “One China Policy,” which formally recognizes the communist government in Beijing as the sole legitimate government of both China and Taiwan. The Beijing government has vowed to take control of the island, by force if necessary, while the Biden administration remains committed under U.S. law to assist Taiwan in maintaining its defenses and its de facto independence from the Beijing government.

The government in Beijing has been very upset with the increased level of U.S.-Taiwan coordination on defense. It also objects to the continued limited U.S. arms shipments to Taiwan, including mostly small anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, such as Stingers and Javelins. Beijing sees these moves as a violation of previous U.S. commitments to maintain only unofficial relations with the Taiwanese government.

U.S. defense and intelligence officials have said that the Beijing government has been preparing its military to attack and take control of Taiwan by 2027. However, some military experts believe that mainland China could attack far sooner than that, especially if its leaders become convinced that the U.S. government will not honor its defense commitment to the island. As a result, the depth of the U.S. resolve to support Ukraine is being very closely watched by China, Taiwan, and the other countries in the region which feel threatened by China’s increasingly belligerent military moves in the South China Sea.

U.S. SENDING MORE MILITARY TRAINERS TO TAIWAN

Last week, the Biden administration announced plans to send up to 200 additional U.S. troops, including Marines and special-forces personnel, to Taiwan to expand an ongoing military training program. The goal is to provide the democratic government of Taiwan with the capabilities it needs to defend itself from an invasion by the mainland Chinese communist government, which considers Taiwan to be a renegade province. The Pentagon had previously taken pains not to publicize the training program in order to avoid further provoking the Beijing government. The additional U.S. troops will train Taiwan troops not only on the proper use of U.S. weapons systems but also on military maneuvers designed to help Taiwan protect itself against an attack or invasion from mainland China.

The Michigan National Guard is also currently training a contingent of the Taiwanese military during annual exercises with multiple countries at Camp Grayling in northern Michigan.

The Biden White House, the Pentagon, and Taiwan’s office in Washington, DC were all reluctant to comment on the additional American military trainers being sent to Taiwan.

A Pentagon spokesman said, “We don’t have a comment on specific operations, engagements, or training, but I would highlight that our support for, and defense relationship with, Taiwan remains aligned against the current threat posed by the People’s Republic of China. Our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid and contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and within the region.”

A spokesman for the Washington office of Taiwan would only say that “For decades, Taiwan and the United States have coordinated closely on matters pertaining to defense and maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait.”

Taiwan’s foreign minister and National Security Council chief also held high-level meetings with Biden administration officials last week, which prompted another warning from the Chinese foreign ministry in Beijing.

CONFRONTATIONS IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA

Meanwhile, NBC News reported that a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane recently flying over the South China Sea received an ominous radio warning from the Chinese air force, which then scrambled a jet to track the U.S. aircraft.

“No approaching anymore or you will pay full responsibility,” a voice from a Chinese air force ground station told a U.S. Navy P-8 flying outside of Chinese airspace over the South China Sea, NBC News reported.

The incident reflected the growing number of hostile encounters between the U.S. and its regional allies and China in the South China Sea. The Philippines and Taiwan expressed alarm last week after detecting the menacing presence of Chinese vessels and aircraft near their coastlines in the South China Sea. Taiwan detected 37 Chinese warplanes, including bombers, fighters, and refueling tankers, and 6 naval vessels in its vicinity. A Philippine Coast Guard patrol plane spotted at least 26 Chinese “maritime militia vessels” during a flyover. Reporters aboard the Philippine aircraft said that they heard warnings from a Chinese military air traffic controller that the plane was “entering the vicinity of Chinese territory” and was requested to leave the area.

Craig Singleton, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Fox News, “These latest exercises are broadly consistent with the ‘new normal’ China established in the region after former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s travel to Taiwan last August, in which China now regularly conducts military maneuvers much closer to Taiwan’s shores.

“All told, China doubled its annual incursions into Taiwan’s air defense zone from 538 in 2021 to 1,241 in 2022,” Singleton continued. “Likewise, China intensified its cyber-attacks against Taiwanese governmental and financial institutions, and as well, launched disinformation campaigns aimed at subverting Taiwan’s political process.”

Tensions with China also increased after U.S. warplanes from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada held a joint 3-week training exercise with Britain and Australia to strengthen air defenses against Chinese aircraft, by giving the pilots from the three countries a chance to practice combat tactics against peer and near-peer opponents in the air.

UNEXPECTED CONSEQUENCES OF THE WAR IN UKRAINE

Many military analysts believe that China’s leaders were surprised, along with everyone else, that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine did not result in a quick Russian victory, which would have left the global balance of power between the U.S. and China and their respective allies roughly unchanged. China was not expecting the near collapse of the larger Russian forces in combat against the more poorly armed but much more strongly motivated Ukrainian troops.

Nor did China expect that the U.S. and its allies would be willing to bear the costs and risks of giving Ukraine enough arms and economic support to stay in the fight for so long.

One of the unexpected consequences of the extended war in Ukraine was that it required the U.S. and its allies to build up their own rate of weapons and ammunition production, just to replace Ukraine’s rapid expenditures on the battlefield without decimating their own essential military stockpiles.

As a result, if China does decide to invade Taiwan, it will confront a much better-supplied U.S. and NATO military, led by an American president who now sees the emerging China-Russia alliance as much more of a threat to both world peace and vital U.S. national security interests. At the same time, China will have to deal with the fact that Russia, its main military ally, has been severely weakened by the huge losses in manpower and equipment that it has suffered in Ukraine over the past year.

KEEPING LINES OF COMMUNICATION OPEN

It is vitally important, for the peace of the entire world, that the U.S. and its nuclear-armed adversaries, China and Russia, keep direct lines of communication between their leaders open at all times, and especially during periods of heightened tensions, in order to avoid the accidental start of a nuclear war.

After the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 came perilously close to unleashing a nuclear war, the United States and the Soviet Union established a direct hotline between their government leaders and senior military officials. It proved to be effective at reducing the risk that a miscalculation or a military accident would trigger an escalating crisis that could quickly spiral out of control, starting a war that neither side wanted.

Through experience, diplomacy, and regular communications, the governments in Moscow and Washington gradually came to a clear understanding on an unwritten set of rules for conducting the Cold War, including the red lines on each side that could not be crossed, for their respective military and intelligence activities.

A similar arrangement between the militaries of China and the United States does exist today to prevent potential clashes at sea or in the air in the Western Pacific, specifically in the vicinity of Taiwan, from leading to an inadvertent escalation. But sometimes the lines of communication between the U.S. military and its Chinese counterparts during times of crisis, such as Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last August, have not been reliable, leading to a dangerous escalation of tensions and mistrust on both sides.

That is why the State Department spokesman emphasized that during his meeting with Wang in Munich, Blinken had “underscored the importance of maintaining diplomatic dialogue and open lines of communication at all times.”

CHINA BLAMES THE U.S. FOR OVERREACTING

But the version of the meeting between Blinken and Wang in Munich as reported by China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency was openly hostile. It began by claiming that the “informal meeting” had been initiated “at the request of the U.S. side,” and that Wang had urged the U.S. to repair the damage done to the U.S.-China relationship caused by “the indiscriminate use of force,” in shooting down the Chinese military’s spy balloon after it had overflown most of the continental United States without giving advance notice or asking permission.

A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry has also responded by accusing the U.S. of sending at least 10 of its own surveillance balloons into Chinese airspace since last year. He said, “The United States should first reflect on itself and change course, rather than slander, discredit or incite confrontation [with China].”

U.S. officials were quick to reject the Chinese allegations as “false,” and said that the U.S. has evidence that Chinese spy balloons have also violated the sovereign airspace of over 40 different countries on five different continents.

CHINA IS NOT A NEUTRAL PARTY

While in Munich Wang tried to portray China as a neutral broker seeking to mediate an equitable peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine, but on the eve of the security conference, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry undermined that message by saying that, “China stands ready to work with Russia to further advance our comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era.”

As a result, the U.S. and its allies have rejected China’s effort to portray itself as a potential peacemaker in Ukraine. Shortly after the Munich meeting, NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg said, “China has not been able to condemn the invasion. . . China has not been able to say that this is an illegal war.” The NATO leader described the peace plan China has proposed as “quite vague,” and said that peace was only possible if Russia is willing to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.

If China does become an active supplier of weapons to Russia, then the war in Ukraine will follow the same Cold War pattern. China, Iran, and North Korea are backing the Russians against Ukraine, which enjoys generous military support from the U.S. and its NATO allies, as well as from Japan and South Korea.

Stoltenberg also said that the Chinese government was watching the war in Ukraine closely to see if Russia could get away with taking it by force, because China has been considering its own military options for gaining control over Taiwan.

When Wang was asked during the Munich conference for assurances that China was not planning a military escalation against Taiwan, he refused to give a direct answer. Instead, he replied, “I will briefly assure the audience that Taiwan is part of Chinese territory. It has never been a country and it will not be a country in the future. It is not China who wants to change the status quo but Taiwan’s separatist forces on the island.”

In his own address to the Munich conference, Wang condemned the U.S. for what he described as its “misperception and strategic misjudgment” of China. He also said, “We are advocating for peace talks. We are not sitting idly by, nor are we adding fuel to the fire.”

“We need to think calmly, especially our friends in Europe, about what efforts should be made to stop the warfare; what framework should there be to bring lasting peace to Europe; what role should Europe play to manifest its strategic autonomy.” But Wang’s last comment was seen as part of a larger effort by China to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its European allies on the issue of continued military support for Ukraine.

NO PEACE TALKS IN SIGHT

Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, welcomed any effort by China to use its influence with Moscow to bring an end to the war in Ukraine. She told reporters that she had “talked intensively” with Wang at the Munich conference about “what a just peace means: not rewarding the attacker, the aggressor, but standing up for international law and for those who have been attacked.”

“A just peace,” Baerbock added, “presupposes that the party that has violated territorial integrity — meaning Russia — withdraws its troops from the occupied country.”

In their speeches at the Munich conference, both German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and French President Emmanuel Macron said that there is no apparent support for peace talks at this time, and that the NATO allies must be prepared to continue their military support for Ukraine for the foreseeable future.

A FAILURE BY THE WHITE HOUSE TO COMMUNICATE

Meanwhile, Americans have been understandably puzzled and concerned by the incursions of the Chinese spy balloon deep into U.S. airspace, and the Biden administration’s failure to take clear and decisive action in response to the deliberately provocative Chinese action.

Both Democrats and Republicans have been highly critical of the Pentagon’s initial refusal to say anything to the public about the Chinese spy balloon until after it was spotted in the sky, photographed, and reported on social media by a civilian in Montana.

The fact that other Chinese spy balloons had been penetrating U.S. airspace for some time without being detected or recognized by America’s early warning radar systems in Alaska also raises troubling questions about the reliability of this country’s air defenses.

Nor was it comforting to belatedly learn from U.S. officials that another Chinese spy balloon crashed into the Pacific off the coast of Hawaii four months ago, and that yet another had overflown portions of Texas and Florida during the Trump administration, despite former president Trump’s vehement denials in a Fox News interview that such a thing had happened when he was the U.S. commander-in-chief.

Three weeks after the first object was detected, the continued inability of the U.S. and Canadian militaries to more definitively identify the source, nature, and mission of the three other high-flying objects which were shot down is also deeply unsettling for many Americans.

IF BIDEN HAD NOTHING TO SAY, HE SHOULDN’T HAVE SAID IT

Biden’s longtime political ally, Delaware Senator Chris Coons, had told reporters that he did not think that it would be wise for Biden to talk to the American people about those objects until he had gotten more “clarity” about them. “I wouldn’t just stand up and give a speech to the nation saying ‘We don’t yet know the answer to all these questions,’ because I don’t think that would reassure anybody.”

But Biden didn’t take that good advice. At a press conference president said that the U.S. military has now adjusted its radar filters to enable them able to spot more slow, high-flying objects. His brief speech, filled with technical talk, included very little useful information for the American people.

Even worse, from the public’s point of view, the president didn’t answer any questions from reporters after reading his prepared remarks. As an occasion to demonstrate the transparency that the Biden administration has so often promised, the press conference was clearly a missed opportunity.

ANOTHER MISSED OPPORTUNITY TO REASSURE THE PEOPLE

Biden missed another opportunity to reassure the American people about these incidents in his State of the Union address, in which he mentioned the Chinese spy balloon only in passing. “I am committed to working with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world,” Biden said. “But make no mistake: As we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.”

But that statement raised a troubling question. Wouldn’t the country have been much better protected if Biden had ordered the Chinese spy balloon to be shot down before it had a chance to inspect our most sensitive military installations?

At a press conference two weeks ago, Biden said that the U.S. military is still unsure what the last three unidentified flying objects shot down were, but that they were “were most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions studying weather or conducting other scientific research.”

“We don’t yet know exactly what these three objects were,” Biden admitted. “But nothing right now suggests they were related to China’s spy balloon program or that they were surveillance vehicles from other any other country.” However, because none of the debris from the other three objects was recovered, their harmless nature was never confirmed, whereas the wreckage from the Chinese balloon which the U.S. recovered from the ocean floor confirmed that it was intended to spy on U.S. military facilities.

At that press conference, Biden congratulated himself on the handling of the Chinese spy balloon. “We shot it down, sending a clear message: the violation of our sovereignty is unacceptable. We will act to protect our country and we did.” He also bragged that if “any object presents a threat to the safety and security of the American people, I will take it down.”

BIDEN HAS RAISED MORE QUESTIONS THAN HE ANSWERED

But that statement just reinforces the question of why he allowed the highly sophisticated Chinese spy balloon, which obviously was “a threat to the safety and security of the American people,” to conduct surveillance of sensitive U.S. military bases for more than a week after it was first detected over Alaska.

He allowed the balloon to linger over Malmstrom Air Force Base, which houses about a third of America’s land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. The balloon then was allowed to fly near both the F. E. Warren and Minot Air Force bases, which are the sites of the remainder of America’s Minutemen III ICBM nuclear-tipped missiles. The balloon also passed close to Whiteman Air Force Base, home to America’s B-2 stealth nuclear bomber fleet, and Offutt Air Force Base, the headquarters of Strategic Command, which controls U.S. nuclear weapons.

CHINA’S HOSTILE INTENTIONS

This suggests that China’s leaders sent the balloon to gather intelligence in preparation for either a first or second strike on a major part of America’s nuclear deterrent. Because the huge balloon was so easy to spot by civilians on the ground, it was also a deliberate provocation meant to terrify the American people and test the resolve of President Biden to defend this country’s sovereign territory. Perhaps China’s President Xi did it to intimidate the Biden administration into not moving too quickly to protect Taiwan in the event of a long-threatened invasion from the mainland.

For the past several years, Xi has been openly preparing China for a military as well as an economic confrontation with the United States. China has developed its own J-20 stealth aircraft, hypersonic missiles, and aircraft carriers, as well as anti-ship precision-guided cruise missiles with enough range to be launched from the Chinese mainland to attack the aircraft carriers of the U.S. Navy, cruising up to 1,000 miles from China’s coast.

The U.S. Air Force has also been forced to re-deploy many of its military aircraft in the region from a few large, centralized air bases to many smaller and more widely dispersed airfields, due to the increased threat of an attack by China using its growing arsenal of precision-guided missiles.

CHINA INTIMIDATING ITS NEIGHBORS

China has also been making provocative territorial moves by building three major military bases on artificially enlarged coral atoll islands in the South China Sea, that have also been claimed by neighboring countries. In addition to Taiwan, which has, for more than 70 years, been the Beijing government’s prime military takeover target, China’s rapid military buildup has forced all of its U.S.-allied regional neighbors, including Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, as well as Australia, to respond in kind.

In December, Japan announced that it will nearly double its defense budget over the next five years. It intends to use the money to buy U.S.-made Tomahawk cruise missiles and develop its own counterstrike missile capability. It also announced in December that it will partner with Britain and Italy to design and build its own next-generation fighter plane, called the Mitsubishi F-X, for deployment by 2035, instead of buying F-35 stealth jets from the United States.

Japan has had an ongoing dispute with China over which country has ownership of the Senkaku Islands, which Japan currently administers. Last August, as part of its military response to Speaker Pelosi’s visit, China fired ballistic missiles over Taiwan that landed in the waters of Japan.

In an interview, the press secretary for Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida cited “the increasingly severe and complex security challenges in the region, which are posed by North Korea, China, and Russia,” and then added, “given the security landscape in Asia, we are obliged to respond by building up our defenses. . . [and] improve our deterrence capabilities.”

ALIENATING AUSTRALIA

Australia is currently in the process of acquiring its nuclear-powered submarines with the help of the United States and Britain, including the deployment of U.S. nuclear submarines in Australia in order to help the Australian navy train the crews of its new submarines. China’s foreign ministry denounced that arrangement as a violation of international nuclear non-proliferation agreements, and accused the U.S., Britain, and Australia of forming an “Anglo-Saxon clique” whose goal is to try to contain China.

Up until recently, Australia was a major supplier of raw materials for the Chinese economy, but when the Australian prime minister called for a global inquiry into the possibility that the Covid-19 virus originated in a Chinese laboratory, China retaliated by imposing stiff tariffs on imports of Australian coal, wine, and other goods.

The Philippines has just decided to allow U.S. troops to access four additional military sites in the country, including some on the island of Luzon, which is just a couple of hundred miles south of Taiwan.

TAIWAN IS CHINA’S MAIN TARGET

Taiwan itself is also increasing its preparedness against the threat of an invasion from the mainland by extending compulsory military service for recruits from four months to one year. For decades, the U.S. has been updating Taiwan’s defenses by providing it with fighter jets, warships, and tanks, over the vigorous objections of the Chinese government.

Retired Admiral Lee Hsi-Mug, who served as Taiwan’s top military leader from 2017-2019, has said that in addition to more defensive weapons to ward off the threat of invasion, what Taiwan now needs most is a clear demonstration of intent from the Biden White House about its readiness to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack from the mainland.

Even though President Biden has publicly affirmed several times that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if attacked, the official U.S. policy remains one of “strategic ambiguity,” designed to keep the Chinese government guessing about whether the U.S. would militarily intervene in response to an all-out invasion.

“You need to show China that preparations [to repel such an invasion of Taiwan] are taking place. It can’t just be empty talk,” Admiral Lee emphasized.

General Kenneth Wilsbach, commander of the U.S. Air Forces in the Pacific, agrees with Admiral Lee. He told the Washington Post that “the stronger Taiwan is all the way around, the higher the deterrent value that is, and the greater the chance we have that China will decide that now is not the time [to invade].”

TAIWAN GROWING IMPATIENT WAITING FOR U.S. ARMS

The escalating demands on the U.S. military’s inventory of weapons and ammunition due to the need to help Ukraine fend off the Russian invasion has interfered with the ongoing attempts by the U.S. to strengthen Taiwan’s defenses. “Look at how we have been trying to buy F-16s for five or six years but we still don’t have them,” Admiral Lee pointed out.

Tired of waiting for the U.S. to deliver the warplanes, Lee is now calling instead for a revised set of military purchases by Taiwan which answers the question, “What can we do to immediately deter China and defend ourselves? That’s where we need to be investing.”

Meanwhile, other countries in the region, such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, are being careful to avoid being seen by China as too closely aligned with the United States, because they do not want to become collateral damage in a confrontation between the two superpowers, or be forced to choose sides between them.

South Korea has also tried to avoid getting caught in a crossfire between China and the United States, but it continues to host a permanent deployment of 28,000 U.S. troops near the 38th parallel border in order to deter North Korea from launching another invasion like the one in 1950 which started the Korean War.

India, which will soon surpass China as the country with the largest population in the world, has come to view China as its principal regional adversary as the result of several years of violent border clashes with Chinese troops. India has therefore become more willing to cooperate with the United States in its military exercises and by sharing defense technologies.

Last May President Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a strategic partnership to encourage their domestic industries to jointly develop artificial intelligence, jet engines, and semiconductors. But India has avoided becoming part of any U.S.-led multilateral security arrangement in the region that could be seen as a threat to China, or in joining in any sanctions against Russia due to its invasion of Ukraine.

CHINA CHALLENGING THE U.S. IN THE WESTERN PACIFIC

China has also been making a major effort to directly challenge the American military’s domination of the Western Pacific since the end of World War II. Last March, the commander of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific, Admiral John Aquilino, told the Associated Press that “Over the past 20 years we’ve witnessed the largest military buildup since World War II by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). They have advanced all their capabilities and that buildup of weaponization is destabilizing to the region.”

Admiral Aquilino added, “The function of those [militarily built-up] islands is to expand the offensive capability of the PRC beyond their continental shores,” he said. “They can fly fighters, bombers plus all those offensive capabilities of missile systems.”

In a more recent interview with the Washington Post, Admiral Aquilino said with regard to China’s military buildup, “The current environment is probably the most dangerous I’ve seen in 30 years.”

He also said that the increased threat from China has forced nations in the area to “operate in ways they haven’t operated before.”

For example, there was a six-nation military exercise in the Philippine Sea carried out in October which involved aircraft carriers from the U.S. and Britain, as well as Japanese and Dutch destroyers synchronizing with aircraft and undersea maneuvers.

Last summer, Admiral Aquilino’s command carried out the largest-ever maritime exercise off the Hawaiian Islands and Southern California. It involved the militaries of 26 nations from as far away as Chile, including several dozen ships, three submarines, 170 aircraft, and more than 25,000 military personnel.

THE U.S. BUILDUP THAT NEVER HAPPENED

U.S. military analysts have long warned about the rising military threat from China. President Barack Obama’s desire to build up U.S. military forces in the Western Pacific to meet the growing Chinese threat was one of the reasons why he withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq prematurely in 2011, allowing ISIS terrorists to fill the power vacuum that was created. Obama had also hoped that by reaching a nuclear deal with Iran he would be able to disengage the U.S. from its ongoing military obligations in the Middle East, and send the freed-up U.S. forces to the Asian-Pacific region.

In 2021, the White House offered a similar rationale to explain President Biden’s order for a hasty withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the U.S. military buildup in the Asian-Pacific theater has not been able to keep pace with the Chinese. U.S. naval forces in particular have been allowed to deteriorate in both number and combat readiness. As a result, the U.S. naval presence in the Asian-Pacific theater is more vulnerable to attack than at any time since the end of World War II.

Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, DC last week, U.S. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said China “consistently attempts to violate the maritime sovereignty and economic well-being of other nations including our allies in the South China Sea and elsewhere.”

“They’ve got a larger fleet now so they’re deploying that fleet globally,” he said, adding that Washington must upgrade the U.S. fleet in response.

“We do need a larger Navy, we do need more ships in the future, more modern ships in the future in particular, that can meet that threat,” he said.

U.S. NAVY DOESN’T HAVE ENOUGH SHIPS

But despite that recognition, the U.S. Navy is now retiring more than twice as many old ships from its fleet than the replacement ships it is building. The Navy’s worldwide fleet is now scheduled to shrink from 298 currently to just 280 by 2027, compared to 340 ships today in the Chinese Navy, which is on schedule to reach 436 ships by 2027.

While American ships are still larger and more powerful than their Chinese equivalents, that qualitative advantage over China’s navy is being steadily eroded.

According to Blake Herzinger, an Indo-Pacific defense policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute, one of the reasons why the U.S. Navy has fallen behind is that it wasted a lot of money trying to build new kinds of ships which turned out to be much more expensive and much less useful than expected. These include the Zumwalt class of guided missile destroyers, which was discontinued after only three were built, and the small Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), which was designed for use in shallow coastal waters. However, naval experts now believe that building the LCS was a mistake, because the ships lack sufficient firepower and survivability in combat, and have been prone to frequent mechanical failures.

Del Toro said that another part of the problem is that U.S. naval shipyards are currently incapable of building new ships as fast as the Chinese shipyards. In addition, Secretary Del Toro noted that the post-pandemic nationwide shortage of skilled laborers in this country makes it difficult for American shipyards to find the additional workers they need to quickly increase their production capacity.

On the other hand, Del Toro said that the U.S. retains one big advantage over China — “our people. In many ways our shipbuilders are better shipbuilders, that’s why we have a more modern, more capable, more lethal Navy than they do,” he said.

PREVENTING ANOTHER PEARL HARBOR ATTACK

Admiral Aquilino’s office in Hawaii overlooks Pearl Harbor. It was the target of a devastating sneak attack by Japan on December 7, 1941, which sank all eight U.S. battleships and badly crippled the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet.

The admiral is well aware that it is his responsibility to prevent another such military catastrophe at the hands of China; to prevent them from crippling the U.S. military eight decades later. He told a reporter from the Washington Post that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austen has given him two main missions. First, he was to do everything in his power to avoid another war in the Pacific, and second, if it does come to war, he was to fight and win it for the United States.

Aquilino added, “We spend a lot of time working to prevent that conflict, [but] if deterrence fails, [his command with 370,000 troops and civilians in the region] is prepared to do that mission as well.”

CHINA IS PLAYING WITH FIRE

The bulk of the blame for the current crisis in U.S.-China relations clearly rests on China because of its provocative actions in the South China Sea, its threat to Taiwan, and its support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The increasingly frequent airborne confrontation between U.S. and Chinese military aircraft in the vicinity of Taiwan is inherently dangerous. When two potential enemies are in such close proximity, even a small miscalculation or technical malfunction could easily lead to an unintended shooting incident.

Another risk in times of high tension between two superpowers is that one nation’s leader could misjudge the determination of the other country’s leader to defend its sovereignty against a deliberately provocative incursion, such as by sending a spy balloon into its airspace.

China often doesn’t follow the de facto agreed-upon rules for close encounters with the U.S. military, and has been reluctant to use the existing military hotlines designed for emergency communications to defuse a crisis. For example, after the initial spy balloon was detected over Alaska, China refused to use the military hotline on the grounds of its claim that it had sent a civilian weather balloon over U.S. territory, even though it was clearly under the ultimate control of the Chinese military.

If the government in Beijing continues with its aggressive tactics, more such confrontations with the U.S. and its allies in the region are inevitable. They will be even more dangerous because regular diplomatic and military contacts between the two sides are now in real jeopardy of suffering a complete breakdown.

However, at least so far, each side has recognized a vital interest in preventing an unintended spiral of escalation from any such incident. Hopefully, that will enable cooler heads to prevail and prevent a military confrontation between the U.S. and China.

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