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The US now faces simultaneous showdowns with China and Russia, Fighting one Cold War was bad enough. Waging two at once would be impossible


Nov 4, 2011
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The US now faces simultaneous showdowns with China and Russia
Stephen Collinson
Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN
Published 12:04 AM EST, Tue February 14, 2023

Fighting one Cold War was bad enough. Waging two at once would be impossible.

Two years into Joe Biden’s presidency, the United States now faces simultaneous diplomatic and national security crises with its 20th century superpower rival Moscow and its top 21st century adversary China.

The war in Ukraine, about to reach a blood-soaked first anniversary, and a spy balloon drama that has provided a first tangible symbol for many Americans of an emerging challenge from Beijing, are creating a tense moment in global geopolitics.

This revived era of great power rivalry – that would have seemed a distant prospect in the previous two decades consumed by the war on terror and Middle East wars – underscore the great burdens and responsibilities resting on a president whose worldview was framed after he came to Washington in the 1970s amid the US-Soviet chill

This dangerous period will be crystalized this weekend when Western foreign policy officials and experts gather for the annual Munich Security Conference, which is set to be dominated by the deepening war in Ukraine. But the event will also become a stage for the rivalry between the United States and China with both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese top diplomat Wang Yi in town. The State Department says no meetings are planned as details emerge about China’s global balloon spying program and accusations fly back and forth across the Pacific.

The double diplomatic crisis has also exposed the way that Washington’s bitterly polarized politics could influence US policy overseas and the political capital every administration needs to pursue its aims. Fervent Republican criticism of Biden’s failure to shoot down a Chinese surveillance balloon before it traversed the continent followed by claims that he’s trigger happy in downing subsequent unknown aerial objects, show that for many in the GOP – critical geopolitics are just another excuse for partisan score settling.

Biden may have played into this by not speaking publicly to Americans about a trio of incidents in which jets were scrambled over the weekend. But more broadly, the Republican Party’s abdication of the internationalist principles that won the Cold War against the Soviet Union, its splits over funding for Ukraine and the possibility of another White House term for Donald Trump who turned US foreign policy into a mirror of his own volatile temperament raise even more questions as the 2024 election looms.

How clashes with Russia and China differ – and are similar​

Many foreign policy experts might disdain the loaded term Cold War in relation to the current showdowns with Moscow or Beijing. The US is not locked for instance in the global ideological, economic and political tussle with Russia like it was with its predecessor, the Soviet Union, from the late 1940s to the end of the 1980s. By any measure apart from nuclear weapons, the US is far more powerful than Russia. The war in Ukraine and a series of disastrous battlefield defeats have meanwhile exposed the myth of Russian super power strength – even if that post-Soviet nuclear arsenal means President Vladimir Putin can wield the threat of Armageddon to head off a direct Western intervention.

There is still time, meanwhile, to avert the growing test of strength between the United States and China from turning into the kind of conflict that could plunge the world into war. And the US and Chinese economies are entwined in a way that had no parallel with the isolated, communist Soviet Union. Americans and Chinese have a huge incentive to stop their differences spilling over because both would pay an enormous economic price for any armed military clash.

Yet at the same time, there is a growing sense of the world dividing into two camps between democracies and autocracies, even if Russia’s attempts to trigger a generational US fear by edging closer to China may be overblown so far.

The Cold War might have ended with the defeat of the Soviet Union. But it was never over in the mind of Putin, the KGB officer left high and dry in East Germany when the Berlin Wall came down and who has devoted his more than 20 Kremlin years to challenging the West and trying to restore respect for Russian power.

Putin sees the Ukraine war as an attempt to regain influence over Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, to crush its sovereignty and to frustrate its aspirations of joining the Western clubs – the European Union and NATO. His invasion of Ukraine broke the post-Cold-War territorial settlement in Europe.

While doing everything he can to avoid setting off a direct clash with Russia, Biden is now not shying away from raising the huge stakes in the war for the Western way of life that prevailed in the Cold War. He has sent billions of dollars in American weapons into a proxy conflict he defined as “a test for the ages. A test for America, a test of the world” in his State of the Union address last week.

“Such a defense matters to us because it keeps the peace and prevents open season for would-be aggressors to threaten our security and prosperity,” Biden said, in remarks that also might have been aimed at nationalistic Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Defining the US tussle with China​

The US standoff with China is also increasingly one about values as well as a shadow fight between two vast militaries and two nations who wish to be the top dog in the Asia-Pacific region. When the United States talks of ensuring that China keeps to a rules-based system in terms of trade, economics, territorial claims, freedom of naval navigation and military issues, leaders in Beijing perceive an attempt to constrain what they see as their country’s rightful rise to power with international laws biased towards the West.

Biden, who has framed much of his foreign policy on the assumption that the key strategic question of the current century will be the challenge from Beijing, has repeatedly stressed that he wants “competition, not conflict” with China. But he is also adamant that the US will challenge what it sees as China’s aspirations.

“The People’s Republic of China is the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it,” Biden’s National Security Strategy, published last October, said. “Beijing has ambitions to create an enhanced sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and to become the world’s leading power.”

The bitter politics stirred up by America’s challenges abroad​

The increasingly strained global political climate is playing into American domestic politics in two notable ways. It is fueling an effort by Republicans – seen especially in the current Chinese balloon drama – to portray Biden as a weak commander-in-chief who is not up to global challenges ahead of his 2024 election race. This pressure in Washington appears to be narrowing the political running room that the administration has in dealing with global threats. For example, absent some sign of contrition from the Chinese, it would be a big political risk for Blinken to reschedule a trip to Beijing, which is vitally important for putting a lid on tensions, any time soon. And the way that Biden sprang into action over the weekend to shoot down three unidentified objects in North American airspace suggests political criticism of his decision to wait until the Chinese balloon had crossed the Atlantic coast to shoot it down has conditioned his decision making. The White House denies this is the case.

Republican Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell on Monday tapped into the classic Republican criticism of Democratic presidents – an impression that they somehow are guilty of insulting America’s own power with timidity and are leaving the country disrespected abroad and vulnerable to unscrupulous foreign powers.

The Kentucky Republican spoke disdainfully of how Americans watched the Chinese balloon “tour a big chunk of the country before the administration, finally belatedly shot it down.” He added: “How did we get into a position where the greatest nation in the world doesn’t know what is traversing our own airspace?”

It’s already clear that an accusation Biden is weak will be at the center of the 2024 race. In an unsubtle swipe, on Monday, Trump sent out a fundraising email warning that “our enemies can smell weakness in the White House from across the globe.” He claimed that Biden would not stand up for America and that his actions had led to the invasion of Ukraine and that the spy balloon saga was one of the “most humiliating moments in US history.” Former US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who is expected to announce a run for the GOP nomination on Wednesday, released a video drawing allusions to her hawkish Reagan-era predecessor at the UN, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that styled her as a future scourge of Xi and Putin.

Biden, like every president must accept criticism of his global leadership, and the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 will blot his legacy.

But the Republican assaults on Biden’s supposed weakness are borne from short memories. They ignore Trump’s frequent genuflecting before Putin, the way he cozied up to Xi before the Covid-19 pandemic and his own self-described love affair with North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un. The Afghan withdrawal was based on a timetable agreed to in a deal with the Taliban established by Trump. While Biden demonstrated the most assured leadership of a revived Western alliance since at least President George H. W. Bush at the end of the Cold War, the House GOP is embroiled in an internal feud over whether Ukraine is even worth defending. And the last GOP president before Trump, George W. Bush embroiled the nation in more than a decade long quagmire in Iraq and one of the worst foreign debacles since World War II, partly out of a desire to demonstrate US toughness.

Honestly - Russia is irrelevant at this point. Economically, politically and militarily it is dead now... its folly in Ukraine has taken care of the "Russia" problem.

Ukraine becomes a test of the US’ two-front clash with China and Russia​

Published 5:02 PM EST, Tue February 21, 2023

President Joe Biden’s trip to mark the anniversary of the war in Ukraine is highlighting an even more grave challenge – a new era of simultaneous and sometimes intertwined US confrontations with nuclear rivals Russia and China.

Biden’s dramatic visit to Kyiv Monday amid wailing air raid sirens and his soaring speech in Warsaw a day later reinforced the West’s remarkable support for Ukraine’s resistance to Russia and directly repudiated President Vladimir Putin.

But Putin issued his riposte in an annual address, framing the war in Ukraine as a wider existential battle against the West. After Biden vowed the US will be with Ukraine for as long as it takes, Putin’s speech underlined just how long that may be, raising the possibility of more years of war that will stretch the commitment of Western governments and populations to the cause.

China is meanwhile injecting its own strategic play into this widening great power brouhaha. It sent its top diplomat Wang Yi – his ears ringing with US warnings not to send Russia arms to use in Ukraine – to Moscow for high-level talks, even as a Sino-American spy balloon feud simmers.

This week’s developments do not mean that the future national security threats to the US from Beijing and Moscow are the same. The war in Ukraine has often exposed Russian weakness while worries about China’s rising power will preoccupy Washington for much of this century. And the two US foes are not locked in a formal alliance against the US, even if both see ways that they can advance their own aspirations to harm American interests and power by working together.

But this moment finds the United States negotiating worsening foreign policy crises at the same time – with its former Cold War adversaries in the Kremlin and its belligerent new superpower rival led by Xi Jinping. Both these rivals are openly challenging the international rule of law and rejecting norms that have underpinned the international system for decades.

The idea of a global contest between democracies and autocracies seemed theoretical and intangible when Biden voiced it while running for president. Now it is all too real.

And this new and complicated foreign policy picture is not just a problem for American diplomats. Rising challenges abroad as well, as the depletion of US and Western weapons stocks as arms are sent to Ukraine, pose questions about military capacity and whether current defense spending is sufficient. Key Republicans meanwhile are accusing Biden of snubbing voters facing economic and other problems, even as he tries to position Democrats as the protectors of working Americans as the 2024 campaign dawns.

Putin and Biden go head-to-head​

In terms of presidential stagecraft, Biden overshadowed Putin this week, with his daring overnight train journey into Kyiv and speech in the Polish capital, a location chosen for its role on NATO’s frontline. Putin’s address to the Russian parliament was a staider affair, sprinkled with his now familiar nuclear threats and conspiracy theories about the West.

Biden often seemed to be talking directly to the Russian leader, trying to expose him to Russians, Europeans and Americans as a tyrant responsible for disastrous blunders and inhumanity in Ukraine a year after his invasion. He listed strategic consequences of the invasion that drew Kyiv closer to the West and strengthened NATO – exactly the opposite of Putin’s war aims. He mocked the former KGB colonel over how his aggression has led to one Scandinavian state whose national sovereignty was once dominated by the Soviet Union but now wants to join the western alliance: “He thought he’d get the Finlandization of NATO, instead he got the NATOization of Finland … and Sweden.”

And Biden vowed, “President Putin’s craven lust for land and power will fail, and the Ukrainian people’s love for their country will prevail,” he added.

“Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia.”

That may be the case. But Putin made clear in his speech that there was no prospect of the war ending soon. In telling Russians the conflict was critical to their own nation’s existence and part of an effort by the West to attack Russia, he set the stage for months more bloodshed and narrowed even further already distant avenues for some kind of face-saving exit if Russia does not prevail.

“I want to repeat: It was they who unleashed the war,” Putin said. “And we used and continue to use force to stop it.”

To Western ears, Putin seems to be living in an alternative reality. And Biden contradicted his claims of Western imperialism, saying, “I speak once more to the people of Russia. The United States and the nations of Europe do not seek to control or destroy Russia. The West was not plotting to attack Russia, as Putin said today.”

But dismissing Putin’s conspiratorial claims and sense that the West is engaged in a long campaign to topple him would be a mistake. While conventional victory may be beyond Russia, Putin may be able to live with a long grinding war that inflicts devastation on more Ukrainian cities, kills more Ukrainians, ends up costing Western governments billions and gradually hikes pressures on leaders in the US and Europe to pull back.

The Russian leader will likely be watching rising opposition to Biden’s involvement in the war among conservatives in the US. On Monday, for instance, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hinted – on the very day that Biden was standing with Ukrainians in Kyiv – that the future of Ukraine would not be priority should he win the White House.

“The fear of Russia going into NATO countries and all that, and steamrolling, that has not even come close to happening,” DeSantis said on Fox. “I think they have shown themselves to be a third-rate military power.”

Comments by DeSantis and other Republicans like House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who has warned against a “blank check” to Kyiv, show that while Biden can promise the US is with Kyiv for “as long as it takes,” he cannot guarantee it. The 2024 election may be as crucial for Ukraine as it is for the United States.

An almost total shut down between Russia and the US​

Biden’s trip also demonstrated that the estrangement between the US and Russia – a factor that will shape global politics for years – is almost complete.

Putin, for example, announced Tuesday that Russia would suspend participation in the New START nuclear treaty with the United States. It was not clear what practical impact this would have since Moscow has stopped fully implementing the deal.

Given that its economy is struggling, and its conventional forces are under extreme pressure, Russia also lacks resources to ignite a new nuclear arms race with Washington. But the collapse of one of the last building blocks of a post-Cold War thaw between Russia and the US exemplifies the almost total lack of communication between the rivals.

The Biden administration’s accusation last week that Russia has committed crimes against humanity ensures there will be no return to normality between Washington and Moscow even if the Ukraine war ends.

Any time the top two nuclear powers are not talking is dangerous — one reason why US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday Washington was willing to discuss the nuclear situation with Russia no matter what else was going on.

Beijing ignores Washington’s warnings over Ukraine war​

Even as it confronts Russia in Ukraine, the US is seeking to dampen its latest crisis with China – over what Washington says was a Chinese spy balloon that wafted over the continental US earlier this month. The two showdowns came closer to a linkage this week as the US warned China not to supply Russia with arms that it could use in the war in Ukraine and as Wang headed to Moscow.

Russia and China agreed on a friendship with “no limits” before Russia’s invasion last year, playing into long term US fears of a united front between Moscow and Beijing. The Chinese foreign ministry bristled that Washington, which has sent a stream of high-tech weaponry into Ukraine, was in no position to lecture China on the issue.

Any effort by China to supply arms for the Ukraine war would not shift the strategic balance of the battlefield – but it would be a grave and hostile new front for the US-China rivalry.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield warned on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday that such a step would cross a US red line but did not specify what consequences could result.

There is no public evidence yet that China, while offering rhetorical support for Russia over Ukraine, has supplied lethal arms for the conflict. And the idea of a formal alliance against Washington by Russia and China still seems unlikely – given the power imbalance between Beijing and Moscow in China’s favor.

China, which has its own economic problems, may be unwilling to risk US sanctions that could result from sending arms to Moscow. But Beijing may also have an interest in the war being prolonged in the belief that it could distract the US and its military resources from Biden’s growing efforts to respond to China’s dominance in Asia.

A long-dragging conflict could also drive divides between the US and Europe – further playing into China’s foreign policy goals. And it could further incite political dissent in Washington, weakening Biden’s capacity to fulfill his foreign policy goals on the global stage.

So, there are many reasons why China – which has long seen the war in Ukraine through the prism of its rivalry with the US – may not be in a hurry to see the war in Ukraine end.

That’s yet another nettlesome foreign policy problem that Biden must confront.


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