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Biden’s caution is Putin’s advantage — and it could be China’s too

To its credit, the Biden administration has essentially followed the Trump national security team’s transformative policy toward communist China. It has gone further by emphasizing multilateralism and alliance-building to bring in support from democratic allies and partners against the common challenge.

But there have been some costly exceptions.

The Biden team revived and revitalized the quadrilateral security relationship known as the Quad, among Japan, Australia, India and the United States. It established a trilateral security arrangement with Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S., dubbed AUKUS, which enabled the transfer of nuclear submarines and technology to Australia.

The AUKUS arrangement was accomplished, however, by Canberra’s secret collaboration with Washington and London in cancelling Australia’s preexisting conventional submarine deal with France, which precipitated an angry French response. Beyond the economic loss, injured Gallic pride lingered long after the event and may have contributed to President  Emmanuel Macron’s dismissive comment in Beijing in April 2022, that Europe should not serve as America’s “followers” on Taiwan or get “caught up in crises that are not ours.”

A year earlier, Biden’s disastrous pullout from Afghanistan shocked not only France but other NATO allies: the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Canada. It surely encouraged Russian President Vladimir Putin’s quest to reconstitute the fallen Soviet Empire, which he has called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

Last week, by contrast, Biden pulled off a major success for multilateralism when he hosted South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at Camp David to sign a historic trilateral security cooperation agreement. While it did not specifically commit either Japan or the Republic of Korea to help defend the other against Chinese or North Korean aggression, it was a major step forward from their historical enmity of even a few years ago, when it could accurately be said of the Japan-South Korea relationship “the ally of my ally is my enemy.”

The Biden approach has stood in marked contrast to former President Trump’s denigration of Northeast Asian allies and admiration for America’s authoritarian adversaries.

In that context, the administration also deserves praise for working successfully with the government of the Philippines to achieve a partial reinvigoration of the U.S-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty. The rapprochement resulted in the establishment of several new bases for the rotational stationing of U.S. forces to strengthen U.S.-Philippines interoperability, readiness and joint and combined training. Hopefully, the expanded military cooperation will be followed by restoration of a full U.S. presence in the Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base.

Biden’s leadership of the NATO response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine eventually proved impressive, though it was too late and too weak to have deterred the invasion, which U.S. intelligence openly predicted months before it happened.

Biden’s paralyzing fear of provoking Putin into further escalation — ”it would be World War III” — has consistently prevented the United States from providing the weapons needed to liberate Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory and end the bloodshed and suffering sooner rather than later.

Initially, the other NATO members followed Washington’s lead and held back on aiding Ukraine too robustly and overtly. Ongoing reports of Russia’s Nazi-like war crimes, however, along with Putin’s and Xi Jinping’s declaration of a Russia-China “strategic partnership” just before Russia’s Ukraine invasion, alerted allies to the emerging global threat. Russia’s aggression is increasingly seen as an early phase of the existential danger to the rules-based international order. NATO members are now more inclined than Washington to help Ukraine succeed in its goal of retaking all its Russian-occupied territory.

Germany’s promised Leopard tanks have begun to arrive, but not America’s Abrams — supposedly part of the Washington-Berlin understanding that seemed to imply closely related deliveries.

Denmark and the Netherlands are now supplying Ukraine with F-16s while Biden continues to decline Kiev’s request and won’t even begin to provide F-16 training until close to the end of the year.

Washington clearly made the strategic decision to withhold the F-16s from contributing to Ukraine’s long-planned counter-offensive. Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said last week, “The United States has been very focused on ensuring that Ukraine has what they need to be successful on the battlefield today, right? If they — if they are not successful in their counteroffensive, then everything else is largely a moot point. […] F-16s for Ukraine is about the long-term commitment to Ukraine. These F-16s will not be relevant to the upcoming counteroffensive.”

U.S. policy seems designed to ensure that Ukraine’s independence will be incomplete and will need to be maintained only while it is under Russian occupation and at war. What’s more, the fight is taking far longer than it needs to because of U.S. indecision and hesitancy in supplying what Ukraine needs to win. At the same time, the administration second-guesses Ukraine’s conduct of the counteroffensive and how it is fighting with the incomplete supply of weapons required for a break-through on the battlefield.

America’s role in Ukraine, under the policy of the Biden administration and under the hypothetical policy of a handful of Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail, is constrained by the same degree of impatience and war-weariness that led to the defeatist Trump-Biden decisions on Afghanistan.

The policy prescriptions will encourage Putin to continue his aggression in Europe and Xi to pursue his own aggressive designs on Taiwan and the South China Sea. If a U.S. administration applies the same approach to supporting the defense of Taiwan that has characterized its policy on Ukraine, Xi can see a relatively risk-free path to the eventual absorption of Taiwan. Conquest of a Taiwanese island or two as a starting point would seem to fall under Biden’s rubric of avoiding an imagined “World War III” at all costs.

Biden needs to formalize and officialize his ad hoc statements on defending Taiwan.  Washington’s policy of strategic ambiguity is even more dangerous and counter-productive given Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and the U.S.-NATO failure to deter or defeat it.

Source : The Hill