Keeping the lid on: Biden seeks to control three foreign crises

Taiwan Presidential Office/AP
Former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd speaks near Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen during a meeting in Taipei. He and other former senior U.S. officials sent by President Joe Biden reaffirmed "rock solid" U.S.-Taiwan ties, amid heightened tensions with China.
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Less than 100 days into his presidential term, Joe Biden is already facing a snake’s nest of foreign policy challenges.

China is flying threatening jet fighter missions into Taiwanese airspace, Russia is massing troops on its border with Ukraine, and Iran is upping the stakes in its nuclear program.

Why We Wrote This

Russia threatens Ukraine, China threatens Taiwan, Iran threatens to go nuclear. President Biden must navigate some complex geopolitical shoals to keep political showdowns from becoming military meltdowns.

None of these moves constitutes a flaring, all-out crisis. Yet. The task facing President Biden’s foreign policy team is rather how to navigate geopolitical rivalries to head off such a crisis in each of the three situations. How to prevent political showdowns from becoming military meltdowns.

Washington is trying to walk the potential crises back from the edge. Officials are speaking firmly but being careful not to threaten retaliation, for fear of triggering an escalation of tensions and an outbreak of the violence they are trying to stave off.

They are banking on the reluctance of Moscow and Beijing to start a real fight, and they are probably justified in doing so. As Winston Churchill is said to have quipped, “Jaw-jaw is better than war-war.”

There’s an old adage about London buses: You can wait forever and, all of a sudden, three show up at once. Yet for President Joe Biden and America’s allies, the sudden concern isn’t buses. It’s a trio of military flashpoints – in Eastern Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East – involving three increasingly assertive U.S. rivals: Russia, China, and Iran.

Each daunting enough on its own, the simultaneous challenges amount to the stiffest overseas test yet for the new administration in Washington.

They’re also a reminder of a key, often-overlooked measure of successful diplomacy: not how leaders respond to a crisis when it erupts, but whether they can navigate geopolitical rivalries to prevent the crisis. In other words, can they keep political showdowns from becoming military ones?

Why We Wrote This

Russia threatens Ukraine, China threatens Taiwan, Iran threatens to go nuclear. President Biden must navigate some complex geopolitical shoals to keep political showdowns from becoming military meltdowns.

That is often hard and doesn’t always work. But it’s what the U.S. administration is hoping and planning for as it responds to this trio of seismic rumblings.

Russia has moved tens of thousands of well-armed troops to its border with Ukraine, the largest buildup since it intervened in the largely Russian-speaking east of the country and seized Crimea seven years ago.

China is ramping up pressure on the island democracy of Taiwan, which it considers Chinese territory and has vowed eventually to annex, by force if necessary. Last week, two dozen Chinese military jets flew into Taiwan’s air defense zone, the largest such incursion in a year.

In the Middle East, the focus is on Iran’s drive toward nuclear weapons capability. There, the danger of full-scale military confrontation seems less immediate, but Washington may have less ability to influence events. Its ally Israel recently mounted a cyberattack on a nuclear facility in central Iran. The Iranians vowed “revenge” and later announced that they had enriched a small quantity of uranium to 60% purity, an important step toward weapons-grade fuel.

In dealing with both Russia and China, Washington has embarked on a strategy best described as “clear but calibrated,” tinged with a suspicion that Moscow and Beijing may be coordinating their actions in order to stretch the United States.

The clarity is in the message: that Washington is deeply concerned by, and firmly opposed to, the military activity both on Ukraine’s frontier and in the Taiwan Strait off eastern China.

Press Service General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine/Reuters
Ukrainian tanks on exercise near the border of Russia-annexed Crimea. Russia has massed troops in Crimea and on its border with Ukraine, sparking fears the Kremlin may be planning an invasion.

In a phone call last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr. Biden stressed Washington’s “unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken denounced China’s “increasingly aggressive actions” toward Taiwan and added, “It would be a serious mistake for anyone to try to change the status quo.”

But there’s also been calibration: Washington has been reluctant to threaten retaliation, at least publicly, out of concern that could trigger a mutual escalation and lead to just the armed confrontation the U.S. hopes to prevent.

That strategy hinges on a critically important assumption: that Russia and China, too, want to avoid military conflict. And despite the rising tension, there are reasons to suggest the Biden administration could be right about that.

Russia’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine was cloaked in stealth. This time, Moscow has been open, even obvious, in its buildup, a possible indication the aim is less military than political. It’s almost as if Mr. Putin is trying to tell the Americans, “Hey, look at me,” in response to their growing focus on a more powerful rival: China.

China has no such concerns. But the COVID-19 pandemic, and the government’s oppression of Muslim Uyghurs, have weakened its international standing and favored Washington’s efforts to repair alliances frayed during the Trump years. Regardless of Beijing’s rising economic strength, a full-scale attack on Taiwan would provoke, at the very least, international isolation on a level that the Chinese have not faced since the Tiananmen Square crackdown three decades ago.

It was partly to signal his hope for a gradual de-escalation that the U.S. president also used his phone call with Mr. Putin to suggest a face-to-face summit. And he sent his climate envoy, John Kerry, to China to try to chart a joint path forward ahead of this week’s White House virtual summit on that issue.

Mr. Putin’s response to the proposed bilateral meeting was cool: His spokesman said he’d think it over. But both Mr. Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have accepted Mr. Biden’s invitation to the climate summit, indicating they are still open to cooperation on some issues. Iran has shown no sign of moderating its positions, but has so far not walked away from talks in Vienna aimed at bringing Tehran and the U.S. into compliance with their 2015 nuclear deal.

It could be that all parties are abiding by another bit of common British lore, a pithy aphorism attributed to former Prime Minister Winston Churchill that is often repeated by contemporary politicians.

“Jaw-jaw is better than war-war.”

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