International politics is now defined by a world at war. The United States is consumed with a stalemate in Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression and what promises to be a long war by Israel to eradicate the terror group Hamas and its affiliates. This Middle East conflict may escalate as Iran, through its proxies, carries out attacks against both the United States and the Jewish State.
Though China is portraying itself as a fair and just potential broker of peace in the Middle East and Europe in contrast to America’s supposed warmongering, it is actually intensifying its own military and political pressure against Taiwan, Japan, and the Philippines. It is also backing the aggressors in Europe and the Middle East. Over the near term, Beijing will be tempted to take even greater military risks unless Washington better prepares for this new era of global conflict.
China is benefiting from global conflict in several ways. It is backing Russia and Iran while scoring international propaganda wins in parts of the world that do not like Western foreign policy. Moreover, Beijing sees a freer hand for its coercion campaigns as it notes gaping deficits in U.S. weapons production capacity and military posture.
The Biden administration’s eager search for a “floor” in its relationship with Beijing resulted in a bilateral summit that helped Xi Jinping’s global image.
China Throws Russia a Lifeline
As Washington struggles with a piecemeal Ukraine strategy, China has ensured Russia can continue fighting for the foreseeable future. Trade between China and Russia has grown 30 percent this year, and total business in 2023 is expected to break $190 billion, last year’s record total. More than a third of all Russian oil exports now go to China, providing the Kremlin with a crucial source of war funding. China has also become a major player in Russia’s consumer market, with one of every two cars sold in Russia today, for example, originating in China. In addition, the PRC is reportedly assisting Iran in its development and provision of drones to Moscow. Xi also feted Putin at his recent Belt and Road Forum, reaffirming his commitment to the “no limits” partnership the two countries had signed at the beginning of Russia’s war on Ukraine and stressed the two would work together against the heavy-handed “bloc politics” that the United States allegedly promotes. Xi emphasized that Russia is a key part of his long-term strategy, stating at the forum that “developing the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination with ever-lasting good neighborliness and mutually beneficial cooperation is not an expediency, but a long-term commitment.” Beijing views Russia as a kindred spirit in its own national project of undoing the U.S. alliance system and building an alternative world order. A Russian victory in Europe has become a top Chinese priority.
China backs Iran
Meanwhile, Iran has moved toward a more offensive strategy, strengthening the “Axis of Resistance” and Tehran’s own expeditionary operations that target U.S. forces and its Israeli ally.
With China’s help, Iran can fund this destabilizing strategy for some time to come. In the past two years, Iran’s oil shipments to China returned to pre-sanctions levels, and China’s crude oil imports from Iran reached a new high at the end of 2022. China is Iran’s top trading partner. At the same time, China is providing diplomatic and military support to the Islamic Republic. With Beijing’s assistance, Iran has formally joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the security bloc led by China and Russia. At the same time, China’s military ties with the Islamic Republic are also growing. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi hostedChinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe in April 2022, and the two countries agreed to collaborate on military strategy. Iran, China, and Russia conducted a five-day naval drill in the Gulf of Oman earlier this year. Tehran Last February, Raisi traveled to Beijing, and the two countries signed twenty agreements worth billions of dollars. Iran can now rely on China as an economic safety valve while also avoiding military and diplomatic isolation despite being the world’s number one state sponsor of terror.
In another nod toward Iran and its allies, China has refused to condemn Hamas after its barbaric attack against Israel and instead portrays Israel as the aggressor in the conflict while criticizing U.S. support for the Jewish State. Beijing has even allowed antisemitic tropes to proliferate on its internet, implying Jewish control over American policy and amplifying its overt hostility to a key U.S. ally. These Chinese stratagems play well in much of the non-aligned world, which sees the United States as too close to Israel.
Meanwhile, China Coerces its Neighbors
Meanwhile, as it throws support behind Russia and provides critical support to an Iran on the move, China is itself engaged in three simultaneous coercion campaigns against Manila, Tokyo, and Taipei. Its air, maritime, and cyber harassment of Taiwan has escalated to dangerous levels. At the same time, its pressure against Japan in the East China Sea is ceaseless, with ever largerChinese vessels contesting China’s control over the Senkakus. Most recently, Beijing has raised tensions with Manila once again. The Chinese Coast Guard and China’s quasi-military “maritime militia” have blocked and harassed the Philippine Coast Guard and military as they attempt to resupply the BRP Sierra Madre in the Second Thomas Shoal. The shoal is well within the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone, though China claims it. Beijing is trying to control the entirety of the West Philippine Sea, which is Filipino maritime territory.
President Biden has sent an aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, to Manila from Japan to put some muscle behind its claim that it will defend the Philippines. But this is in addition to the two carrier strike groups the United States has deployed to deter Iran and its proxies from escalating the ongoing war in Israel. To defeat these campaigns of coercion and subversion, the U.S. will have to increase both its military presence and diplomatic engagement to build a more robust counter-China coalition. Unfortunately, Washington finds itself unprepared for Chinese coercive tactics, having underfunded its defense for over a decade.
An Overly Cautious Washington is Stretched Thin
China has room to maneuver as Washington is proving itself over-stretched, the consequence of years of underfunding its national security policies. Washington has organized an impressive coalition to arm and assist Ukraine, including over $75 billion in military and other aid to Kyiv. It is likewise providing military assistance to Israel and has sent more force into the Middle East to deter Iranian aggression throughout the region. But its Ukraine strategy has been slow and insufficient, allowing Russia to organize hard-to-break defensive positions in the Ukrainian areas it controls. Moreover, the war has revealed great strains in the U.S. defense industrial base’s production capacity and ability to assist allies. If current trends continue, Ukraine could lose the war, which would amount to a serious blow to U.S. grand strategy and the fate of NATO. China’s closest ally will have prevailed even in the face of Western resistance, an outcome that will raise doubts in Beijing’s mind about Washington’s will and ability to follow through with its commitments. Japan and other Asian allies who have supported Ukraine will question U.S. geopolitical will. Iran would be tempted to turn the current conflagration in Israel into something far more devastating.
Defense Production Stalls
American strategy in this new era of warfare rests on its ability to provide allies with material support. But the cupboard of armaments is bare. Consider the issue of 155mm artillery shells. Recently, munitions Washington intended to send to Kyiv have been rerouted to Israel. Militaries are devouring them at a rate of tens of thousands per day. As the United States supplies its friends, it is drawing down its stock of munitions, impairing its own military readiness and affecting other security partners such as Taiwan. Similarly, the U.S. has provided Ukraine with 8,500 Javelin anti-tank weapons, which were critical in repelling the initial Russian attack. But U.S. production of these systems is low, and it has already given roughly nine years’ worth of Javelin purchases in nine months. Failure to keep up the supply of weapons has strained Ukraine’s counteroffensive and put it in an unfavorable position to take advantage of any potential breakthroughs.
The Danger of Unpreparedness: Will China Escalate?
Given the failure of Xi’s “zero COVID” pandemic policy and consequent economic difficulties, this would have been precisely the time to apply more pressure on the PRC and pushback on its regional coercive strategies. Instead, the Biden administration is seeking a détente with the global troublemaker. Xi received a feel-good bilateral summit with President Biden, which Washington had chased for many months. Beijing insisted on and received a private dinner with the CEOs of America’s leading companies. They reportedly gave the Chinese dictator a standing ovation, expressing their eagerness to resume business with the People’s Republic as usual. This is a major public relations win for China, boosting Xi’s image at home while demonstrating to allies that Washington will put its commercial interests first in ties with the PRC.