On Saturday, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Director of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Wang Yi held their much anticipated sideline meeting during the Munich Security Conference.
Rather than serving as an opportunity to clear the air and reach some understanding over the recent balloon incident so as to enable both sides to move on, the meeting apparently witnessed sharp words and confrontation. Blinken demanded that the Chinese not repeat the balloon fly-over while strongly cautioning China against providing military aid to Russia. Meanwhile, Wang expressed anger and indignation on behalf of the Chinese government over the U.S. shoot-down of the balloon, and called for Washington to acknowledge the damage it had done to the relationship.
Clearly, despite recent expressions of restraint by President Biden, both sides have doubled down on their rigid positions, undoubtedly made worse by the need to be seen domestically as standing firm in the face of what are regarded as intolerable insults and challenges. Beijing is not about to suffer embarrassment by reversing its incredulous claim that the balloon was a mere weather device blown off course and that the U.S. had shown “hysterical” behavior in shooting it down. And Washington won’t be seen by Congress and others as anything but resolute in responding to a supposedly brazen Chinese challenge to American sovereignty.
In all of this posturing, the fact that China had initially expressed regrets over the incident; that intelligence sources seem to think that the balloon was accidentally blown across the continental U.S.; and that both countries routinely conduct aggressive spy operations against the other, all is seemingly ignored or dismissed. It is apparently more important to look tough in the face of perceived slights than to actually engage in diplomacy to find a way back to a more stable and productive relationship.
From an optimistic viewpoint, it’s possible to think that the two sides have now fully vented their spleens and can get back to more important issues, such as averting the slide toward a conflict over Taiwan, preventing an intensification of the Ukraine war, combating climate change, preparing for future pandemics, or shoring up the global financial order. But such an outcome seems unlikely. The handling of the balloon incident shows that the two sides lack the trust and willpower needed to engage meaningfully on even relatively small incidents, let alone major issues of vital national interest.
Washington and Beijing are both caught in a web of domestic politics, the securitization of virtually all aspects of their relationship, and a resulting deepening level of worst case-driven suspicion over the motives and intentions of the other. Neither side is willing to acknowledge that these factors cause them both to contribute to the downward slide in relations, i.e., that the real threat is not solely from the actions of the other, but from the highly destructive nature of their interaction.
It is hard to see what will knock the two countries out of this dangerous, worsening posture. It might take a truly serious crisis that forces them both to the edge of the abyss. But such a crisis could have exactly the opposite effect, pushing the two countries over the edge. More prudent, far-sighted leaders would grasp this danger, and start not only building serious guardrails against it (including genuine crisis management mechanisms) as a top priority, but also work hard to improve the overall relationship and find middle grounds on those issues that most divide them.
Both sides claim to want this. But then the balloon incident comes along and both seem willing to throw such objectives out the window.
This tells me that we don’t seem to have the leaders we need at this crucial moment. Neither leadership is willing to take on the domestic bomb throwers that exist within their political and national security communities by convincingly making the argument for a more stable and productive relationship. In this, neither country displays much strategic sense, unless one assumes that confrontations and warnings alone constitute an effective strategy for managing a hugely interdependent relationship. Each continues to mouth platitudes about win-win outcomes and a desire to avoid a cold or hot war, while taking actions that suggest the opposite.
This relationship is far too consequential to allow what was a relatively minor security incident to derail attempts to produce a more positive form of bilateral engagement. The Wang Yi-Blinken meeting offered an opportunity to begin this process. Unfortunately, it was an opportunity squandered. What happens next is far from clear.
Michael D. Swaine is a Senior Research Fellow on East Asia at the Quincy Institute and is one of the most prominent American scholars of Chinese security studies.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a meeting in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia July 9, 2022. The two met on the sidelines of the Munich securiiy conference on 2/18/23. Stefani Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS
The U.S. intelligence community has found Israel’s claims that employees of a U.N. aid agency took part in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack to be plausible, but it cannot conclude more definitively because it has not been able to independently verify the charges, according to new reporting from the Wall Street Journal.
The Israeli government charged last month that 12 staffers at the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) — which facilitates humanitarian aid to Palestinains throughout the region — either participated or assisted in the Hamas-led atrocities and that others have close ties to the terror group.
UNRWA fired the 12 employees and donor counties, including the United States, have since paused funding, moves that have increasingly become more controversial as the Israeli government has yet to provide clear evidence for its claims. The agency says it will soon run out of money amid the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
According to the Journal, the U.S.’s National Intelligence Council assessed with “low confidence” that a small group of UNRWA staffers participated in the attack. The intel assessment, the Journal reports, “doesn’t dispute Israel’s allegations of links between some staff at Unrwa and militant groups” and that, according to U.S. officials, “Israel hadn’t shared the raw intelligence behind its assessments with the U.S., limiting their ability to reach clearer conclusions.”
"This assessment casts further significant doubt on the veracity of Israel's claims against UNRWA, which remain allegations without confirmed substantiating evidence,” Chris Gunness, a former UNRWA spokesman and now Director of the Myanmar Accountability Project, told RS. "If Israel has allegations against UNRWA, it should hand them over to the internal and external investigations currently underway: one by the U.N.'s Office of International Oversight and the other headed by a former French minister. Only when the information has been authoritatively assessed should anyone draw conclusions.”
For years, factions on the right in Israel, along with their supporters in the United States, have been working to close down UNRWA with the apparent belief that the U.N. agency lends credibility to Palestinians' assertions of ownership over land Palestinians argue was taken by Israel. UNRWA also regularly submits a roster containing the names of its staff to the Israeli government, which in turn signs off.
“Those donors who based their decisions to defund UNRWA on unconfirmed information should restore funding and only take a decision when they have a proper understanding of what took place,” Gunness added.
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SOUTH CHINA SEA (Feb. 9, 2021) The Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz Carrier Strike Groups steam in formation on scheduled deployments to the 7th Fleet area of operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Elliot Schaudt/Released)
The U.S. will have almost half of its aircraft carriers deployed in the Pacific in the coming weeks.
The South China Morning Post reported on February 14 that five of America’s 11 aircraft carriers would all likely soon be deployed there at the same time. Two of the carriers, the USS Carl Vinson and USS Theodore Roosevelt have been participating in a military exercise with Japan in the Philippine Sea, the USS Ronald Reagan is in port at Yokosuka, the USS Abraham Lincoln departed San Diego earlier this month, and the USS George Washington is expected to relieve the Reagan in a few weeks.
This is an unusual concentration of America’s naval power in one region at once, and it is being widely interpreted as a show of force meant for China and North Korea.
The Biden administration has made a point of making more shows of force in East Asia over the last year to reassure Asian allies that the U.S. has not forgotten about them. That isn’t surprising given the importance that the administration attaches to the “Indo-Pacific” and an active U.S. role in it, but in doing this it may also be contributing to increasing tensions with both Beijing and Pyongyang. We have already seen some of this in the back-and-forth between the U.S. and North Korea since last summer as North Korea has answered U.S. naval deployments to South Korea with additional missile tests and more bellicose rhetoric.
While these carrier deployments are presumably intended to signal American resolve and commitment to its regional allies, they could easily encourage China and North Korea to engage in their own reciprocal demonstrations of strength. They are also a reminder that the U.S. approach to East Asia is still very much a “military-first” approach that gives short shrift and devotes relatively few resources to economic statecraft and diplomacy. International relations scholar Van Jackson warned about the dangers of this approach more than two years ago, and since then the U.S. has only ramped up its military spending and deployments.
Because Washington’s attention has been focused so intently for the last four months on the war in Gaza and the other conflicts in the Middle East connected to it, it seems that the administration wants to show that it isn’t neglecting East Asia. The carrier deployments in the Pacific appear to be an attempt to “make up” for the continued massive over-investment of energy and resources in the Middle East.
The show of force may satisfy some allied governments, but it could also confirm the impression in both friendly and hostile capitals that the U.S. is overstretched and trying to take on too many tasks at the same time. The habit of reassuring allies so frequently has its own costs, including encouraging greater allied dependence, and when it is done too often it can have destabilizing effects on the wider region.
One of the principle weaknesses of U.S. foreign policy in East Asia is an overreliance on military deterrence. This tends to ratchet up tensions more than necessary and undermines credible assurances to adversaries. The U.S. excels at reassuring allies with its displays of military power, but because it often fails to strike a balance by giving adversaries assurances about its intentions, our government can feed the fears of Chinese and North Korean leaders and encourage them to assume the worst about what the U.S. is doing.
The carrier deployments suggest that the administration doesn’t understand the need for balancing deterrence and assurance. Failing to balance the two risks making conflict based on a miscalculation more likely. As the Quincy Institute’s Michael Swaine recently wrote about U.S. deterrence and Taiwan, “This balance is essential because, if the level of punishment or denial capability acquired is in fact seen as threatening the adversary’s most vital interests, the adversary, rather than being deterred from taking aggressive action, will become more inclined to undertake or threaten preemptive or punishing moves of its own in order to protect those interests, thus increasing, rather than decreasing, the chance of conflict.”
By relying so much on shows of force designed to intimidate China, the Biden administration increases the risk of a crisis.
The potential danger with North Korea is arguably even greater, since the North Korean government has a long history of responding to U.S. and allied pressure with its own provocations and threats. To the extent that Pyongyang perceives the deployment of so many carriers to the Pacific as directed even partly at North Korea, Kim Jong-un may conclude that he needs to show off his country’s own capabilities with additional missile tests and possibly even a new nuclear test.
Last year, North Korea reacted very angrily to the arrival of the USS Ronald Reagan in Busan, so it seems reasonable to expect an even harsher response if there are multiple carriers in the vicinity. Given the increasingly hostile rhetoric already coming from Pyongyang in the last few months, it would not take much for a new standoff between the U.S. and North Korea to begin.
The U.S. can ill afford a new crisis in East Asia on top of the other conflicts that it is involved in, but its overly militarized approach to the region is not the way to avoid it. If Washington wants to make conflicts in East Asia less likely, it will need to do a much better job of understanding its adversaries’ thinking and of offering them assurances that they can believe. Right now, the U.S. is doing far too little of both, and that is making the U.S. and its allies less secure than they could be.
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Left-to-right: Senator-elect Ted Budd (R-N.C.); Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader; Senator-elect Katie Britt (R-AL); and Senator-elect J.D. Vance (R-OH) pose for a photo before meeting in Leader McConnell’s office, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 15, 2022. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)
The so-called GOP “civil war” over the role the United States should play in the world made headlines earlier this week when the Senate finally passed a national security supplemental that provides $60 billion in aid for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel.
The legislation, which was supported by President Joe Biden and the overwhelming majority of the Senate’s Democratic caucus, proved more controversial among Republicans. Twenty-two GOP Senators voted in favor of the legislation, while 27 opposed it.
An analysis of the votes shows an interesting generational divide within the Republican caucus.
Each of the five oldest Republicans in the Senate — and nine of the ten oldest — voted in favor of the supplemental spending package. Conversely, the six youngest senators, and 12 of the 14 youngest, opposed it.
Equally striking was the breakdown of votes among Republicans based on when they assumed their current office. Of the 49 sitting GOP Senators, 30 were elected before Donald Trump first became the party’s presidential candidate in 2016. Eighteen of those 30 supported the aid legislation. Of the members who came to office in 2017 or later, only four voted to advance the bill, while 15 voted against.
The difference in votes among those elected since 2016 is likely partly attributable to Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign policy. The Republican party establishment during the Cold War and Global War on Terror is often associated with hawkishness, including towards Russia. While the party has always carried some skepticism toward foreign aid, some of the most significant spending increases have taken place during the presidencies of Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump, however, won in 2016 in part for his open disdain for mission creep after the GWOT, what he called the failed war in Iraq, and foreign aid he believed made countries dependents rather than reciprocal partners and allies.
“[Trump] certainly created the cognitive space,” Brandan Buck, a U.S. Army veteran and historian of GOP foreign policy, tells RS. “He's more of an intuitive thinker than a person of principle, but I think him being on the scene, prying open the Overton window has allowed for a greater array of dissenting voices.”
Others have argued that the trends are perhaps also indicative of the loyalty that Republicans who assumed their offices during the Trump presidency feel toward him. Trump spoke out forcefully against the legislation in advance of the vote.
“WE SHOULD NEVER GIVE MONEY ANYMORE WITHOUT THE HOPE OF A PAYBACK, OR WITHOUT “STRINGS” ATTACHED. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA SHOULD BE “STUPID” NO LONGER!,” the former president wrote on the social media platform Truth Social the weekend before the vote.
The vote cannot only be explained by ideology, as some typically hawkish allies of Trump, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ultimately voted against the package. Graham is a staunch supporter of Israel, has voted for previous Ukraine aid packages, and in the past called aid for Ukraine “a good investment” and “the best money we’ve ever spent.” By the time the vote on the most recent spending package came around, Graham was lamenting the lack of border security provisions and echoing Trump’s argument that aid to Ukraine should be a “loan.”
Meanwhile, Senators took note of the generational gap, and the debate spilled over into the public. .
“Nearly every Republican Senator under the age of 55 voted NO on this America Last bill,” wrote Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), 48, on the social media platform X. “Things are changing just not fast enough.” Schmitt was elected in 2022.
“Youthful naivety is bliss, the wisdom of age may save the west,” retorted Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) “Reagan may be dead, but his doctrine saved the world during less dangerous times than these. If the modern Marx (Putin for the youngsters) restores the USSR while we pretend it’s not our problem, God help us.” Cramer, 63, was sworn in in 2019, making him one of the handful of recently elected senators to support the aid legislation.
“I like Kevin, but come on, man, have some self-awareness,” Sen. J.D. Vance fired back. “This moment calls out for many things, but boomer neoconservatism is not among them.”
Vance, who at 39 is the youngest Republican member of the Senate, noted in his post that “the fruits of this generation in American leadership is: quagmire in Afghanistan, war in Iraq under false pretenses.” He said younger Americans were disillusioned with that track record.
Buck, who served several tours in the Afghanistan war, and whose research includes generational trends in U.S. foreign policy thinking, pointed out that there is strong historical precedent for believing that age and generation affect how members of Congress view America’s role in the world.
“It's certainly not unusual for there to be generational trends in foreign policy thinking, especially within the Republican Party,” Buck told RS. Following the end of World War II, he said, it took “a full churning” of the conservative movement to replace old-school non-interventionist Republicans and to get the party in line with the Cold War consensus. “I think what we're seeing now is something similar but in reverse with a generation of conservatives.”
He added that the failures of the War on Terror resulted in a deep skepticism of the national security state and the Republican party establishment. Opinion polling and trends show that the American public that grew up either during or in the shadow of the disastrous military campaigns in the Greater Middle East is generally opposed to military intervention and more questioning of American institutions.
“All the energy on FP [foreign policy] in the GOP right now is with the younger generation that wants fundamental transformation of USFP [U.S. foreign policy],” noted Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, on X. “The self-satisfied, insular neocons who loathe their voters’ FP views are a dying breed.”