We’ll try to keep this post at a high level, since each of the three fresh examples of actual or expected own goals are part of a much longer list. But it’s baffling to see incompetence and hubris become a routine part of geopolitics, Western style.
The first is the continued US eyepoking of China, which began with the first US-China summit under Biden at US invitation in Alaska. It produced what by international standards was close to a public row. Since then, we wer listing new jabs almost daily in Links, although they appear to have become less frequent after the war in Ukraine broke out.
Mind you, there are reasons for the US to be concerned about China, and not just of the “declining power threatened by upstart” sort. China has a large population and not enough domestic resources, particularly food and energy, to provide for them, let alone to support a further rise in living standards (mind you, the world can’t support the Chinese population living at a Western level absent radical conservation and other efforts to reduce commodities consumption). Focusing on Chinese acquisitiveness, by implication at the expense of other developing economies, could be a usefully rallying point, particularly if the West were to get serious about belt-tightening, or at least conservation.
But instead the US provokes China above all over Taiwan. Aside from the fact that it’s the fastest way to get China riled up, it’s hard to see the point. The deliberately ambiguous position of the West on Taiwan heretofore has allowed us to trade with both parties, if you conceptualize them as operating independently. I haven’t heard of a Taiwan lobby in the US with meaningful clout. Right now, the US arms merchants have plenty of buy orders coming in thanks to the need for the NATO members, and to some degree the US, thanks to the need to restock and update stores depleted by the Ukraine conflict.
Maybe the goal is to get neighbors like Japan and South Korea nervous and therefore have then cling to us. But it’s pretty clear that the US is stoking a conflict, and why should I be happy about the prospect of being dragged in?
Let’s contrast two sets of stenography from the Shangri-La Security Summit in Singapore, the first from the staunchly neocon Financial Times:
[China’s defense minister General] Wei [Fenghe] and [US defense secretary Lloyd] Austin were attending the forum at a time when Sino-US relations are in their worst state since the nations normalised ties in 1979, and with anxiety rising about possible Chinese military action against Taiwan.
Those tensions were on display over two days in Singapore, as both sides expressed concerns over the other’s activities. Austin accused the Chinese military of conducting dangerous aerial and maritime manoeuvres, while Wei described the US as an arrogant hegemon that was forming anti-China blocs under the guise of multilateralism.
Oddly, this article does not mention the row over a fresh security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands, which has Australia and the US bent out of shape. But among other things, the Solomon Islands were suffering from a serious rise in crime and its established patrons did nothing to help.
However, it does mention a fresh spat, where an Australian spy plane was buzzed by a PLA jet that dumped chaff that got into the Australia plane’s engines. The Western press has underplayed China’s justification, that the foreign plane was over what it said was Chinese territorial waters. From the pink paper:
Washington counters that surveillance flights by the US and its allies are in international airspace. One US official said PLA officers had in recent months told the Americans that the Taiwan Strait was not international waters — a position that is not recognised beyond China and one that Beijing had not pushed in the past.
General He said China was in a stronger position to push back against aerial surveillance missions in its vicinity. “The US military has done similar overflights many times before, but in the past, our capabilities were not sufficient yet to respond. Now they are,” he said.
Now let’s return to the first FT extract: “….with anxiety rising about possible Chinese military action against Taiwan.” There’s no mention whatsoever of the US provoking China by sending retired and more recently current US official to Taiwan when the US has for decades supported a “one China” policy. Consider this partial history fro an April post:
I am at a loss to understand why the US thinks throwing more force behind a clearly failed diplomatic strategy is a bright idea. Pushing China has simply made it more obvious and easier to explain to interested audiences (many!) why the US needs to stop trying to dictate the policies of other countries, most of all really big ones with nukes….
….the US has tried at least twice (three times with China if you count the recent China-EU teleconference with Xi) to get China to side with the West against Russia, pushing China into “What about ‘no’ don’t you understand?” terrain. Rather than hewing to the convention of having summits only after groundwork was laid so that at least nothing visibly bad happens, Team Biden set out to pick a fight with China at their first get together, in Alaska in March 2021, with the US springing new sanctions on China the day before the session….
Then in March , Jake Sullivan was set to meet with Yang Jiechi in Rome and threatened China with sanctions. The pretext was disinformation in the form of a Financial Times story claiming that Russia had asked to buy weapons from China (this was clearly absurd because by the time the war had started would be way too late; Russia would have needed to procure and integrate equipment months prior).1 Needless to say, Yang didn’t give any ground.
So not taking no as an answer, Biden had the cheek to call Xi that very same week and ask for China’s help. Xi effectively said this wasn’t his problem: “He who puts the bell on the tiger is the one to take it off.” Biden also said he very much wanted better relations with China and gave lip service to the one-China policy in the chat. That allowed Xi to say he took that statement very seriously: What about all these American officials who were promoting a “wrong understanding” about Taiwan?
EU leaders and Xi then had a regularly scheduled EU-China teleconference. Chinese officials had signaled before the meeting that Xi was interested in EU-China relations, not Ukraine, so of course the EU officials started the conversation off with Ukraine. Xi again deflected the Western pressure.
I’m not double checking the dates, but my recollection is that it was shortly after the EU-Xi talk that the US announced new sanctions against China, mainly against officials accused of oppressing Uighurs. And we’ve just had the off the charts provocation of Nancy Pelosi, third in line to become President, going to Taiwan. Recall that trip has been postponed rather than cancelled. China has stated that there will be consequences if that trip happens.
And we expect them to side with us? It’s not the most important form of payback, but China has taken to stating regularly in official media that the war in Ukraine is America’s fault.
The Chinese armed forces will fight to the very end if anyone dares to split Taiwan from China, said the Chinese defense chief in a speech delivered at the Shangri-La Dialogue on Sunday. Chinese analysts said this is the strongest warning China has sent to the US, as Washington has frequently used the Taiwan question to provoke China and encourage the separatist authorities on the island to worsen the region’s security situation….
On the Taiwan question, Wei said Taiwan is part of China, and the Taiwan question is China’s internal affair. “China will definitely realize its reunification.”
From the Trump administration to Biden’s, the US has continually used Taiwan question to serve its strategy of containing China, such as instigating the Taiwan separatist authorities to gain a diplomatic presence, which challenges the globally recognized one-China principle; and increasing arms sales, sending warships to enter waters around the island to disrupt the reunification process. Meanwhile, some US Congress members and officials, and even the House speaker, have visited or planned to visit the island, sending the wrong signals to the separatists and challenging the political foundation of China-US relations.
All of this has made China believe that it is necessary to send a clear warning to the US, and even if the US ignores the warning and continues its dangerous moves or even crosses the red line, China is ready to solve the Taiwan question once and for all, whether the process is peaceful or by force, experts said.
Although the Chinese mainland will continue to make the greatest efforts to seek peaceful reunification for the sake of the people on both sides of the Taiwan Straits, if the US and authorities on the island totally destroy hopes of peaceful reunification, the mainland will not hesitate to solve the problem by force, as China is not afraid of such a scenario, analysts noted.
This looks like another “What about ‘no’ don’t you understand?” that the US seems determined not to get.
Now, briefly, to a lower-stakes US effort to push other countries around that backfired, embarrassingly, because they were the sort that our State Department assumes will be subservient. The US was hosting the Summit of the Americas summit in Los Angeles but was not inviting Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela because we don’t deem them to be democratic enough. But right wing authoritarian regimes like those in Brazil, Colombia and Haiti get our Good Housekeeping seal of approval.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador decided to boycott the meeting, although his foreign minister was set to attend. The unraveling continued. From Responsible Statecraft:
The presidents of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador declined as well. At the Summit, other heads of state openly criticized Washington for not inviting all the nations of the Americas.
Irregular migration was a main focus of the Summit, but between them, the countries excluded and those whose presidents stayed home accounted for 69 percent of the migrants encountered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in April — nearly 180,000 people. Trying to formulate a strategy to stem irregular migration without engaging the governments of the migrants’ home countries is a recipe for failure.
Other issues on the Summit’s agenda — environmental protection and climate change, public health, organized crime — are also transnational problems that cannot be effectively addressed unilaterally. Therein lies the flaw in Biden’s Wilsonian disposition to only engage with democracies. Sometimes you have to engage with governments you don’t like in order to deal with urgent problems.
Responsible Statecraft effectively said the quiet part out loud: democracies = governments the US likes.
Now to the EU engaging in increasingly bizarre and self-harming behavior. It’s shocking to see the contrast between the regime under Jean-Claude Juncker versus Ursula von der Leyen. Juncker was a drunk who too often enjoyed speaking out of school with journalists. But when teamed with Michel Barnier on the seemingly-never-ending Brexit negotiations, he managed to rise to an approximation of statesmanlike. Barnier and Juncker were also careful, when the British team didn’t throw hopeless timing spanners, about respecting the primacy of the EU Council and briefing sherpas before those meeting.
By contrast, von der Leyen is a self-appointed Queen of the EU, and not a very capable one either. She’s also made it a point to relentlessly press EU members into signing up for aggressive anti-Russia policies that will hurt them more than Russia, the latest being the Russian oil sanctions.
We have yet another von der Leyen scheme being pushed forward this week: that of having Ukraine join the EU. If this happens, it will put the Union into a fast-terminal decline. Fortunately, the press is already reporting that Denmark and the Netherlands are opposed, which means there are likely others that haven’t yet gone public.
First, and least important, there are procedural issues. There’s a queue of countries ahead of Ukraine for admission to the EU. It makes a mockery of the idea that the EU had a disciplined and objective process to let Ukraine jump to the front of the line.
Second, no way, no how does Ukraine even remotely qualify for membership. The EU is already unhappy with Poland over its refusal to respect the primacy of the ECJ. It’s mad at Hungary because it’s a little country run by a popular authoritarian who doesn’t know his place. The EU refused to admit Turkey over human rights violations, such as purges after a failed coup, and lack of freedom of expression.
So how about our precious Ukraine? It has right wing thugs as a second military, under the Interior Ministry, to act as enforcer. This is the same parallel structure that Hitler used and for similar reasons: he wanted to be sure his shock troops would be sufficiently brutal (the regular army was often reluctant to kill rebels in Donbass). Politicians have been beaten and killed by various right wing groups; Zelensky himself was threatened if he implemented the pro-Russia policies he campaigned on.
Zelensky has since outlawed all opposition parties, shut down opposition papers, jailed an opposition leader, and disappeared journalists.
Oh, and that’s before getting to Ukraine’s massive corruption. As GM pointed out:
Ukraine is one the absolute most corrupt societies in the world, on all levels. The “oligarchs” barely scratch the surface of it — every daily transaction involves corruption there, education, healthcare, administration, whatever you can think of. Nobody can be trusted under any circumstances.
Third, admitting Ukraine into the EU means all those Ukraine refugees can live anywhere in the EU and take advantage of their new home’s social services. Think the neighbors can take the costs on an ongoing basis?
Fourth, Ukraine will be entitled to EU subsidies, when it’s sure to be a huge net drain. Ukraine was already the poorest country in Europe. Russia will be taking the east and a lot of the south, and even though those areas are economic basket cases, they are still more productive than the rest of the country.
Fifth, as a pretty obvious implication of number four above…Ukraine is losing! It’s beyond the point of any hope of turning it around. Even the English language press, having way oversold Ukraine’s capabilities and prospects, is more and more often running articles on how bad conditions are. Even Ukraine authorities are starting to come clean about the daily deaths and the overwhelming Russian materiel advantage.
And the longer the West tries to pump air into its balloon (and joining the EU would extend that exercise), in the end the more territory it will lose to Russia. So letting Ukraine into the EU will also be signing up for a reconstruction project in a rump and likely landlocked state.
Sixth, it’s not clear Ukraine can be regarded as a country, as opposed to a US colony. As we did in Afghanistan, we’re now funding the government budget. Before that, in 2020, the IMF approved a $5 billion facility, which as far as I can tell on a fast reading, rolled over existing loans plus extended new credit. The IMF gave Ukraine another $1.4 billion loan when the war started. The US has approved additional borrowing by Ukraine under a Lend Lease Act, although I can’t find the maximum authorized.
Seventh, another issue is that the Ukraine banking system is likely to need to be recapitalized. From what I can tell, most of the big banks are headquartered in Kiev or Kharkiv. In the areas Russia is “liberating”, it is converting banks to roubles, and rumor has it, wiping out debts. That actually makes sense, since old loans would have been made under Ukrainian law but not under a new regime. The write-offs will stimulate the local economies, create good will towards the occupiers, and leave big balance sheet holes for the parent banks. What’s not to like?
Last but not least…this move is going to terminally alienate Turkey, which let us not forget is the most important member of NATO, by virtue of location and having the second biggest NATO armed force. As if the stunt of seeking to admit Sweden and Finland to NATO without consulting Turkey wasn’t enough of a diss, the prospect of admitting a degenerate basket case being propped up by the US over Turkey will further harden Erdogan’s hostility. Mind you, Erdogan is too cagey to tie his fortunes to Russia and China. But it’s reasonable to bet he’s only going to be accommodating to the West only when it suits him or the costs are very low.
But none of this will deter Queen Ursula! Full steam ahead!