China Has Crossed Biden’s Red Line on Ukraine

President Biden warned China two years ago not to provide “material support” for Russia’s war in Ukraine. On Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken conceded that Xi Jinping ignored that warning. China, Mr. Blinken said, was “overwhelmingly the No. 1 supplier” of Russia’s military industrial base, with the “material effect” of having fundamentally changed the course of the war. Whatever Mr. Biden chooses to do next will be momentous for global security and stability.

Mr. Biden can either enforce his red line through sanctions or other means, or he can signal a collapse of American resolve by applying merely symbolic penalties. Beijing and its strategic partners in Moscow, Tehran, Pyongyang and Caracas would surely interpret half-hearted enforcement as a green light to deepen their campaign of global chaos. Mr. Xi sees a historic opportunity here to undermine the West.

This is a moment akin to President Obama’s 2013 red-line failure in Syria. When dictator Bashar al-Assad defied Mr. Obama’s warning not to use chemical weapons on his people, the president abstained from military action, and the consequences were dire. Six months later Moscow launched its 2014 invasion of Crimea—the beginning of the now-decadelong Ukraine War. A failure to act decisively against China now would open a path for Russian victory in Ukraine.

Mr. Biden drew his red line on March 18, 2022, three weeks after Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. “I made no threats,” Mr. Biden said after a video call with Mr. Xi that day. But Mr. Biden said he made sure the Chinese president understood he would “be putting himself in significant jeopardy” and risking China’s economic ties with the U.S. and Europe if he materially supported Russia’s war.

Mr. Biden’s cabinet reinforced his ultimatum with specific warnings. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo warned that the administration could “essentially shut” China’s biggest chip maker, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp., in response to its chips being used by the Russian military. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen threatened financial sanctions. She followed up with a pledge late last year “to take decisive, and surgical, action against financial institutions that facilitate the supply of Russia’s war machine.”

Trade data suggest Beijing was careful to avoid overtly crossing the red line in 2022. But in 2023, when the Biden administration applied only token sanctions on Iranian entities that provided thousands of kamikaze drones to the Russians—drones that have saturated Ukrainian air defenses and caused widespread carnage—the Chinese probably decided that Mr. Biden’s bluster was a bluff. In March 2023, Mr. Xi visited the Kremlin in a bold show of solidarity with Mr. Putin. It turned out to be a watershed in Moscow’s war, effectively turning the conflict into a Chinese proxy war with the West.

Read the rest at WSJ.

Matt Pottinger sits on Yorktown Institute’s advisory board and is Chairman of the China Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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