How the new Moscow-Beijing axis is already exploiting Biden's exhaustion
Early on in his presidency, Donald Trump dropped the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan – a prelude, it turned out, not to a tougher line on the Taliban but cutting a deal with them. His foreign policy always was erratic and impulsive, which has its merits: America’s enemies could never quite tell how he’d react. Joe Biden is more predictable. He wants to rebuild at home, with fewer overseas entanglements. His foreign policy can be summed up in two words: less America.
The horror at Kabul Airport gives a vivid example of what “less America” looks like – and this will just be the start. A few days ago, the G7 met – not to agree any plan of action, but to beg Biden to hold the airport for a few days longer. He refused. Without America, the rest of the G7 has nothing to say. The same is true for Nato. Biden says he is diverting his attention to China, which raises an obvious question: which other allies are no longer a priority? Where might be the next place to fall?
While the debate in the West has been one of dismay and disbelief, there has been a more upbeat and lively discussion in Moscow and Beijing. Russian diplomats have welcomed the Taliban as “normal guys” who are “much more able to reach agreements than the puppet government in Kabul”. China is toasting a bigger picture: the steady dismantling of American influence in the world and the many possibilities it opens up.
A striking example was given by the Global Times newspaper, whose voice never differs much from the Chinese Communist Party’s official line. An “Afghan effect” will see America’s erstwhile allies peel away – even Singapore, it said, is no longer in Washington’s orbit and is now neutral on touchstone issues like Taiwan. The only countries the US can fool into taking its side against China are “tiny ones like Lithuania”, which recently agreed to accept a Taiwanese ambassador – to the fury of Beijing.
“China and Russia should unite different forces to humiliate the US over the Lithuania issue and the Taiwan question, generating a new, universally comprehensible ‘Afghan effect’ in different forms,” it said. “Washington’s arms are way too long. So Beijing and Moscow should cut them short in places where Washington shows its arrogance and parades its abilities.” In other words: if Biden is no longer in the business of protecting allies, where else might fall?
Russia and China haven’t tended to do much together before, but there are signs of an emerging alliance between them. Both are close to the Taliban and now have plenty of influence in Kabul. Both have been hit by American and European sanctions and have been working together to get around them. A Sino-Russian foreign ministers’ summit earlier this year ended in agreement to “support each other’s efforts to safeguard national sovereignty, security, and development interests” – a policy that has certainly worked in Afghanistan.
They also talked about building an alternative to a Western-led international order that (they claim) “does not represent the will of the international community.” They’ve been busy using vaccine diplomacy to build up their own orbit of friends: the poorer countries who were refused jabs by Europe and America.
A few days after the March summit, both got to work on their enemies. Russia massed its forces near the border with Ukraine and China started sending record numbers of military aircraft into Taiwan’s airspace. Next month, troops from Russia and Belarus will be on a joint exercise around Ukraine.
It doesn’t take a strategic genius – or a conspiracy theorist – to see what’s likely to happen now. When a global power is in retreat, its enemies will probe its defences and see what happens.
When America chose isolation in the 1930s, Mussolini tested what the new League of Nations would do if he invaded Ethiopia. The answer: nothing. This told the world that this supposed alliance was powerless. Various debacles in the 1970s – the oil crisis, the Iran hostage crisis, the near-bankruptcy of Britain – meant it was by no means clear to Argentina that the Falkland Islands would be defended.
The integrity of Nato is certainly up for question now. Afghanistan was supposed to be a Nato mission but it was ended by Washington without involving any of the supposed allies. It is easy to see how Biden barely mentioned Nato, given that the US spends more than twice as much on defence as the other 29 members put together. As Trump liked to point out, Nato has become less of a defence alliance and more an excuse for Europeans to skimp on defence while hiding under America’s nuclear umbrella.
So if Biden is focusing on China, how much would he really care about Georgia? Or the Baltic? Lithuania is certainly an obvious target. A young democracy that still defines itself against the Soviets, it shows now signs of being cowed by Moscow or Beijing and now finds itself the subject of menaces from both. Refugees are a new weapon: Belarus has directed 4,000 Iraqis and Syrians towards Lithuania so far this year. With 2.5 million Afghans already on the move, it won’t be hard to start a new European migrant crisis.
Ukraine could also be next. The NordStream2 pipeline, agreed by Germany in defiance of protests from Washington, will soon let Russia export more gas direct to Europe - cutting out Ukraine. This gives Putin a free hand to escalate his conflict in Donbass. If so, how much resistance would he expect from an exhausted Biden? And without America, how much could the rest of Europe be expected to put up a fight?
Sergei Lavrov, Putin’s foreign minister, says that he’s out to create a “truly multipolar and democratic world.” On his last trip to China, he said this vision was “being hindered by western countries, particularly the United States.”
With American influence waning so fast and so visibly, these two new allies have their perfect chance.