The editors of the Wall Street JournaL speculate that China and Russia are testing the Biden Administration.
The Philippines began to sound the alarm last month over Chinese militia boats, at one point totaling 220, occupying the Whitsun Reef west of the archipelago. The naval equivalent of Russia’s “little green men,” China’s military-affiliated flotillas can masquerade as fishing fleets to give Beijing plausible deniability as it entrenches itself in disputed waters.
An analysis by two researchers from the U.S. Naval War College last week found “no evidence of fishing whatsoever during these laser-focused operations, but every indication of trolling for territorial claims.”
For more than a decade China has been moving aggressively to establish dominance in the waters surrounding the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan, building military installations and harassing other nations’ commercial vessels. In 2016 an international court said China was breaking the law in the South China Sea. The Trump Administration last summer sanctioned firms involved in the construction of illegal islands there.
Russia’s aims in stepping up its military presence along Ukraine’s border are less clear, though President Vladimir Putin never shies from an opportunity to torment NATO. The State Department on Monday called for Moscow to “refrain from escalatory actions.”
The two situations are hardly comparable. We actually have a treaty with the Philippines which extends to safeguarding them from attack across the South China Sea. We have no discernible interest in Ukraine other than to irritate Russia. China’s interest in Philippine territory is just part of their stated belief that the entirety of the South China Sea belongs to them (cf. “nine-dash line”). Ukraine on the hand during its entire lengthy history was never an actual country until Nikita Khrushchev, who coincidentally had some Ukrainian ancestry himself, made it a distinct Soviet republic in the 1950s. The Russians see Ukraine (the name means “on the border”) as being an intrinsic part of Russia and they have a pretty good case.
Personally, I think that when either China or Russia “test” the Biden Administration and I believe they will, there will be little ambiguity about it. As it is I’m not sure who is provoking whom or to what end.