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Peter Morici: Instead of standing up to Russia and China, Biden appeases them

The United States has slipped into cold wars with Russian and China characterized by military brinkmanship and economic competition.

To address these challenges, President Joe Biden envisions a community of democracies and strengthening cooperation with Europe and the Quad (the U.S., Japan, India and Australia.)

However, each member, most notably India and Germany, faces challenges that sometimes conflict with U.S. objectives.

More Chamberlain, less Churchill

Too often, the exercise looks more like Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement than Winston Churchill’s grand alliance.

Russia is a 20th century superpower, now diminished, living by 19th century rules. President Vladimir Putin compensates for a backward, petroleum-dependent economy by whipping up anti-Western sentiment, building his military, and pushing the boundaries of his influence in places like Belarus and Ukraine.

Through inexpensive cyber aggression, he disrupts Western elections and forces Western businesses to pay tribute—that lays bare America’s, or at least Biden’s, reliance on tribute.

Moscow’s provocations tax American and European resources that would be better devoted to countering China’s massive military buildup. More distressing is Germany helping finance Russia’s adventurism by buying more of its natural gas, leaving Europe vulnerable to Russian threats to cut off the gas and its refusal to spend enough for the common defense.

Here American appeasement is dressed up as alliance building.

Faced with German insistence to move forward with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Biden recast the issue in terms of transit fees Ukrainians would lose as German purchases are routed through the new pipeline, He obtained commitments from Chancellor Angela Merkel to keep the gas flowing through both routes and provide financial assistance to Kiev.

Germans fund Russian army

That will increase the German money Russia can pour into its military, mischief in places like Syria, Libya and Central Asia and bullying former Iron Curtain states. Biden and Merkel cut a deal, perhaps not as lethal but certainly as cynical, as Chamberlain sacrificing the Sudetenland.

Biden has not adequately retaliated for Russia’s cyber piracy and now Russia is again massing troops along the Ukrainian border. In September, he assured President Volodymyr Zelensky the United States would counter Russia hostility—we’ll see how Biden measures up this time.

The Chinese threat is more systemic. It’s a socialist-market economy, though facing challenges, is likely resilient and is financing a massive naval buildup that leaves the U.S. fleet overextended.

RAND war game stimulations shows the U.S. facing great difficulty repelling a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Presidents Donald Trump and Biden have been successful in focusing India, Japan, Australia and the U.K. on supplementing U.S. military resources in the Pacific, but China has the home field advantage.

The U.S. fleet is built around aircraft carriers and other large ships to enable American air dominance and support ground troops. China’s land-based missiles make those and the most proximate American bases vulnerable and ineffective in theaters close to China.

Former Defense Undersecretary Michele Flournoy has advocated a strategy based on smaller ships, drones and other agile forces but the Navy is underfunded to implement that transition.

No credible strategy

Much of China’s economic success was enabled by joining the WTO. Then bending the rules beyond recognition, extracting technology from Western firms seeking market access and stealing intellectual property, and tying in knots the dispute settlement mechanism. USTR Katherine Tai talks tough, but her China policy review doesn’t articulate a credible strategy to reform the WTO or pivot to a regional trade alliance in the Pacific.

It is terribly unclear what Biden offers allies in the region to face up to Chinese mercantilism if he does not offer access to the U.S. market if our friends turn away from profiting through exports to China.

Biden demonstrated through his botched withdrawal from Afghanistan that he is willing to stiff allies. Will America be there if our allies commit to facing up to Chinese aggression? Perhaps not with Biden in charge.

At a time when the United States is asking allies to spend more, the Biden budget is planning to spend less in real terms on defense. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin appears clueless and ill-placed to transform the Navy and wider U.S. military to address the Chinese challenge.

Biden is planning a summit for democracies—a Kumbaya moment that will bring together civil society, international organizations and world leaders. No doubt they will talk a lot about inequality, climate change and the responsibility of richer countries to aid developing nations. But nothing much will be accomplished that has not already been achieved, for example, through COP26.

Meanwhile. President Xi Jinping continues to build ships.

I can’t wait to hear Biden proclaim, “social justice in our times.”

Peter Morici is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.

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