The Biden administration faces a dangerous anti-American triad

Even as the United States and its allies are attempting to formulate coordinated policies to prevent Russia from invading Ukraine, Moscow, Beijing and Tehran are conveying to Washington that it takes its eye off East Asia and the Middle East at its peril. Moreover, they are doing so very much in coordination, reminding the Biden administration that, try as it might, it cannot compartmentalize crises. 

In mid-December, Russian President Vladimir Putin held a video call with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. The two agreed, as Xi put it, that “China and Russia should increase their joint efforts to more effectively safeguard the security interests of both parties.” Indeed, Putin’s senior national security adviser Yuri Ushakov, a former ambassador to the United States, told reporters that Xi had offered his support for Putin’s stand against the West. The two leaders are scheduled to hold an in-person summit in China on Feb. 4, the opening day of the Winter Olympics.

Putin also met last week with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Although the visit was not especially substantive, it certainly signaled a growing warmth between the two countries. Raisi provided Putin with a draft of an updated 20-year cooperation agreement between Iran and Russia. If successfully concluded, this arrangement would follow on the completion in March 2021 of Iran’s 25-year “cooperation program” with China. Two weeks ago, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited China to discuss the agreement’s implementation; already, at the end of December, Tehran agreed to Beijing’s opening a consulate general in its strategic port of Bandar Abbas.  

This week, Russia, Iran and China held their third joint naval drill, dubbed CHIRU, the first of which took place in December 2019. They conducted the three-day exercise in the Gulf of Oman, just outside the Strait of Hormuz, the critical chokepoint for the passage of oil from the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean. Russia sent three ships to the exercise: a missile cruiser Varyag, an anti-submarine warfare ship, and a tanker. China sent the guided-missile destroyer Urumqi — named after the capital of Xinjiang, home to most of its Uyghur population— a supply ship, ship-borne helicopters and 40 members of the Marine Corps of the People’s Liberation Army Navy. Iran sent 11 ships, as well as smaller vessels commanded by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is Tehran’s usual vehicle for harassing Western navies and commercial shipping.

The timing of the exercise could not have been more propitious, at least for Russia. Moscow’s defense ministry described the exercise as “joint tactical maneuvering and practiced artillery fire at a naval target, as well as search-and-rescue missions at sea.” What the Russians termed “tactical maneuvering” Tehran more bluntly described as “night fighting.” The Iranians also said the exercise included fire-fighting drills, which would be critical in any exchange of fire with a Western navy. For its part, the Chinese defense ministry opined that the exercise was meant to “jointly safeguard maritime security,” presumably from American predations.

At roughly the same time as the three countries were conducting their exercise, the Chinese air force once again penetrated Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone. Like the exercise, the message was clear: Washington had better take heed of the ability of each of its adversaries to exploit its preoccupation with any one of them. Indeed, earlier this week Foreign Minister Wang Yi addressed Ukraine and Taiwan in a conversation with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, stating that, with respect to Ukraine, “regional security could not be guaranteed by strengthening or even expanding military blocs,” and that the United States should “stop playing with fire on the Taiwan issue, and stop creating various anti-China cliques.”

Moreover, the tripartite exercises, the meetings, the new agreements, the statements all are meant to convey a message that none of these three countries is as isolated as Washington often asserts. For Putin, in particular, it means that he has a fallback option if Washington does impose sanctions that are meant to “cripple” the Russian economy. He can look to Beijing for high-tech cooperation and to Tehran for arms sales. For all three states, it is another indication of the degree to which they are preparing to fill the regional vacuum that Washington began to create when it withdrew from Afghanistan.

There are, of course, differences among the three — for example, between Russia and Iran in Syria, between China and Iran over Beijing’s close ties with Israel and Saudi Arabia, and between Moscow and Beijing over China’s growing presence in eastern Siberia. Nevertheless, their shared hostility toward Washington and common desire to expel the United States at least from the Middle East and Indian Ocean likely overcomes whatever differences they might have. Washington, therefore, would do well to consider how to ensure that whatever sanctions it imposes in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine will overcome Putin’s ability to mitigate their impact on his country’s economy by drawing upon the resources that his anti-American partners are certain to make available to him.

Moreover, as it prepares its fiscal year 2023 defense budget, the Biden administration should consider that it no longer can assume that it can address multiple threats consecutively and thereby reduce the pressure to increase defense spending. Rather, it should recognize that deterring the anti-American triad calls for additional budgetary and material wherewithal to respond to crises in multiple theaters, which these states are certain to generate in coordinated fashion. 

Alternately, should it decide not to make sufficient resources available to deter Russia, China and Iran, the Biden administration should accept that, over time, it effectively will cede to them its influence not only in the Middle East but perhaps in Europe as well.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

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