- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 24, 2021

America’s main international rivals have wasted no time in testing the resolve of the Biden administration to defend U.S. allies and values.

Over the weekend, just days after President Biden took office, China staged a major escalation of its military pressure campaign against Taiwan. In Russia, the Kremlin issued a sharp rebuke for what it said was U.S. interference in its domestic political crisis sparked by protests over the detention of a top opposition figure.

Many of Mr. Biden’s top national security and diplomatic appointees are still awaiting confirmation, and the Democratic administration has signaled hopes to focus early on problems closer to home, including COVID-19 and the ailing U.S. economy.

“We know that China tests American administrations early on,” regional expert Gordon Chang told Fox News on Sunday, citing the 2001 incident early in the George W. Bush administration involving the midair collision of a Chinese jet and a Navy surveillance aircraft.

In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin’s main spokesman reacted sharply to Western criticism of the government’s handling of demonstrations in Moscow and more than 100 other cities across Russia in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

A fierce critic of Mr. Putin, Mr. Navalny was detained by officials upon his return to Moscow last week from Germany. He had been mysteriously poisoned in an attack widely blamed on Mr. Putin’s government.

Security officials declared the protests illegal and detained at least 3,500 people.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov singled out a decision by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to issue a “demonstration alert” warning U.S. citizens of the safety risks associated with Saturday’s protests. Embassy spokeswoman Rebecca Ross issued a statement on Twitter saying the U.S. supported “the right of all people to peaceful protest [and] freedom of expression.”

“Of course, these [comments] are inappropriate,” Mr. Peskov said in an interview Sunday on a state TV channel, The Moscow Times reported. The U.S. government was offering what he called “direct support for the violation of the law of the Russian Federation, support for unauthorized actions.”

Mr. Navalny is accused of violating the terms of a suspended sentence that was imposed in a 2014 fraud and money-laundering conviction, charges he said were designed to punish him for his political activism. He is to appear in court on Feb. 2 for a hearing on whether the suspended sentence will be converted to 3 1/2 years in prison, the Associated Press reported.

The State Department has issued a statement calling for Mr. Navalny’s release and European Union officials said Sunday the bloc plans to meet this week to discuss the situation in Russia.

Mr. Biden has already made one significant overture to Mr. Putin. He offered last week to extend the soon-to-expire New START arms control treaty after the Kremlin and the Trump administration failed to reach a deal. But Mr. Biden has also ordered a full-scale review by U.S. intelligence agencies of alleged Russian interference in the Nov. 3 election, reports of Russian bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and the “SolarWinds” Russian hacking operation of public and private computer networks.

“Even as we work with Russia to advance U.S. interests, so do we work to hold Russia to account for its reckless and adversarial actions,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday.

Those remarks sparked anger in Moscow. Kremlin press secretary Dmitri Peskov said Sunday that the U.S. and Russia were closer to being “enemies” than “partners” these days.

“We’re not ready for dictates, we’re not ready for boorishness and we’re not ready for any crossing of red lines,” he added.

Chinese challenge

The early challenge from China, which developed an increasingly antagonistic relationship with Washington in the final days of the Trump administration, has been even less subtle for Mr. Biden.

A group of 15 Chinese warplanes intruded into Taiwan’s air defense zone on Saturday, prompting the State Department to voice its concern over military pressure by Beijing on the island state.

Department spokesman Ned Price expressed in a statement U.S. concern over “the pattern of ongoing PRC attempts to intimidate its neighbors, including Taiwan.”

“We will stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity, security, and values in the Indo-Pacific region — and that includes deepening our ties with democratic Taiwan,” Mr. Price said.

Taiwan’s defense ministry announced that eight Chinese bombers and four fighter jets were detected entering the southwestern corner of the air defense identification zone Saturday. Two anti-submarine warfare planes and a reconnaissance aircraft also were spotted.

The aircraft flew in international airspace but inside the air defense identification zone, prompting Taiwan to deploy air defense measures in response.

The Taiwanese Defense Ministry said jet interceptors were ordered to track the flights and radio warnings were issued along with the deployment of air defense missile systems to monitor the activity.

U.S. intelligence agencies have been closely monitoring China’s military for any signs of threatening activities toward Taiwan, according to a U.S. official. No activities by Chinese ground or naval forces have been detected in recent days.

During the Trump administration, more than $12 billion in arms were offered to the government of independence-leaning Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, including 66 F-16 jets and missiles capable of reaching the Chinese mainland. Many of Mr. Biden’s appointees, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have endorsed much of Mr. Trump’s harder line against China on economics, human rights and regional security, while saying they will try to work with China’s communist leaders in areas of mutual interest.

Mr. Biden made a point of inviting Taiwan’s de facto ambassador in Washington to his inauguration last week, the first such invitation since the Carter administration formally recognized the Beijing regime as China’s official government.

The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command announced Saturday that the aircraft carrier strike group led by the USS Roosevelt had entered the South China Sea, where China has claimed disputed islands. The carrier is conducting what officials said were routine operations.

But Mr. Chang said the Roosevelt voyage was also sending a message to Beijing as it passed through the Taiwan Strait on the way to the South China Sea.

“Essentially what the Biden team is saying to China [is] that they had better leave Taiwan alone, especially with our carrier strike group,” he said on Fox, adding that he expected Chinese pressure on the Biden administration to escalate in the coming months.

Lo Chih-Cheng, a leading foreign policy voice in Taiwan’s parliament and a member of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, said China’s leaders were clearly trying to lay down a marker for the new team in Washington on how much support to give to Taipei.

“It’s sending a message to the Biden administration,” he told the Reuters news agency.

Talks with allies

In another bit of message-sending, the Pentagon revealed over the weekend that newly confirmed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had made two of his first official overseas calls to his counterparts from South Korea and Japan — two longtime allies that likely will be key in dealing with China and North Korea.

Pentagon readouts of the calls said Mr. Austin underscored the U.S. commitment to defend both countries, in particular restating the long-standing U.S. commitment to defend Japan in its dispute with China over the contested Senkaku Islands and to oppose “any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea.”

China late last week enacted a law empowering its coast guard to take armed action when China’s sovereignty is threatened by “foreign organizations or individuals at sea.” The state-controlled press described the law as a measure to strengthen Chinese claims to the strategically located island chain.

The Japanese Defense Ministry said Mr. Austin and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi discussed the importance of the bilateral alliance to “the peace and security of the Indo-Pacific region” — a term favored by the Trump administration to define the ring of U.S.-East Asian alliances designed to contain Chinese aggression.

Relations with Seoul and Tokyo were strained over the past four years as the Trump administration pushed for both allies to bear a greater financial share of the joint defense burden. Talks on new cost-sharing deals with both countries were left unfinished as Mr. Biden took office.

Mr. Kishi told Japanese reporters Saturday that it was “vital” for Washington and Tokyo to quickly renegotiate a new cost-sharing deal for American troops based in Japan before the current deal expires in March.

South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook said Sunday’s call came at Mr. Austin’s request.

Neither the U.S. nor the South Korean statement referred to the stalled cost-sharing talks or U.S. troop levels in South Korea.

Mr. Austin “underscored the U.S. commitment to defend [South Korea through both the U.S.-South Korea] combined defense posture and the U.S. extended deterrent,” the Pentagon said in a readout of the call.

The South Korean Defense Ministry said the two men agreed to meet in person “in the near future” for more intensive talks.

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

• David R. Sands can be reached at dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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