- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday warned that if the U.S.-led coalition supporting Ukraine falters, it will “open a Pandora’s box” in which China and other countries think they can attack smaller states with impunity.

Mr. Blinken began two days of Capitol Hill appearances amid signs that the strong early bipartisan support for Kyiv is softening as its war with Russia enters its second year.

Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping wrapped up a three-day visit to Moscow in a major show of solidarity with Russian President Vladimir Putin against the U.S. and other Western democracies.

The Xi-Putin summit coincided with rising concern that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will inspire the Chinese president to speed up the timetable on his promise to seize Taiwan, by force if necessary, despite U.S. pledges to come to the defense of the island democracy.

Mr. Blinken told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that China is watching the staying power of the international coalition behind Ukraine “very carefully.”

“They will draw lessons for how the world comes together — or doesn’t — to stand up to this aggression,” the secretary of state said in reference to Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine, which began in February 2022. “If we allow the Russian aggression in Ukraine to go forward with impunity … we open a Pandora’s box around the world, where would-be aggressors everywhere look at this and say, ‘If they can get away with it, I can too.’”

He said nerves are particularly raw among U.S. Asian allies on China’s periphery, many of which have come together to support the international coalition backing Ukraine.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida this week made a surprise trip to Ukraine to support the Kyiv government. It was believed to be the first visit by a Japanese leader to an active war zone since the end of World War II.

“Even though this is happening half a world away, they see the stakes for them,” Mr. Blinken said. Japan, South Korea and Australia “see the stakes” involved in the war.

Chinese officials projected a counter-narrative during Mr. Xi’s three-day visit to Russia, which was seen as offering a lifeline to Mr. Putin in the face of Western economic sanctions and the Russian army’s struggles on the battlefield. Mr. Blinken and other U.S. officials have warned Beijing in recent weeks against supplying lethal aid to the Kremlin, which China denies it is planning to do.

Beijing said Mr. Xi’s visit was a “journey of friendship, cooperation and peace” and again criticized Washington for providing military support to Ukraine.

The trip signaled no new progress in ending the bloody conflict between Russia and Ukraine while shoring up Mr. Putin’s standing amid international efforts to isolate him and his government. Mr. Xi made hardly any references to the war in Ukraine, and Mr. Putin welcomed with positive but vague comments a Chinese “peace plan” that Beijing floated last week.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin reiterated China’s claims that it remains neutral on the conflict and said it had “no selfish motives on the Ukraine issue, has not stood idly by … or taken the opportunity to profit itself.”

“What China has done boils down to one word: That is to promote peace talks,” Mr. Wang said at a daily briefing for international news organizations in Beijing.

Mr. Wang accused the U.S. of lacking impartiality and of “fanning the flames” of the conflict by providing defensive weapons to Ukraine to Washington’s own benefit.

Bombing cities

Russia continued its bombing campaign against civilian targets in Ukraine while Mr. Xi was visiting Moscow. Russian forces pounded an apartment block with missiles in the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia on Wednesday and swarmed other cities with drone attacks overnight Tuesday.

Reuters reported that Ukrainian firefighters battled a blaze in two adjacent residential buildings in Zaporizhzhia. Officials said at least one person was killed and 33 wounded by a twin missile strike. The news agency cited a local official as saying at least six people were killed in Rzhyshchiv, a riverside town south of Kyiv, where a drone struck two college dormitories.

Although details of Mr. Xi’s peace plan remain unclear, the Biden administration and its European allies warn that the blueprint would lock in some Russian territorial grabs inside Ukraine.

“The world should not be fooled by any tactical move by Russia, supported by China or any other country, to freeze the war on its own terms,” Mr. Blinken told reporters at the State Department on Monday. A plan that does not restore to Ukraine all of its territory “is a stalling tactic at best or is merely seeking to facilitate an unjust outcome. That is not constructive diplomacy,” the secretary of state said.

Chinese officials have hinted that Mr. Xi will talk with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy after his Moscow visit, although no meeting has been officially confirmed. Kyiv, which has had its own economic and security ties to China, has been careful not to dismiss the peace plan out of hand.

The Biden administration has faced criticism from anti-war conservatives and liberals in Washington for not calling for a cease-fire in Ukraine and failing to do more to promote peace talks while continuing to send military aid to Ukrainian forces. The administration this week announced a $350 million package of high-end U.S. military aid for Kyiv, including ammunition, Bradley armored fighting vehicles, fuel tanker trucks and anti-tank weapons.

For many analysts, the Xi-Putin meeting marked a clear shift in the power dynamic between the two countries, which were allies and rivals during the Cold War. Officials in Moscow and Beijing said Mr. Xi’s three-day trip deepened the “no-limits friendship” that the two leaders outlined in a joint statement at their meeting just weeks before Russian forces entered Ukraine. Many say the summit cemented Russia’s role as the “junior partner” in the bilateral relationship.

The two countries, which are among the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, have engaged in joint military drills over the past year. U.S. intelligence officials have said China may be considering supplying Russia with weapons for its fight in Ukraine, but Beijing is believed to have given only rhetorical support.

China does look to Russia as a source of oil and gas and is buying up the fuel despite Western sanctions on such purchases. Beijing also has joined Moscow to stand up to what they see as U.S. aggression, domination of global affairs and unfair punishment for the Chinese and Russian governments’ human rights records.

Budget request

Mr. Blinken testified Wednesday at a Capitol Hill hearing examining the Biden administration’s 2024 budget request of nearly $71 billion in discretionary funding for the State Department and other international programs, including the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The secretary of state told lawmakers that the funding is essential to promoting the nation’s “positive vision” for a “world that is free, that is secure, that is open, that is prosperous.”

The budget request, he said, is key to addressing “the challenge posed by our strategic competitors — the immediate, acute threat posed by Russia’s autocracy and aggression, most destructively, of course, through its brutal aggression against Ukraine, and the long-term challenge from the People’s Republic of China.”

“A second set of challenges is really posed by shared global tests, including the climate crisis, migration, food and energy insecurity, pandemics, all of which directly impact the lives and livelihoods of Americans and people around the world,” Mr. Blinken said.

Ukraine was getting funding help on another front Wednesday. The International Monetary Fund said it had approved a $15.6 billion support package for Kyiv, the first program of its kind for a country at war. The IMF’s executive board still needs to sign off on the grant, a process that should conclude within weeks, officials said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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