Washington Examiner

Brewing Global Disruption

Senior Fellow and Director, Keystone Defense Initiative
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in Moscow on March 21, 2023. (Presidential Executive Office of Russia, via Wikimedia Commons)
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in Moscow on March 21, 2023. (Presidential Executive Office of Russia, via Wikimedia Commons)

The horrific Hamas Oct. 7 massacre of Israelis is bringing the new China-Russia-Iran axis into sharper focus.

New House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) showed some promise that he gets it when in his first major interview since claiming the gavel he said that the United States should fully back Israel and “can’t allow Vladimir Putin to prevail in Ukraine because I don’t believe it would stop there, and it would probably encourage and empower China to perhaps make a move on Taiwan.”

He's right.

Around the time President Joe Biden flew to Israel to show solidarity and to influence Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ground invasion, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin met in Moscow. The authoritarian leaders opposed the Israeli plans to destroy Hamas and instead called for an immediate ceasefire. In their grinning answers to state media, they appeared to be relishing in the chaos and danger to the U.S. and its allies.

Iran has been assisting its proxies in missile attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria almost daily for nearly two weeks.

In September, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu toured an Iranian weapons exhibition in Tehran. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russia has ramped up military cooperation with Iran, including its space-launch vehicle program, advances that could help Iran develop an intercontinental ballistic missile. Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps successfully launched a satellite into orbit last month, the third time in its history and the third time since 2020. Iran has supplied Russia with weapons for its war against Ukraine, including drones and training.

Russia has been courting Iran proxies and periodically publicly haranguing Israel for “disregarding Palestinian lives.” Israel has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has taken Ukrainian refugees, but largely due to Russia’s cooperation with Israel’s attacks against terrorists in Syria, it has declined to do much more to assist the West in its support for Ukraine. Still, it is a gross mistake to call the relationship between Israel and Russia positive.

Hamas and Hamas militants have visited Russia and have conversed and met with senior Russian officials. On Thursday, Oct. 26, Hamas terrorists and members of the Iran regime met with Russian leaders in Moscow. Although Russia was clearly trying to display its diplomatic clout and moderating prowess, its willingness to meet with Hamas and behave as though it was a legitimate political entity exposed the absurdity of the charade.

And while the U.S. contends with the spate of Iranian proxy missile attacks at U.S. bases and Israel’s defensive counterattack against militants in Gaza, Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine has slogged on. Ukraine successfully destroyed Russian helicopters and a key runway with U.S.-made weapons, a reminder that the war is dynamic and Ukraine is still trying to repel the Russians out of its territory.

And on Oct. 8, a gas pipeline and a telecommunications cable connecting new NATO member Finland and stalwart NATO member Estonia under the Baltic Sea was broken. Finnish investigators said it may have been deliberate. According to knowledgeable government officials, it was clear that something heavy was repeatedly dragged across the cable until it was cut. Two ships were near the area when it happened: a Chinese one and a Russian one. The focus on the investigation has zeroed in on the Chinese ship.

Xi has provided diplomatic support for Iran and this year met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Iran has increased its aggressive behavior not only through its proxies. Iran has also sought to seize commercial ships transiting the Strait of Hormuz.

For its part, the Chinese military has ramped up its harassment and threatening maneuvers against lawfully flying and sailing American and U.S. ally unmanned aircraft systems and ships in international waters. China has employed dangerous water cannons and military lasers against ally ships. And just last week, a Chinese ship hit a Philippine ship in the South China Sea, prompting Biden to clarify that the U.S. defense of the Philippines is “ironclad.”

Before Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, he visited Xi, and the two announced their pact and described their friendship as having “no limits.” And they said, “There are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.” The common goal between the two is to undermine U.S. alliances to the point of breaking them and thereby finally supplanting the U.S. as the preeminent global power and to change the norms and accepted national borders. Iran is happy to join in the effort to contest the norms and stress the U.S. ability to respond to so much chaos and violence coming from various proxies and locations.

The brazen attacks against U.S. and allied assets are so frequent and numerous that it seems their goal to change the status quo is not so much aspirational as becoming realized as we speak.

And despite hopes from Western analysts that Ukraine’s success in beating back the Russians and degrading the Russian military would embarrass Xi and cause him to distance himself from Putin, the friendliness between the two leaders has increased as well as their visits and cooperative ventures. Energy cooperation between the two has boomed throughout Russia’s war, including Russian state company Rosatom building energy plants in China. But that is not the most concerning development. Pentagon officials confirmed that Rosatom is supplying enriched Uranium to China’s fast breeder reactor.

Russia has been recapitalizing its nuclear weapons program for years and no longer abides by the New START Treaty, which caps U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons. China is amid a “strategic breakout,” expanding its nuclear arsenal and improving its delivery systems, and is expected to field more than 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030. Barring a sudden and unexpected change in Xi's plans, the U.S. will for the first time in history face two nuclear peer adversaries.

China and Russia have also expanded their cooperative military exercises in the Pacific, and this summer, 11 Russian and Chinese vessels were operating near the Aleutian Islands, prompting a response from four Navy destroyers.

Adding another dimension to the toxic collaboration to sow chaos and harm the U.S. is North Korea’s contributions as an eager arms dealer, prompted by China’s refusal to enforce sanctions, to actors ranging from Hamas to Iran to Russia. South Korea’s military said Hamas’s brutal assault against Israeli communities may have used rocket-propelled grenades and 122 mm artillery shells from North Korea.

Kim Jong Un visited Russia a couple of weeks ago and vowed he would “faithfully fulfill” agreements between the two countries. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, rather than keeping the public portion with the brutal leader of the "Hermit Kingdom," thanked Pyongyang's "unwavering and principled support" for Russia’s war against Ukraine and expressed Russia’s "complete support and solidarity" for the North Korean regime.

Biden officials will be loath to make much of the patterns of cooperation among these nations. Doing so would require a change in U.S. strategy — if you can call the White House’s tepid and risk-averse responses to aggression and provocations anything resembling a strategy. But the pact between these nations certainly looks like an authoritarian axis, and trying to pull the countries apart or focus on one theater at the expense of another is a recipe for failure.

It is clear that these four horsemen of global disruption are working together. Each is a tyranny with expansionist territorial aims. Russia under Putin is trying to reconstitute the Soviet empire with imperial designs at its perimeter, most notably now in Ukraine. China has territorial ambitions, moving to control international waters over which it claims sovereignty, and intends to swallow Taiwan as soon as circumstances allow. Iran has designs on the territory of Israel, being genocidally hostile to the Jewish people. North Korea is still technically at war with South Korea and thus has territorial ambitions south of the 38th parallel. The four, though widely differing from each other in many ways, are similar in working to end the world order that has prevailed for three generations under American leadership.

Of the four, China’s involvement and support of the other three pariahs most obviously contradicts its demand to be recognized as a beneficial force on the world stage. Its three allies hardly bother to counter the obvious truth that they are malignant aggressors. Beijing presumably calculates that it has more to gain from working with them to erode the order built around American preeminence.

Leaders in Japan and South Korea have made the connection between the need for Ukraine to prevail against Russia and the impact it will have on Xi’s decision to move against Taiwan.

The U.S. is starved for presidential leadership who can clearly see what is becoming painfully obvious, even if at a time when the public is divided and some have little appetite for the needed investments in the country’s ability to produce a high quantity of weapons across military theaters to deter smaller conflicts from getting much bigger. But if they know the stakes and the axis that threatens them, no doubt they can be persuaded. Until then, Congress will have to lead the way. National security leaders in both chambers have been forging forward against the neo-isolationist fringe. There is a spark of hope that Johnson may play a vital role at this key moment.

Those who dismissed the Iran or Russia threats as “distractions” from dealing with the China threat a year ago may be excused, but those who do so today cannot. Not considering the China-Russia-North Korea alignment with the sadistic Iran-backed Hamas murderers — and those who do so look increasingly naive and unfit to lead the country when the American Pax is in the balance.       

Read in the Washington Examiner.