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Editorial: US should remain wary on China, band with Europe on Russian threats

APTOPIX Biden Putin (copy)

President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet earlier this year in Switzerland.  (Saul Loeb/Pool via AP)

Apart from harsh words from China on the future of Taiwan, President Joe Biden’s three-hour video chat Monday with Chinese President Xi Jinping seemed to go well, cautiously signaling a welcome reduction in tension.

But on the other side of the world, Russia has been creating what old State Department hands call “a fire in the inbox.” Despite its significant economic headwinds, Russia represents a major challenge to the United States, the European Union, NATO and world peace that will take strong leadership and tough measures to surmount.

It was encouraging to hear the United States and China turn down the heat on their rhetoric, if only temporarily. “Our responsibility as leaders of China and the United States is to ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended,” the White House quoted Mr. Biden as telling his Chinese counterpart.

All is not well in the U.S.-China relationship, of course, and it will take more than one conversation to reach a reasonable concensus. The subject of Taiwan in particular highlighted a potentially dangerous disagreement that some fear could lead to conflict. According to a senior official, President Biden told President Xi the U.S. “opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo” regarding Taiwan, a policy first set by the United States in 1979. According to the Chinese government, President Xi warned that those backing Taiwan are “playing with fire” and will “inevitably burn themselves.”

Nevertheless, China called the meeting “positive” and said it increased “mutual understanding.” It’s unclear whether that sentiment is genuine or simply what the Chinese leadership thinks we want to hear, so it would be wise to remain wary. Either way, that understanding will be strained if China escalates its ongoing efforts to intimidate Taiwan, as well as its efforts to claim the South China Sea, a critical sea lane, and to pursue nuclear superiority.

The situation with Russia appears more urgent. U.S. officials are reported to have warned their European counterparts that Russia might be on the verge of invading Ukraine, on whose border it has amassed a reported 100,000-strong armored force. The United States has complained about the buildup, but Russian President Vladimir Putin, always the opportunist, may sense an opening with Mr. Biden’s diminishing popularity at home and disappointing foreign policy decisions as well as uncertainty in their own countries among European leadership.

In 2014, Russia seized the Crimean peninsula, the southernmost part of Ukraine, and for the last seven years it has supported a pro-Russian separatist movement in the Donbas region of Ukraine bordering Russia. The new Ukrainian crisis has been building since April, when Mr. Putin declared that NATO support for Ukraine in the Donbas war crossed a Russian “red line,” and later repeated his claim that Russia and Ukraine are one people.

Since then, he also has restricted gas supplies to Europe, which helped drive up prices worldwide. And Mr. Putin may be most responsible for the chaotic situation unfolding on the Belorussian border with Poland, where thousands of Middle East refugees eager to enter the European Union have been bused to the border by the Belorussian government led by Putin ally Alexander Lukashenko. It’s a classic Putin tactic in which he uses proxies to exacerbate a crisis while casting Europeans as heartless for trying to deal with the problem.

Mr. Biden’s options for averting a Russian invasion are limited because Russia’s control of critical energy supplies to Europe threatens to drive a wedge between Europe and the United States. European leaders understandably do not want their citizens to freeze this winter. Western nations must work together to face these multiple perils. Things will be less dire in the spring, but waiting until then may be too late.

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