The Morning Dispatch: China's Russia Triangulation
Plus: Scenes from last night's closed-door fundraiser for embattled Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney.
Happy Tuesday! Yesterday’s Let Us Know was really more of a formality—of course we’re going to do another Morning Dispatch March Madness bracket pool!
To enter, click here (you will need to have a free ESPN account) and select “Join Group.” The password is “TMD2K22!” and predictions must be completed by Thursday morning before the first games tip off. If you want to be eligible for prizes (including Dispatch Yeti tumblers, mugs, hats, T-shirts, and membership for life), fill out this form so we can connect you with your ESPN entry.
We’ll keep you updated on the leaderboard over the next few weeks—and go Illini! [Editor’s note: Go Badgers.]
Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin announced Monday he will not support President Joe Biden’s nomination of Sarah Bloom Raskin to the Federal Reserve Board, effectively dooming the former Treasury Department official’s chances of confirmation. Republicans have held up a vote on Raskin’s nomination for weeks over concerns she would seek to expand the Fed’s mandate to include combating climate change. Senate Banking Committee Chair Sherrod Brown told reporters yesterday he plans to move forward with a vote anyways.
Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht announced Monday Germany will buy 35 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets to replace the country's decades-old Tornado aircraft. Berlin also plans to purchase 15 Eurofighter jets as part of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ recent pivot on defense spending.
Total federal lobbying spending reached a record $3.7 billion in 2021, according to government data compiled by OpenSecrets. Adjusted for inflation, however, lobbying revenues were higher from 2008 through 2011. The figure declined from 2010 to 2016 as a divided Congress prevented major legislation from passing, but has steadily increased since 2017.
Does China Regret Tethering Itself to Putin?
It’s been nearly three weeks since Vladimir Putin launched his so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine, and his greatest accomplishment thus far has been uniting the vast majority of the world in opposition to him. European nations who hemmed and hawed for months over punishing Russia have led the way in imposing perhaps the harshest sanctions regime in history. Public pressure campaigns have rendered it all but impossible for multinational corporations to do business in the geographically largest country on the planet. In a symbolic demonstration of Russia’s isolation, a whopping 141 countries voted in favor of a resolution condemning its aggression at the United Nations earlier this month, compared to just four nay votes and 35 abstentions.
But one of those abstainers is the second most powerful nation in the world. As Russian missiles rain down on Ukrainian cities—1,761 confirmed dead or wounded civilians thus far, according to the UN—the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has sought to publicly straddle the fence between the warring countries. President Xi Jinping has refused to directly condemn Putin’s aggression or label it an invasion, but other high-ranking officials readily admit “what [we] are seeing [in Ukraine] today is not what we have wished to see.” CCP spokespeople and state-owned media outlets have amplified Russian narratives about the war and criticized Western sanctions, but Chinese companies thus far appear to be more or less in compliance with the latter.
Beijing has persistently sought to capitalize on this veneer of neutrality in recent days to boost its own standing on the international stage. “China is willing to continue playing a constructive role in urging peace talks and is willing when necessary to work together with the international community to launch required mediation,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters last week. Days earlier, Josep Borrel, the European Union’s top diplomat, had argued “it must be China” who brokers a ceasefire, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Beijing had “sufficient tools to make a difference” in talks. Xi spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz last week to discuss potential diplomatic solutions to the conflict. On Sunday, a Chinese Communist Party advisor published an op-ed in The New York Times: “It’s Time to Offer Russia an Offramp. China Can Help With That.”
But China’s claims of neutrality have always been a facade. Just weeks before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine—an invasion that U.S. intelligence officials believe the Chinese were aware of in advance—Russian and Chinese leaders issued a lengthy joint statement defining the nature of their relationship and declaring their “friendship” had no limits. “The sides reaffirm their strong mutual support for the protection of their core interests, state sovereignty and territorial integrity, and oppose interference by external forces in their internal affairs,” the more-than-5,000 word document read. “Russia and China stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions, intend to counter interference by outside forces in the internal affairs of sovereign countries under any pretext, oppose color revolutions, and will increase cooperation in the aforementioned areas.”
With the Kremlin increasingly isolated economically as its advances in Ukraine continue to stall, the United States is concerned China is about to hold up its end of the bargain. “[We] are watching closely to see the extent to which China actually does provide any form of support, material support or economic support, to Russia,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN on Sunday, the same day anonymous U.S. officials leaked their belief that Russia asked China for military and economic aid shortly after the invasion began. “It is a concern of ours. And we have communicated to Beijing that we will not stand by and allow any country to compensate Russia for its losses from the economic sanctions.”
Sullivan spent his Monday expressing those worries directly to his Chinese counterpart, meeting Yang Jiechi in Rome for what a Biden administration official described as an “intense, seven-hour” session. “We do have deep concerns about China’s alignment with Russia at this time,” the official told reporters on a call yesterday afternoon that was short on specifics. “The National Security Advisor was direct about those concerns and the potential implications and consequences of certain actions.”
Whether China would so provocatively escalate its involvement in Putin’s war remains to be seen. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed the reports on Monday, maintaining China is “not a party” to what’s going on in Ukraine and accusing “some forces” of “smearing” the CCP government with disinformation. Despite Putin confirming over the weekend he was shipping in thousands of Middle Eastern volunteer soldiers to help Russian forces in the Donbas region, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed Russia has “no reason” to seek external military assistance because it “has an independent potential to continue the operation.”
But a U.S. diplomatic cable sent to NATO and European allies in recent days reportedly warns that China has “expressed some openness” to potentially providing Russia with military and/or financial assistance, perhaps starting with non-lethal aid like pre-packaged military meal kits. The cable, according to CNN, also suggested China would publicly deny any intentions it has of doing so.
Several regional experts The Dispatch spoke with yesterday, however, were skeptical Xi would tether his country to Putin’s war, which is already showing signs of becoming a years-long quagmire.
“I’m very dubious,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, the Council on Foreign Relations’ senior fellow for southeast Asia. “Even though he has moved China in many authoritarian directions and taken a lot of fairly severe actions, [Xi Jinping] is still a much more cautious actor than Vladimir Putin.” Kurlantzick pointed to recent remarks from the recently retired editor-in-chief of the CCP-aligned Global Times, Hu Xijin, as evidence.
“As a major military industrial power, Russia does not need to ask China to provide substantial military assistance for the limited-scale war in Ukraine,” Hu said in a video posted to social media. He also advocated for a total shutdown on arms dealing in general: “All countries should stop providing military assistance to any side of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and only humanitarian aid is allowed.”
Why might Xi be treading so carefully? He has hundreds of billions of reasons to be cautious. “If Xi Jinping were to move into a position of more active support for Russia in this conflict—so going beyond amplifying Russian disinformation and [actually] helping Russia evade sanctions or providing military resupply—he would be taking a huge strategic risk,” Hal Brands, a global affairs professor Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told The Dispatch. “He would be exposing Chinese firms to U.S. sanctions on a scale that the Chinese have never wanted to do before … [and] risk dramatically accelerating decoupling between the U.S. and China. In part because of the effect those sanctions would have, and in part because—by making China complicit in Russian behavior in this conflict—he would give so much ammunition to China’s critics in the United States.”
But Bonny Lin, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes Xi could view this moment as an opportune time to accelerate that decoupling. “If you look at the level of censorship within China—how it’s very pro-Russian, blaming the United States and blaming the West for what’s happening in Ukraine—it’s basically China doubling down on Xi Jinping’s decision to deepen relations with Russia,” she said. “It’s hard not to see a future in which Chinese leadership believes that there’s very little upside to working with the United States and the West. … [In that future,] what is there for China to lose by working with Russia?”
A lot, Brands argues. “I think [the war has] had the effect of making the Chinese look pretty bad in the eyes of a lot of European countries in particular,” he said. “In the near term, the effect of this crisis is to push Russia and China closer together, because neither of them has a good alternative to the other. But over the longer term, I think it gives us a preview of how this relationship might ultimately come apart, because the Chinese are starting to realize that Putin sometimes does things that blow back on Beijing, and the Russians are going to be forced into a position of dependence on China that will be much more extreme than the one they occupy today, which will actually be pretty uncomfortable for Moscow over time.”
Cheney: ‘We Do Not Need to Choose Between Socialism and Insurrection’
At a rally over the weekend in South Carolina, former President Donald Trump once again delivered a long, meandering speech—a discursive set of observations on everything from the 2020 election (“Our election was rigged and we can never let this happen again”) to national security (“my personality is what kept us out of war”) to China (“we respected each other, but I said, ‘President [Xi], we're eating chocolate cake’—and it was beautiful chocolate cake”).
And as he does nearly every time he speaks, Trump took aim at the Republicans he deems insufficiently supportive. No one seems to pique his anger more than Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney. “She's a terrible person,” Trump said. “And she has no idea what she's doing.”
Cheney’s blunt denunciations of Trump’s dishonesty and determination to hold him accountable for attempting to steal the election have had consequences. She was bounced from her position as the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives; she’s been denounced by Republican leaders in Wyoming; and, most recently, she was censured by the Republican National Committee as they defended the “legitimate political discourse” on January 6. There is little Donald Trump wants more than to see her lose her seat in Congress.
But Cheney is pushing back, and she’s got company. In recent weeks Republicans who have been reluctant to challenge Trump have found their voices. When the RNC censured Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, several GOP leaders in the senate, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, spoke out against the measure. Former vice president Mike Pence has offered blunt criticism of his former boss over January 6th and his obsession with the 2020 election, criticism echoed by Chris Christie, a longtime Trump enthusiast. Earlier this month, after Trump praised Putin’s “genius” and said his invasion of Ukraine was “wonderful,” Pence said there is no room in the GOP for “apologists for Putin.” Even GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, who’s gone out of his way to avoid criticizing Trump as he seeks to become speaker of the House after the midterms, directly contradicted the former president when he said he doesn’t think there’s “anything savvy or genius” about Putin.
It was in this somewhat friendlier political environment that Cheney raised more than $500,000 at a fundraiser Monday evening at the McLean Hilton hotel in suburban Washington. Senator Mitt Romney co-hosted the event and praised Cheney’s courage in brief remarks to the roughly 200 people in attendance, a crowd that included 2016 presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, former solicitor general Ted Olson, and other top Republican officeholders and appointees. “It was a strong showing and I would say that a good number of the people there were Trump voters, too,” former Rep. Barbara Comstock told The Dispatch.
Cheney spoke informally for a little more than twenty minutes, addressing challenges at home and abroad. “The threats we face are so grave, we need to elect serious people who understand the importance of our oath to the Constitution,” she said, according to sources in the room. “I will do everything in my power to make sure we're not a country that does not recognize the peaceful transfer of power.”
Cheney rejected the view that the current political battles in America should be seen as a contest between extremes. “We do not need to choose between socialism and insurrection,” she said. “As Republicans, we must demand more from our elected officials. We must demand seriousness.”
The contest has become something of a referendum on the future of the GOP, with avatars of the pre-Trump GOP contributing to Cheney, including former president George W. Bush, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, top GOP strategist Karl Rove, and McConnell, among others.
Trump is supporting Cheney’s main opponent in the GOP primary, Harriet Hageman, a onetime Cheney supporter who told the New York Times in January, “I don’t know the answer” when asked who had won the 2020 presidential election. The primary election, almost certain to determine who will represent Wyoming in the next Congress, is scheduled for August 16. With 69.9 percent of the vote to Biden’s 26.6 percent, Trump almost tripled Biden’s raw vote total in 2020, his largest margin in any state in the country.
Worth Your Time
To fully understand Putin’s assault on Kyiv, you need to think back to Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw, Michael Ignatieff argues in a rich historical essay published by Persuasion. “This story of four Eastern European capitals, all under attack from Russia, over the past 70 years makes nonsense of the claim that NATO expansion eastward caused this crisis,” he writes. “Eastern Europeans have always understood that an authoritarian Russia, whoever rules it, has never tolerated a free state on its borders. Mr. Putin’s brutality has a pedigree.”
As Timothy B. Lee notes in his latest Full Stack Economics newsletter, there’s a serious risk of a recession this year. “The most severe recessions of the last 50 years—in 2008 and the double-dip recessions in the early 1980s—followed the biggest price spikes of the last 50 years. The smaller oil price jumps in 1990 and 2000 were followed by mild recessions,” he writes. “One interpretation is that high oil prices directly cause recessions. Perhaps the extra costs of energy imports force firms to lay off workers and cut output. Or maybe consumers respond to rising gas prices—and the fear of further increases in the future—by cutting spending in other categories. But economists have also suggested a more subtle explanation: central banks tend to overreact to oil supply shocks, tightening monetary policy too much and thereby triggering a recession.”
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Toeing the Company Line
Harvest leads the site today with a lengthy profile of Jaime Herrera Beutler, the Washington state Republican whose 2020 vote to impeach Donald Trump has drawn her a MAGA challenger who’s chummy with the white nationalist fringe.
On Monday’s episode of Advisory Opinions, David and Sarah discuss the latest on Texas’ abortion law before turning to the avalanche of misleading commentary about Florida’s so-called “don’t say gay” law. Stick around for a thoughtful conversation about teachers’ free speech rights, pronouns, and critical race theory.
It’s Tuesday, which means Dispatch Live is back tonight! Tune in at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT for a conversation with David, Sarah, and American Enterprise Institute senior fellow Adam White on all things Supreme Court. What should we expect from Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings? What cases currently in front of the Court does the panel find most interesting?
Let Us Know
Are we on the verge of a new Cold War? Are we already in one?