So much for Biden's red line with China

Roughly one month ago, the Biden administration warned China that shipping “lethal support” or weapons to Russia would constitute stepping over a “red line.” Crossing a red line is supposed to be the biggest of big deals, a point of no return, a provocation that escalates tension into outright hostility. And yet, week by week, evidence has added up that China has been shipping Russia rifles, drone parts, and perhaps ammunition. As we saw during the Obama administration, red lines are a lot easier to draw than to enforce.

China’s Meddling in Ukraine Is Going Unpunished

On February 19, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, declared that, “We . . . have to be clear that if there are any thoughts and efforts by the Chinese and others to provide lethal support to the Russians in their brutal attack against Ukraine, that that is unacceptable. . . . That would be a red line.”

The European Union’s top foreign-policy official, Josep Borrell, used similar language a day after Thomas-Greenfield: “I expressed our strong concern about China providing arms to Russia. I asked him not to do that, and expressing not only our concern, but the fact that for us, it would be a red line in our relationship.”

There is no evidence that this was Thomas-Greenfield going rogue or getting out over her skis, using a phrase or terminology at odds with the rest of the administration. Asked about the ambassador’s remarks a few days later, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “We have been clear with China from the beginning on the consequences and implications of providing this kind of support to Russia. We have been very, very clear about that. I’m just not going to add to — to — any more to that.”

But there are few signs China heeded the warning. The German publication Der Spiegel reported on February 23, “The Russian military is engaged in negotiations with Chinese drone manufacturer Xi’an Bingo Intelligent Aviation Technology over the mass production of kamikaze drones for Russia.”

A week after Thomas-Greenfield’s warning, CIA director William J. Burns said on CBS News’s Face the Nation, “We have begun to collect intelligence suggesting that China is considering the provision of lethal equipment. That’s not to suggest that they’ve made a definitive conclusion about this, that they’re actually begun to provide lethal equipment.”

President Biden, in an interview with ABC News’s David Muir on February 24, suggested that China could see a mass exodus of U.S. companies if the Chinese government chose to ship weapons to Russia:

BIDEN: I had a very frank conversation with President XI this past summer on this issue. And I pointed out to him — the conversation went like this. I said, ‘Mr. President, this is not a threat ,it’s just an assertion, a statement, what I think the reality is. You saw what happened when the rest of the world, Europe in particular, saw the brutality of what Putin was doing in Ukraine — to the Ukrainians, from Russia. And I said without any government prodding, 600 American corporations left, left Russia, from McDonald’s to Exxon to across the board. And I said, ‘If you were engaged in this same kind of brutality by supporting the brutalities going on I said you may face the same consequence. I don’t anticipate — we haven’t seen it yet. But I don’t anticipate a major initiative on the part of China providing weaponry to, to, uh, to, to Russia.

MUIR: But if they did, would that be crossing a line for you, Mr. President?

BIDEN: It would be the same line everyone else would have crossed. In other words, we post severe sanctions on anyone who has done that.

MUIR: So, there would be serious consequences?

BIDEN: I’ll let you characterize what they would be. We would respond.

But it appears China has been sending weapons and drone parts to Russia all along, according to a Politico report that deserved a lot more attention than it got:

The shipments took place between June and December 2022, according to the data provided by ImportGenius, a customs data aggregator.

China North Industries Group Corporation Limited, one of the country’s largest state-owned defense contractors, sent the rifles in June 2022 to a Russian company called Tekhkrim that also does business with the Russian state and military. The CQ-A rifles, modeled off of the M16 but tagged as “civilian hunting rifles” in the data, have been reported to be in use by paramilitary police in China and by armed forces from the Philippines to South Sudan and Paraguay.

Russian entities also received 12 shipments of drone parts by Chinese companies and over 12 tons of Chinese body armor, routed via Turkey, in late 2022, according to the data.

The drone parts came from Da-Jiang Innovations Science & Technology Co., also known as DJI. In December 2021, the U.S. Treasury Department declared that DJI had “provided drones to the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, which are used to surveil Uyghurs in Xinjiang,” and put the company on a sanction list.

If you’re using a surveillance drone to spot and track targets, does that qualify as “lethal support” or a “weapon”? That’s why the Russians were harassing and ultimately colliding with our MQ-9 Reaper surveillance drone last week. The surveillance abilities of that drone gave Ukrainian forces an advantage in spotting, tracking, and ultimately targeting Russian forces. By the Russians’ own actions, they define a drone as a weapon and combatant and thus a legitimate target. It is not clear why the U.S. government would define Chinese-made surveillance drones differently.

This morning, the New York Times offers more details on DJI’s shipments and how the Russians are using them:

Particularly problematic for the United States government is DJI, the maker of hovering quadcopter drones that have become emblematic of a new type of warfare in Ukraine. Sales of its drones to Russia have continued, even though it has said it suspended shipments to both Russia and Ukraine. The company is already the target of United States export controls.

The Commerce Department added DJI to a blacklist in 2020 that prevents American firms from selling technology without express permission. The measure has done little to affect DJI’s industry dominance, and the company’s products made up nearly half of the Chinese drone shipments to Russia, according to the customs data. A portion of them were sold directly by DJI, via iFlight Technology, a subsidiary of DJI.

In total, nearly 70 Chinese exporters sold 26 distinct brands of Chinese drones to Russia since the invasion. The second-largest brand sold was Autel, a Chinese drone maker with subsidiaries in the United States, Germany and Italy; exporters sold nearly $2 million of its drones, with the latest batch shipping in February 2023. On its website, the company advertises sales to United States police forces.

A DJI spokesman told the Times that the company could find no record of any direct sales to Russia since April 16, 2022. Of course, Russia’s invasion began two months earlier.

Besides the rifles and drones, there is also the possibility that China has been sending Russia ammunition. Three days ago, a longstanding, well-established Japanese news service, Kyodo News, quoted a U.S. State Department official who said that “rounds of Chinese ammunition have been used in battlefields in Ukraine and suspects they were fired by Russian forces,” and that “the United States has notified some of its partners about the confirmation.” The article did not specify which kind of ammunition it was and said the U.S. could not confirm if that ammunition was shipped before the war or during the war.

The Biden administration is getting a lot of credit for how it responded to the Russian invasion, probably far too much credit. This newsletter has repeatedly demonstrated how the Ukrainians request a weapons system, the Biden administration concludes the Ukrainians don’t need it, several months pass, and then Biden and his team change their minds and decide to provide the system.

Now, in an echo of the preceding Democratic administration, the Biden administration has announced to the world that there is a “red line,” and evidence is mounting that the red line has been crossed. But if the Biden administration acknowledges the crossing of a red line, it will have to enforce consequences, and those consequences could mean escalation of a proxy war that already has Russian fighters taking down U.S. surveillance drones.

So those shipments will remain in that murky gray area of “dual use,” and there will be no consequences. Red lines are a lot easier to draw than to enforce.

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