The Morning: A new axis?

With tensions rising in Taiwan, we look at China, Russia and Iran.

Good morning. With tensions rising in Taiwan, we look at the shared interests of China, Russia and Iran.

Vladimir Putin, left, and Xi Jinping in Beijing in February.Pool photo by Alexei Druzhinin

A new axis?

Vladimir Putin has traveled outside the boundaries of the former Soviet Union only twice this year. Once was to visit China in February, and once was to visit Iran last month, my colleague David Sanger points out.

Those two countries obviously have something in common. Like Russia, both China and Iran view the U.S. as an adversary. If the world is breaking into two competing blocs — democracy versus autocracy, as President Biden has put it — Russia, China, and Iran make up the core of the anti-U.S. bloc. And they recently seem to be increasing their cooperation.

Their closer ties raise an alarming prospect: What if all three countries decide to confront the U.S. simultaneously sometime soon in an effort to overwhelm the American ability to respond?

Russia has already invaded Ukraine and has the ability to expand its attack to new parts of the country. Iran has so far refused to re-enter the nuclear pact that Donald Trump canceled and could at some point take steps to build a nuclear weapon. China has become more aggressive toward Taiwan, and U.S. officials have grown concerned about the possibility of an invasion in coming years.

"I'm not predicting it," David told me, referring to the prospect of simultaneous acts of aggression from China, Iran and Russia. "But there is reason to think it's plausible, and our system can barely manage one big conflict at a time."

Anna Rose Layden for The New York Times

Tensions in Taiwan

The focus this week has turned to Taiwan. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, may soon stop there, as part of her current tour of Asia, which would make her the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the island in years. Newt Gingrich visited in 1997 when he was speaker, and Alex Azar, Trump's secretary of health and human services, went in 2020.

Chinese officials have reacted angrily to Pelosi's planned visit, which underscores China's new aggression toward Taiwan. Xi Jinping, China's president, seemed to be referring to her last week when he told Biden that the U.S. should not "play with fire." Some U.S. intelligence officials believe that China may send fighter jets to escort Pelosi's plane as it approaches Taiwan or take steps in coming weeks to damage Taiwan's economy.

Biden administration officials yesterday tried to warn China from taking aggressive action. "Our actions are not threatening and they break no new ground," John Kirby, a spokesman, said at the White House yesterday. "Nothing about this potential visit — potential visit — which oh, by the way, has precedent, would change the status quo."

There are no easy choices for the U.S. in this situation.

If Pelosi had canceled the visit, she would have been overruling the wishes of Taiwan's leaders. A visit, said my colleague Amy Qin, who is based in Taiwan, "boosts Taiwan's legitimacy on the international stage."

As Edward Wong, a Times correspondent who covers diplomacy from Washington, said, "Supporters of the trip argue that it's the U.S. sending a message to Beijing that Taiwan is important enough to us that we are going to engage at senior levels." He described the trip as a version of "diplomatic deterrence," trying to remind China of the potential consequences if it did invade Taiwan.

A cancellation, by contrast, would have risked sending the message that China can dictate American relations with Taiwan. It would have the potential to repeat the mistakes that the U.S. made with Putin over the past 20 years, when it repeatedly tried to appease him.

Putin invaded Georgia, annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, murdered Russian dissidents and intervened in the U.S. presidential election in 2016. Each time, the U.S. avoided major confrontation, partly out of a worry that it could spark a larger war. Putin, viewing the U.S. and Western Europe as weak, responded last year with a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

If China believes the U.S. won't ultimately come to Taiwan's defense, the chances of an invasion may increase.

But the risks of a confrontational approach are also real. Pelosi's visit, for example, may lead Chinese airplanes to near Taiwan in new ways. "If they enter into Taiwan's territorial airspace, an incident could happen, whether Xi wants one or not," Bonnie Glaser, the director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., told The Times.

Cao Qun, a researcher at a state-run Chinese think tank, recently wrote: "The chances of a clash between China and the United States in the Taiwan Strait are growing."

A shared interest

Putin and Ebrahim Raisi, Iran's president, in Tehran in July.Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times

None of this means that a coordinated campaign of aggression from China, Russia and Iran will necessarily happen in coming months. For one thing, the three countries have their own tensions, as David Sanger also notes. China and Russia have been longtime rivals for influence in Asia, and both — like the U.S. — would prefer that Iran not become a nuclear power.

But the three countries also have one overarching shared goal: reducing the geopolitical influence of the U.S., Western Europe, Japan and their allies. Already, China, Russia and Iran have collaborated in recent months, especially in the purchase of Russian and Iranian energy.

All three stand to benefit when the U.S. has to cope with multiple international crises at the same time.

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Matthew Cullen, Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Ashley Wu contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at themorning@nytimes.com.

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