Loose-cannon Trump enters the tinderbox of US-Russia-China relations
Donald Trump’s inauguration speech had one simple message: “America first”. His was an inward-looking vision of the future in which America would set about regaining all that has been stolen from it.
His one promise was to restore America to its former wealth, power and security – to recreate a past that has long since gone.
But ours is an increasingly interdependent world, in which America’s relations with its arch-rivals, Russia and China, now less than cordial, are precariously poised. It is a world in which the wider economic, security and political environment is in a state of radical flux.
Neither Trump nor his cabinet nominees appear to grasp how far-reaching these changes are, how severely they limit America’s room for manoeuvre, and how serious are the dangers of miscalculation and overreach.
For all three countries, bilateral ties weigh heavily. Trade looms large in Sino-American relations, and US sanctions against Russia are a major bone of contention. But in reviewing relations between these three centers of power, we need to ask larger questions that go to the heart of regional and global security.
A key question is whether the US and Russia can find ways of accommodating each other’s legitimate interests without provoking European divisions and anxieties. Another is whether they can avoid the proliferation of proxy wars in the Middle East and elsewhere. Importantly, they face the task of averting a renewed nuclear arms race.
It also remains to be seen if China and the US are of a mind to contain, if not resolve, conflicts in East Asia. As the world’s two largest economies, they have to decide whether they will actively promote an orderly system of trade, institutions that can better guard against periodic financial crises, and a climate-change regime that is equal to the task.
We also wait to see whether the three most powerful members of the UN Security Council will allow the UN to play the constructive security and peace-building role assigned to it. Importantly, will they give UN reform the attention it so desperately needs?
Sadly, nothing on the public record suggests these challenges are uppermost in the minds of the new president or his advisers. Tellingly, on all these questions Trump’s inauguration speech maintained a deafening silence.
How will a Trump administration deal with Russia?
Trump is personally inclined to cultivate a better relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and to be tougher with China’s Xi Jinping.
But what is it that helps explain his approach? In each case, it seems his main preoccupation is to maximize business opportunities for the US corporate sector, and by extension for the US economy.
In decoding Trump’s chaotic use of language, we should not underestimate his ability to surprise and confound his critics. The greater risk would be to overestimate his capacity to control events, or the coherence of his anti-establishment rhetoric.
When it comes to Russia, we should not assume the Trump administration will speak with one voice. Nor should we assume that it will always command the support of the Republican majority in Congress, or that it will be able to disregard entrenched bureaucratic ways of thinking about Russia or the preferences of the immensely powerful US security and intelligence apparatus.
Several prominent Republicans are known for their hostility to Putin’s policies and advocacy of even stronger sanctions against Russia. Already the Senate Intelligence Committee has announced it will conduct a review of Russian hacking in the 2016 election and examine any intelligence “regarding links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns”.
Even among his cabinet nominees, anti-Russian sentiment is strong. Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, James Mattis, Trump’s nominee for defense secretary, cited Russia as a major threat to US interests:
I think right now the most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with [in] Mr Putin and we recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance.
With Mattis as Trump’s defense secretary, what chance a reset in Russian-American relations?
Even if Trump is given to periodic denunciations of NATO allies – for doing too little rather than too much – how likely is it that his administration will review NATO’s expansion into eastern Europe, or withdraw the thousands of troops that have just arrived in Poland as part of an ongoing rotational deployment?
In any case, Trump will sooner or later have to address the animosity he has aroused in the US intelligence community, and by extension in the American conservative establishment.
Recent allegations that Russian spies have gathered compromising material on Trump’s links with Moscow will make for added caution. Accurate or not, the leaked dossier will have the effect of subjecting his relationship with Putin to the closest scrutiny.
In the end, Trump may be happy to settle for improved economic relations and the easing of sanctions, but little more than that. Pleasant surprises are possible, but reversing the dangerous path on which Russian-American relations are currently set remains a distant prospect.
Troubling stance on China
Trump’s announced intention to play tough on China is even more troubling.
Having accused China of being a currency manipulator, of engaging in unfair trade practices, and of stealing American jobs and intellectual property, he could use his presidential powers to impose tariffs and other sanctions.
Given the large US balance of payments deficit with China, he could impose import surcharges of up to 15% for up to 150 days. He could also lodge a complaint against China at the World Trade Organisation.
But such measures are unlikely to produce the desired result, and each is open to costly retaliation. This may help to explain why Trump has, with characteristic clumsiness, made a point of raising two highly sensitive issues: relations with Taiwan, and the South China Sea dispute.
Acceptance of the One China policy has been the cornerstone of Sino-American relations for close to four decades. By threatening to review it, a Trump administration may hope to extract trade and other economic concessions from China. In return, it would agree to retain the status quo on Taiwan.
The same thinking may have inspired Trump’s brief post-election comment on the South China Sea, considerably amplified by Rex Tillerson, his nominee for secretary of state. Having likened China’s building of a militarized island in the Spratlys to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, he issued a rather extraordinary warning:
We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.
Is this a real threat or mere bluff? Either way, the signs are ominous. And although the official Chinese response has been measured, the Chinese media’s reaction was predictably swift and furious.
What do the next four years hold?
Trump and his team have yet to think through the implications of their statements. Far from “making America great again”, their sloganeering will deepen mistrust of US motives and irreparably damage any prospect of co-existence, let alone a more co-operative world order.
Perhaps the greatest casualty will be the loss of anything approaching a moral compass.
Support for torture, disregard for the rule of law, almost complete indifference to the human rights agenda, and erection of physical and legal walls to keep the victims of war, persecution and economic hardship at bay will merely serve to encourage authoritarianism the world over, not least in Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China.
Assuming Trump lasts the journey, the next four years offer an unprecedented opportunity for America’s friends and allies, both the people and their governments, to exercise a newly found independence of thought and action. Collaboratively and with humility, they may need to assume the moral leadership that has become the great imperative of our time.