It’s China, stupid: Trump and US foreign policy

The following article by Jude Woodward, about Donald Trump and the current fight over US foreign policy, was first published on the New Cold War blog.

The furore in the US and Europe over Trump’s relations with Russia is not just a storm in a teacup but the manifestation of a serious fight at the heart of the US foreign policy establishment over how the US should orient strategically to Russia in the context of the chief question that the US confronts internationally – the rise of China.

That the rise of China is a threat to the global position of the US and that therefore the US must try to contain China is a premise shared by virtually the entire US foreign policy establishment. It was a priority for the Obama administration as much as it now is for Trump. The difference between Obama and Trump on China is not on their goals, but on tactics. Whereas Obama’s administration primarily pursued its anti-China policy through using proxies – chiefly Japan and the Philippines – to whip up conflicts with China, allowing the US to assume the guise of ‘honest broker’, Trump and his team have indicated that the US itself will lead the charge.

Trump’s more aggressive tactics towards China were flagged up from the moment he accepted the congratulatory phone call from President Tsai of Taiwan – breaching the ‘one China’ protocols that have governed US-China diplomatic relations since the Nixon thaw, whereby Taiwan’s international status is not as a recognised state, but as a province of the People’s Republic. Since the 1970s therefore the president of Taiwan has had the status of a provincial governor, and does not meet with the president of the US.

This step was followed by various threats and provocations including: appointing the extreme anti-China hawk, Peter Navarro, to head trade policy; threatening to impose a 45% tax on Chinese imports; while his nominee for Secretary of State, Tillerson, suggested the US navy might blockade China in the South China Sea. Inter alia, Trump has accused China of currency manipulation, cheating on trade, stealing jobs and failing to help deal with the North Korean nuclear program.

In this context, and contrary to the implications of much of the Western media, Trump’s friendly overtures to Putin and Russia are not the addled thinking of an unpredictable maverick, but are a central component of how he proposes to deal with China.

Since 2010, when Obama announced the new turn in US foreign policy priorities towards the Pacific to counter the growing influence of China, a highly influential strand, particularly in the Pentagon, but across US foreign policy circles – and beyond – has argued that a resetting of US-Russia relations is crucial to this. This cohort argues that the US has to seek a rapprochement with Russia in order to prevent the formation of a China-Russia axis that would be an effective counter to any US strategies against China.

Some of the most intelligent proponents of the US’s policy in Asia were therefore strongly opposed to what they saw as the unnecessary alienation of Russia through what was understood as an attempt to expand NATO to include the Ukraine by installing a pro-NATO government in 2014.

As Kishore Mahbubani, an influential Singapore intellectual and foreign policy expert put it at the time: ‘Unwise western expansion of NATO has not enhanced western security. It has only alienated Russia. Yet when the West finally wakes up to deal with a rising China, Russia would provide just the sort of geopolitical heft needed to balance Beijing’s power. Today, in direct violation of its own long-term geopolitical interests, the west is driving Russia towards China… This compulsion to act against its own interests perfectly illustrates declining western geopolitical wisdom.’[i]

Or as Zachary Keck, now editor of the National Interest, argued: ‘… at some point the US will have to make a choice about whether the issues in other regions are important enough to scuttle ties with Russia in the Pacific. In the Asian Century, the answer to this question should almost always be ‘no’.’[ii]

The call for a reset on Russia is explicitly based on the lessons of US strategies in the Cold War when US administrations successfully ‘triangulated’ relations between the US, Russia and China, ensuring that, apart from a few years immediately after 1949, the two Communist giants were pitted against each other, alternately courted and isolated by the US in the service of its aim to bring both regimes down.

Hence today, as a 2012 article in the Atlantic Sentinel put it, what the US needs is to deploy a ‘reverse “Nixon goes to China”’, when in the 1970s, deft American tactics and diplomacy, playing into Sino-Soviet fears and rivalries, had allowed it to draw China into its global Cold War containment of the USSR: ‘…much as Nixon and Kissinger sought the “dragon” to balance against the stronger “bear”, the United States must consider the reverse.’[iii]

However any such reorientation of US policy towards Russia was completely blocked under Obama by the dominance of the existing Democrat, Pentagon and security service foreign policy establishment – supported particularly by their British counterparts – for whom the priority vis-à-vis Russia remained NATO and the US’s alliances in Europe, not China. These establishment Atlanticists and their European allies agreed on the need to confront China, but not at the expense of bringing Russia in from the cold. Strategically they feared this would encourage the emergence of a Germany-Russia axis, with support elsewhere in Europe, which in turn would give Germany too much leverage against the US internationally and might even threaten to displace the primacy of the US-Europe alliance in the future.

Germany had long pursued a policy of strategic partnership with Russia, and acted as its advocate in Europe even during the Cold War. Although since coming to power in 2005 Merkel had been more outspoken on human rights issues in Russia than previous German Chancellors, she had essentially continued this traditional German ‘ostpolitik’ towards Russia. The Atlanticist hawks in the state department and CIA were looking for an opportunity to bring this to an end.

Thus it was entirely the decisions of the US that led to the breakdown in relations with Putin’s Russia and the growth of an increasingly strong China-Russia axis in Asia and internationally.

Putin – although a self-professed Russian nationalist – was not elected in 2000 on a platform of changing Yeltsin’s 1990s policy of orientation the West. He did pledge to take a firmer position against further NATO expansion, preventing the growth of ‘external’ i.e. Western, influence in the disputed territories around Georgia, and defeating the challenge in Chechnya. He had good reason to believe that a compromise was possible with the West on such a basis, as Yeltsin had received clear guarantees that NATO would not seek to expand to Russia’s borders, Russia and the US had a shared interest in defeating terrorist currents like that operating in Chechnya and the Russian areas around Georgia were far from the US’s current sphere of operations or interests.

In 2002 Putin supported the US invasion of Afghanistan – despite its proximity to Russia’s sensitive Central Asian backyard – and even helped broker the agreement to US bases for its Afghanistan operations in the Central Asian states.

However relations with the US broke down progressively after 2002 with NATO’s decisions to incorporate the Baltic states and to develop the European ‘Missile Defence Shield’ – essentially an updated variant of 1980’s Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ proposal aimed at delivering NATO a first strike nuclear capability.

Early in Obama’s presidency he appeared to seek a reset with Russia. With the more superficially pro-Western Medvedev having temporarily replaced Putin as Russian president in 2008, and a new president in the White House the door seemed open to improved relations. Obama’s 2009 announcement that NATO missile interceptor deployments in the Czech Republic and Poland would not go ahead seemed a step in this direction. In return for Russian support in persuading China not to veto a 2010 Security Council resolution expanding sanctions on Iran, Obama lifted US sanctions on the Russian arms export agency. Russia, and therefore China, also supported the 2011 UN no-fly zone over Libya.

But Obama took no more fundamental initiative and US relations with Russia continued to be run by the old hands of the CIA and state department, and soon the pattern of tensions had re-emerged with clashes over renewed missile defence deployments, disagreements over the scope of the UN resolution on Libya, and most seriously over Syria. Assad is a key Russian ally, and Russia’s interests in Syria include access to the Mediterranean port of Tartus where the Russian navy has a facility.

But it was the threatened expansion of NATO to include Ukraine – provoking an inevitable fierce confrontation with Russia – that brought relations crashing down. The policy was driven through by the US in the face of pleading by Merkel, who made a special trip to the White House to urge caution, and most of the EU, who preferred a more conciliatory policy.  The bullish approach of the US was revealed in a leaked phone-call between US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland and the US Ambassador in Ukraine at the time, in which her response to the attempts by the EU to defuse the crisis and broker a compromise was to say ‘fuck the EU’.

The upshot was the Ukraine crisis, with predictable Russian intransigence especially over Crimea, creating the excuse for a new round of international sanctions and a breach in relations between Russia and Germany.

But, as the China hawks had feared and predicted, it led also to a sharp turn in the priority Russia attached to its relations with China, with the rapid announcement of a series of new oil pipelines, east-west transport links, greater resources to their existing cooperation on security issues in central and northeastern Asia, more joint military and naval exercises and closer coordination in the UN Security Council.

Trump has signalled a different orientation to this series of interconnected international questions, breaking with the European preoccupations of the current chiefs of the security services and pursuing a policy more in line with that advocated by the Pentagon and the China hawks who now surround him. Essentially this means a reset with Russia, attempting to draw Russia away from its close coordination with China, while also supporting the most explicitly anti-EU forces in Europe to weaken Germany and project a US-Russian alliance to Putin over the heads of the European states. The aim is to free up the US’s hands to concentrate on China, while weakening the EU against any potential challenge to US hegemony from that quarter.

As such a pro-Russia policy flies in the face of that pursued by the US foreign policy establishment and the security services since the Cold War, and because they are convinced that soft-pedalling on Russia will allow Germany to strengthen unacceptably, Trump’s reorientation on Russia has met an unprecedented and relentless campaign to derail it. This has involved not just the CIA but also the British security services, and has included the claims that Putin interfered in the US presidential elections and the presentation of a dossier, compiled by a British ex-spy, of alleged extraordinary behaviour by Trump in Russia, meant to imply he is therefore susceptible to blackmail by Russia.

So far none of this has made Trump change his mind on how to approach Russia or China. Some of his appointees have been more conciliatory in their confirmation hearings, but Trump himself has been unapologetic. He has ramped up the rhetoric against China, fired shots at the EU and continued to reach out to Russia. If he is determined on this course, then heads will have to roll in the CIA and elsewhere in the US establishment – another reason for the breath-taking determination of the campaign to stop it.

Trump ran his campaign on the slogan of ‘making America great again’ and while this could mean different things to different people, on one question it was entirely clear: China is a threat to America’s global position and to blame for the decline of many of its industries; China is the main enemy and has to be stopped. He sneered at Obama for being weak on China, and promised that at a foreign policy level all other questions were to be subordinated to bringing down China. That included a reset with Putin.

The next months will show whether this Trump reorientation holds or whether the unrelenting campaign against Russia forces a reverse turn.

But even if Trump holds to his course on Russia, a stable deal is far from easy to achieve. There would have to be some agreement over Syria, which does look possible now that much of the opposition has been defeated. But agreements on Iran and Ukraine would also be needed. Trump could back down on his pledge to reimpose sanctions on Iran, but Israel would strongly oppose a settlement in the region that both stabilised Assad in Syria, and allowed a strengthening of Iran. And there is not an obvious deal that could be imposed on Ukraine that both Russia and Germany would accept.

Trump has promised a major turn in US foreign policy in order to concentrate on China. But this is already proving far from easy to carry out.

[i] Mahbubani, K. 2014, Look to China for wisdom on dealing with Russia, FT, 21 March

[ii] Keck, Z, 2013, Russia as a US-China battleground state, The Diplomat, 20 November

[iii] Lawson, GR. 2012, Beyond the reset: reverse ‘Nixon goes to China’, The Atlantic Sentinel, 12 May

The above article was first published on the New Cold War blog here.