The potential for military confrontation due to Trump’s foreign policy

A few weeks ago I was writing about a likely pivot away from China toward Russia in the Trump administration. And my conclusion was that a violent pivot created a lot of unknown unknowns – to use a Rumsfeld phrase. It is the uncertainty and unpredictability that is the biggest problem in my view. I was mostly talking about trade and the economy though. But given China’s latest statements about potential military confrontation, I wanted to follow up with some brief thoughts on the geopolitical side of things.

Let me start with Russia first. There has been a sharp deterioration in US-Russian relations during the Obama administration. And in December, when announcing measures to punish Russia for alleged US election interference, the President outlined that the deterioration is as a result of his administration’s view that Russia has become dangerously aggressive in its foreign policy. Now, the cooling of relations goes back to the Bush Administration and the South Ossetia conflict. But it has accelerated under Obama after the annexation of Crimea. Will this deterioration change under Trump though? Does it matter?

President Obama acts as if Russia doesn’t matter. For example, in that December press conference, he said:

They are a smaller country, they are a weaker country, their economy doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy except oil and gas and arms. They don’t innovate.

I think Russia does matter though. And it’s for exactly the reasons that the President dismisses Russia. First and foremost, Russia is a country with an arsenal of nuclear weapons. That matters. Second, the Russians are one of the largest producers of oil in gas in the world. And these are the most precious commodities for every economy in the world. Again, oil and gas matter.

And this seems to be the message from Trump’s pick for Secretary of State. I watched the senate confirmation hearings of Trump’s nominee, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. And he said a few things that I think represents a big shift in policy but that offers both a chance for detente and a degree of predictability. Here’s the most important quote:

Russia, more than anything, wants to re-establish its role in the global world order. … They believe they deserve a rightful role in the global world order because they are a nuclear power. And they are searching as to how to establish that. And for most of the past 20-plus years since the demise of the Soviet Union they were not in a position to assert that. They have spent all of these years developing the capability to do that. I think that now what we are witnessing is an assertion on their part in order to force a conversation about what is Russia’s role in the global world order. So the steps being taken are simply to make the point that Russia is here, Russia matters, and we are a force to be dealt with. That is a fairly predictable course of action they are taking.

To me, this seems to be the absolutely vital recognition that the Russians want to be taken seriously, but that they haven’t been taken seriously — and that while in the initial post-Soviet era they could be written off, they can no longer be written off.

Moreover, while Tillerson made a number of other statements that demonstrate he sees Russa as a ‘repressive regime’ and a violator of international norms, recognizing Russia geostrategic importance , Tillerson also said:

Where cooperation with Russia based on common interests is possible, such as reducing the global threat of terrorism, we ought to explore these options. Where important differences remain, we should be steadfast in defending the interests of America and her allies. Russia must know that we will be accountable to our commitments and those of our allies, and that Russia must be held to account for its actions.

If we take Tillerson at his word, he would look to establish a wary co-existence with Russia based on a predictable and steady American foreign policy, balancing the need for detente with Russia as an important world actor with the need to protect American foreign interests from perceived Russian aggression. To me this eliminates a lot of the unknown unknowns on Russia. It doesn’t make the problems go away, but it reduces the unpredictability with which Trump promised to imbue his policy. I am cautiously optimistic.

On China, however, it’s a totally different story. We are still in the trade war phase. With the Obama administration already expected to take China to the WTO over aluminum, the stage is set for escalation. I would reiterate how I finished my trade war post a week ago: “In some potential future, China would blow off the trade barriers and reach a negotiated agreement. In another potential future, China would allow the Yuan to fall limit down every day until the market adjusted to a new level at 8 Yuan to the US dollar or more. In some other potential future, China would take a scorched earth policy economically and geo-strategically, resorting to a disproportionate response that includes both economic and military objectives. It is this last outcome that we should fear.”

Here’s what China is now saying:

“Tillerson’s statements regarding the islands in the South China Sea are far from professional,” the Chinese Communist Party–linked Global Times declared in an editorial on Friday. “If Trump’s diplomatic team shapes future Sino-U.S. ties as it is doing now, the two sides had better prepare for a military clash.”

The state-backed China Daily described Tillerson’s remarks as “a mishmash of naivety, shortsightedness, worn-out prejudices, and unrealistic political fantasies. Should he act on them in the real world, it would be disastrous [and] set a course for devastating confrontation between China and the U.S.”

So, as I wrote last week, the potential for an asymmetric response by China is clearly evident. And this would involve economic and military objectives. I don’t think we should downplay the potential for this outcome. And that’s simply because the Chinese have said point blank it is a possible outcome.

I know many Americans like to think of this as a unipolar world. It isn’t. My view is that the more abrupt the shift toward confrontation with either China or Russia, the more likely we get into a situation of unknown unknowns. And both Russia and China can inflict untold damage if we go down a path of escalation and retaliation.

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