Armageddon: Will it come on Trump’s watch?
Is 2019 going to be the year of the Armageddon? The answer is a definitive ‘No’. As 2018 ended, the potential for war was looming and Russian President Vladimir Putin even refused to rule out a nuclear war. But then, the statesmen grappling with international security also know that nukes are useless. They serve the purpose of deterrence but cannot be used as offensive weapons.
In fact, the nearest we came to a nuclear flashpoint was during last year over North Korea. But that point is well behind us. North Korea is no longer considered as a great threat to global security – although it is fairly clear by now, thanks to satellite imagery and other reports, that claims that Pyongyang was shutting down its nuclear weapons testing must be taken with a pinch of salt. Defusing the crisis with North Korea stands out as President Trump’s most successful summit diplomacy so far.
Coming back to Russia’s tensions with the West, no one thinks of the likelihood of the tensions cascading to a doomsday, either. Putin’s startling remark can be put in perspective. These days, what is uppermost on his mind is the planned US exit from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Putin has repeatedly warned that if the US scuttles the INF Treaty, it would trigger a Russian response.
Suffice to say, when Putin made the seemingly ominous remark lamenting that the global fears of a nuclear war have ebbed, he had a political agenda to draw attention to the growing instability due to the tensions in Russia’s relations with the West and the ensuing great depletion of a common agenda apropos international security today. What Putin implied was that if the relations continue to be in free fall, a point may come when the situation regarding nuclear weapons may spin out of control. As a Russian analyst noted, “Putin believes that nuclear weapons are Russia’s ultimate argument that should influence Western politicians’ thinking.”
However, the likelihood of western sanctions against Russia getting lifted in 2019 is practically nil. Russia has survived the sanctions but they have and are taking a heavy toll on the Russian economy. Apart from limiting imports of Western energy and other technologies, Russia’s access to international capital markets remains blocked and international investors feel discouraged to have dealings in Russia.
Indeed, Russia’s “pivot” to China is an outcome of the western sanctions and the political relations with China are at their highest level at present. The mutual trust at the leadership level is unprecedented and in overall terms, China remains Russia’s largest and strategically most significant partner in Asia.
Nonetheless, as an influential Moscow pundit wrote recently, “It’s no secret that amidst the war in the financial sector that the United States is waging against Russia, Chinese companies and banks were in no hurry to create mechanisms to bypass these (western) sanctions. Often they refused to work with Russian clients, which contrasts with the highest level of political relations between the countries and the mutual trust of their leaders… In this regard… the exacerbation of the face-off between China and the United States could be both a boon and a bane for Russia’s foreign policy.”
In the final analysis, an improvement of Russia’s relations with the US will depend on the conclusion of the ongoing inquiry on Trump’s alleged “Russia collusion.” The possibility of such a thing happening cannot be ruled out. At any rate, the chances of the inquiry getting carried over to 2020 appear rather slim. But, on the other hand, 2020 also promises to be a turbulent election year in US politics, which precludes a controversial foreign policy initiative such as on a radical improvement of relations with Russia on Trump’s part.
Equally, Candidate Trump’s campaign for a second term in the 2020 November presidential election will also prevent any sharp deterioration in the US-China relations through 2019. The two countries are almost certainly coming to an accommodation on the trade disputes and related issues. Maintaining economic interdependence with the US is important for China’s economic growth. Thus, Beijing may address the crux of the “trade war” – its ambitious Make in China 2015 plan, which has become a bone of contention for the Trump administration.
A change to China’s manufacturing blueprint cannot be ruled out. Some policymakers in Beijing have signaled that that the MIC 2025 program could be replaced with a new vision that one the one hand encourages foreign investment while on the other hand drop its previous market share targets devolving upon domination by Chinese companies – in short, diluted to reflect key concessions to the US critics.
Arguably, even the 2025 timeline might be pushed back. Of course, this will not mean that Beijing will abandon its quest for developing indigenous advanced technology or for reducing its reliance on Western know-how, but, simply put, new industrial goals may be set discreetly under the rubric of China’s ongoing structural reforms.
There have been reports that Beijing may likely announce fair competition norms for state-owned, private, and foreign enterprises based on the market-oriented concept of “competitive neutrality” that ensures level playing field to Chinese and foreign participants.
Equally, it must be noted that the Trump administration should be aware that a trade war with China in an election year is not desirable. Quite obviously, the supply glut in the US market for soybeans already makes a telling political story.
China is not in the least interested in a New Cold War with the US. A senior Chinese diplomat last weekend even called for a “responsible” US withdrawal from Afghanistan. “They [US] have been in Afghanistan for 17 years. If they are leaving the country, they should try to leave in a gradual and a responsible way,” said Lijian Zhao, deputy Chinese ambassador in Islamabad, while speaking to the Pakistani television.
Lijian added, “If a civil war broke out after the U.S. withdrawal, the first countries affected will be Pakistan, will be China, and it will be the immediate neighbors. So, we have to sit together with the parties concerned so that we start a peace process.” The Chinese diplomat admitted that Beijing worries about the East Turkestan Islamic Movement using Afghanistan as base to foment violence in Xinjiang. Lijian said, “They are still in Afghanistan. They are still posing a threat to the national security of Xinjiang, of China. What they want is to establish a separate state, to separate Xinjiang out of China. This is totally unacceptable to China. So, we will work with the Afghan government to try to eliminate this group.” (VOA)
No matter the Chinese motivations, it will get noted in Washington that Beijing will not gang up with Moscow and Tehran to act as a spoiler and derail the Afghan peace talks that the quadripartite group of US, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Pakistan is promoting.
The bottom line is that China is not breaking international rules or order. Nor can China be isolated, given the high degree of integration of its economic system into the world economy. “If the US fights with China, it will lose more allies. Nobody wants to choose sides. Everybody wants to stand by… China cannot leave the world, and the world cannot leave China. So, you can’t isolate China. This is very different from the Soviet Union,” to quote veteran China hand Ambassador Charles Freeman in a recent interview.