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Opinion Columnists 20 Aug 2018 Trump taking US on p ...

Trump taking US on path of confrontation with Beijing

Published Aug 20, 2018, 12:52 am IST
Updated Aug 20, 2018, 12:52 am IST
Trump’s most fateful decision is to confront China.
US President Donald Trump
 US President Donald Trump

A recent Financial Times editorial described President Donald Trump’s concept of foreign policy as “a series of parallel exercises in strong-armed dealmaking with other leaders — sometimes with no clear end game in mind”. This assessment is extremely charitable. US strong-armed tactics now cover a very wide canvas: pressure on Mexico and Canada to revise the Nafta; on G7 and EU allies to lower tariffs; on Nato allies to pay more; on Turkey to release an evangelical pastor; on Pakistan to “do more” in Afghanistan; on the Palestinians to accept a blatantly one-sided solution with Israel; on North Korea to unilaterally denuclearise; on Iran to disavow its nuclear and missile programmes and reverse its regional ambitions; on Russia to withdraw from Crimea and end its role in the Ukraine; and, most importantly, on China to retard its rapid economic, military and technological progress.

These policies will “break a lot of china” not only in the targeted countries but also in America. None of these exercises in coercion is likely to end well.
Nafta will be revised; but not much will be gained materially by the US, while trust will be lost with its North American neighbours. Nato allies will agree to pay more for their defence; but their confidence in their US protector has been significantly eroded. Many Europeans are now seeking closer economic and political relations with Moscow and Beijing. The sanctions against Turkey threaten the integrity of the Nato alliance; the spat will further destabilise Syria and Iraq; and the lira’s fall may trigger an emerging markets’ financial crisis. After relocating its embassy to Jerusalem, the US can no longer play the mediator’s role in the Middle East.


The unilateral anti-Iran sanctions will strengthen the hardliners in Tehran; may lead to resumption of Iranian nuclear enrichment; intensify its interventions in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and embolden Israel to instigate a conflict with Iran, which could draw in the US and others. Pressure on Pakistan is unlikely to advance the prospects of a political solution in Afghanistan. Unless ground realities are acknowledged, and peace negotiated with an ascendant Taliban insurgency, the end of the US adventure in Afghanistan could come in the shape of a tweeted abandonment. After Trump’s impetuously accepted Singapore summit with North Korea, Pyongyang is in a stronger position to resist unilateral denuclearisation.
Despite escalating US sanctions, Russia will not withdraw from Crimea nor back off in Ukraine.


Trump’s most fateful decision is to confront China. The Sino-US trade war will reduce growth in both economies. Combined with the increasing dollar interest rates, financial outflows from emerging markets and reduced cross-border investments, US-China tensions could trigger another global recession. The increasingly vocal US opposition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and its first component, CPEC, is a myopic posture that will be seen as an attempt to deny the prospects for development for Eurasia’s developing economies. Following on Obama’s “pivot to Asia”, America’s naval assets are now deployed mostly in the recently renamed “Indo-Pacific” and are conducting aggressive “freedom of navigation” manoeuvres in the South China Sea. The objective is unclear. China obviously does not want a military confrontation with the US. But any attempt to block China’s shipping, occupy the islands it claims or instigate Taiwanese “independence”, will provoke a war as the Chinese have warned.


The US strategy in Asia counts heavily on building India as a strategic counterweight to China, signified by the nomenclature change of the US Command from the “Pacific” to “Indo-Pacific”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to rush into the American embrace. But Modi’s address at the Singapore security forum last April indicates that New Delhi may have second thoughts about an alliance with America. The Doklam “standoff” demonstrated that India is not well placed to confront China militarily. The perils of confrontation and the benefits of cooperation were crystallised at the two Xi-Modi summits. China is India’s largest trading partner. Cooperation with China can “moderate” India’s “problems” with Pakistan. On the other hand, India’s differences with the US, especially on trade and immigration, have become increasingly evident.


India will accept US largesse; but it is unlikely to buy its major weapons systems or its nuclear power reactors from the US due to considerations of price, reliability and its relationship with Russia, its traditional arms supplier, which, if spurned, could open the arms spigot for Pakistan. Certainly, India will not be ready to “fight tonight” for America against China. America’s multifaceted belligerence and bullying cannot be ascribed entirely to Trump’s mercurial and narcissistic personality. Current US foreign policy reflects the sum of the maximalist aspirations of the US “establishment”, right-wing politicians and ideologues, anti-Muslim groups and the powerful Israeli lobby. The hubris reflected in these policies may have been understandable during America’s “unipolar moment” after the Soviet Union’s collapse. But today, in a manifestly multipolar world, the endeavour to strong-arm so many nations simultaneously is surely strategic overreach and monumental folly.


By arrangement with Dawn