The fact that the Trump administration dropped out of the 1987 INF Treaty on August 2nd 2019—without negotiating a substitute agreement—opens the door to an even more dangerous post-Cold War global arms rivalry. These weapons do not play a role in deterrence―but are being deployed for their war-fighting capabilities. And in November, Moscow warned that it is too late to thoroughly revise the New START treaty―meaning that there will be no on-site nuclear weapons inspections and no legally binding limits on US and Russian intercontinental nuclear missile arsenals―if the accord does expire in February 2021. In effect, a full blown and unconstrained nuclear, conventional, and hypersonic arms rivalry is in the making.
As I argued in my previous September and October 2019 WSI articles1, a post-Cold War “insecurity-security dialectic” is being generated throughout the Middle East in which Russia and China have reached out for closer political-economic and military ties with Iran—and with each other. The Trump administration’s short-sighted decision to dump the Iran nuclear accord has led Tehran to boost its nuclear enrichment capabilities step-by-step as a tougher bargaining chip―but this could tempt Israel and/or the US to strike its nuclear facilities.
The latter conflict is taking place at a time when an erratic President Trump confronts the threat of impeachment and significant US State Department and domestic dissent. So far, Trump has shied away from the full use of US military force against Iran and other countries―but this could change in new domestic American and international circumstances― despite Trump’s promises to end the “forever wars”.
In the Indo-Pacific, another “insecurity-security dialectic” has been spiraling out of control given South Korean, Japanese and US fears of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. Somewhat similar to the US response to Iran’s missile and feared nuclear threat, the US response to the missile and nuclear threat posed by North Korea―i.e. the deployment of Missile Defense systems in South Korea and Japan―has generated both Chinese and Russian opposition. Both Beijing and Moscow have been building up military capabilities in the Far East. Moscow has sold the advanced SU-35 fighter aircraft and the S-400 surface to air missile to China.
In general, Russia-China military ties have been growing even tighter as common strategic interests in countering the US/NATO and Japan thus far appear to outweigh Moscow and Beijing’s own strategic and economic disputes. This appears true so far even if Beijing’s strong support for Pakistan’s position on Kashmir, for example, could prove problematic for Moscow’s relations with India. (See further discussion.)
President Trump’s maximum pressure strategy―as attempted at the February 2019 Trump-Kim summit under National Security Advisor John Bolton’s influence―failed miserably. Despite President Trump’s claims that Kim Jung Un still “trusts” him, North Korea has, thus far, shown no clear sign that it is willing to give up its estimated 30-60 nuclear weapons, plus ICBM capabilities. Pyongyang has continued to test multiple rocket launchers with short range missiles aimed primarily at South Korea that may be capable of avoiding US Missile Defense systems. The testing of such weaponry may represent an effort to provoke further political divisions between the US, Japan and South Korea.
Concurrently, South Korea has dropped out of the 2016 intelligence sharing agreement with Japan and has sought to further diversify its economy away from Japanese influence and most likely toward China. This Seoul-Tokyo dispute benefits Moscow and Beijing in particular. In effect, the Trump-Kim relationship is not as tight as Trump claims, and North Korea has hinted that talks could soon collapse if Washington continues to stall over its demands for full sanctions relief, among other issues.
It is crucial that the US, South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia coordinate a multilateral peace strategy toward North Korea involving joint and overlapping security guarantees. What is needed is for Washington, in working with South Korea, China, Japan and Russia, to push forward with the promise of overlapping security guarantees that would formally declare an end to the 1950-53 Korean War, suspend US-South Korea military drills, and gradually ease the sanctions regime. This would permit North and South Korea to establish mutual confidence―so that a gradual process of denuclearization could take place over a 10-15 year period.
But such a strategy toward North Korea can only succeed if the US, Russia and China begin to resolve their increasingly antagonistic disputes―a dubious prospect in the near term.
Just after the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the 1987 INF treaty, the US Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, stated that he wanted to deploy a new generation of ground-launched, intermediate-range, missiles in Asia as soon as possible. The Pentagon then tested an intermediate range land-based cruise missile off the coast of California—an action that indicated that Washington had most likely been planning to break out of the INF treaty for quite a while. To justify dumping the INF treaty, former National Security Advisor John Bolton claimed that Chinese missiles threaten “Russia much more than they threaten the United States.”
In this regard, roughly 95 percent of China’s nuclear weapons are intermediate range. Yet contrary to Bolton’s argument, as long as Russia and China can sustain a positive relationship in the SCO, the majority of Chinese missiles will not be aimed at Russia, but primarily at US allies Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, as well as India. In essence, Beijing hopes to deter the US from backing Taiwan or from entering into Chinese-claimed spheres of influence and security in the South and East China seas.
It is accordingly not surprising that in response to American threats to deploy new missiles in the Far East, a Chinese spokesperson, confident of Russian backing, warned that “If the U.S. deploys intermediate-range ground missiles in this part of the world... China will be forced to take counter-measures.”
The risk is that trade and monetary disputes and military tensions between Washington and Beijing are intensifying with no end in sight―despite the recent truce in the trade war. The fact that Trump urged American companies to leave China in response to Chinese tariffs placed on US products in August 2019 does not bode well for a positive outcome. And Beijing has called Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s criticisms of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and accusations of Chinese human rights abuses in Xinjiang "extremely dangerous" and exposing his “sinister intentions.”
The irony is that Trump administration measures to protect the US from Chinese competition have led Beijing to redouble its efforts to forge the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that could soon become the world’s largest trade pact―if India eventually joins. New Delhi, however, has thus far appeared reluctant to join the Chinese-led RCEP in the fear that cheap Chinese products may undercut Indian manufactures. Nevertheless, Tokyo has hoped to press New Delhi to join the RCEP ―so as to counter-balance China’s strong influence2. If China, Japan, and India do form a RCEP trade bloc, the US will find itself isolated from the world’s largest market.
With respect to China-US-Taiwan conflict, the Trump administration has permitted a major $1.42 billion weapons sale to Taiwan, while the US Senate has been discussing the option of permitting the US Seventh fleet based in Japan to dock in Taiwan. For its part, Beijing has been engaging in naval exercises with Moscow in an effort to establish a Chinese version of the Monroe Doctrine in the South and East China seas. China also hopes to disrupt stronger US and European naval and military ties with India, Japan, Australia, and ASEAN states, if possible3.
Intertwined with geopolitical and trade disputes between Washington and Beijing, and tensions between the US, Taiwan and China, are the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong population has been protesting Beijing’s efforts to gain greater political, legal and surveillance controls over the enclave. Not only does Beijing perceive the US trade war as undermining its political economy, but it also believes that the US (along with Taiwan and wealthy Hong Kong elites) have been supporting the 2014 and 2019 Hong Kong “color revolutions”―that, in Beijing’s view, seek to de-legitimize the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.
Beijing’s threats to repress the 2019 Hong Kong movement will make it very difficult for the US to engage diplomatically with China. With an estimated 12,000 police officers, tanks, helicopters, and amphibious vehicles massing in neighboring Shenzhen, there is still a possibility that China could order the PLA to repress the Hong Kong democracy movement. Whether Beijing will risk international sanctions as it did after the violent June 4th 1989 repression on Tiananmen Square and throughout the country remains to be seen. In June 1989, Beijing believed that the US, Europeans and Japanese would not be able to isolate China for very long time, and that they would eventually sell China the rope to hang themselves—to paraphrase words attributed to Lenin4.
Beijing has nevertheless claimed that it does not need to use brute force to crack down on repeated demonstrations― but time will tell. The Hong Kong government has been arresting journalists, demonstrators, as well as the leaders of the protests, and threatening their families. The dilemma is that the movement appears to be “radicalizing” (from Beijing’s perspective) in the quest for greater autonomy and free elections and to achieve its five demands5.
If the Beijing/Hong Kong governments cannot find a way to mediate with the protestors as soon as possible, Beijing may once again be willing to take the risk of war to counter strong US economic sanctions, perceived US support for “democratic” color revolutions, and US military pressures― in the assumption that Washington will continue to threaten China no matter what happens in Hong Kong.
VI. Despite its efforts to remain “neutral,” India is increasingly becoming caught up in a complex web of the global “insecurity-security dialectic.”
India appears to be balancing on a tightrope between the US, Europeans and Japan, on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other―after joining the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2017. Washington now fears that Iran and Turkey might also join the SCO as full members, along with India and Pakistan, thereby potentially strengthening Eurasian cooperation against American interests.
On the one hand, the US and the Europeans did not strongly protest against India’s decision to suppress Kashmir’s autonomy in August 2019—a proclaimed goal of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Nor has Moscow strongly condemned India’s actions.
On the other hand, Pakistan, China and Turkey have all protested India’s action. Both Pakistan and China have warned New Delhi that the abrogation of Jammu/ Kashmiri autonomy is not only illegal, but that it also represents a direct challenge to their own territorial claims. By way of downgrading diplomatic ties and suspending bilateral trade with India, the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan warned that India’s annexation could spark new acts of violence.
An immediate consequence of the Kashmir annexation may be a tighter Pakistani-China alliance vs. India―which might force New Delhi to move closer to Washington and Europeans. Both the US and Europeans have concurrently hoped to boost political economic relations and security ties with New Delhi, as well as with Tokyo and Canberra—as a means to counter-balance a rising China. France, for example, wants to boost political-economic and defense ties with India including sales of its advanced Rafale fighter jet. Russia has thus far backed India—but could possibly be pressed by Beijing to back China’s position on Kashmir or remain neutral―if tensions between China, Pakistan and India begin to escalate.
Prior to its actions in Kashmir, New Delhi had refused President Trump’s mediation offers. A full-scale war between three nuclear powers (India, Pakistan and China) is a real possibility―as it appears dubious that New Delhi can resolve the questions of Jammu/Kashmir with Pakistan and of Ladakh with China bilaterally as it claims.
International mediation through an UN-backed Contact Group may soon prove necessary.
VII. The solution to the global crisis is not to build up more intermediate range missiles with first strike war-fighting capabilities against China or other states. The dilemma is how to reduce the overall number of missiles deployed in the Indo-Pacific region and elsewhere, while concurrently drawing Moscow away from a tighter defense and security relationship with China and move it closer to the US and European Union by seeking a US-EU-Russia accord that would establish a formally neutral and decentralized Ukraine6.
There will be no abatement of the present global crisis unless the major powers can all begin to engage in sincere multilateral Contact Group diplomacy that is intended to better manage, if not resolve, a whole range of geopolitical and economic disputes. The goal should be to take concerted steps to forge a new security architecture in both eastern Europe and in the Indo-Pacific involving joint security and joint resource development projects.
The danger, however, is that Trump’s “Peace through Strength” doctrine―combined with his efforts to bludgeon states, such as North Korea and Ukraine, into personalized “deals” that are not relevant to US national security interests―will lead to a renewed weapons buildup with more and more advanced systems of weaponry combined with asymmetrical countermeasures.
The possibilities for a positive and engaged US diplomacy to better manage the contemporary global crisis look particularly bleak when the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, denounces an “aggressive” Russia, an “authoritarian” China and a “terrorist” Iran in self-righteous tones and uncompromising language. And how President Trump may act under the threat of impeachment remains a wild card.
Without multilateral Concert Group diplomacy―in which the US is fully engaged—the diplomatic options will soon narrow even further, and the possibility of World War Trump will augment. Dr Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book had tried to make future generations aware of the real dangers of a nuclear arms rivalry way back in 1984―but, once again, it appears no one has listened…
1 See also, Hall Gardner, The Butter Battle Arms Race.
2 “India's exit from RCEP leaves Japan and China unsure about future direction of free trade pact” The Japan Times India dropped out of the RCEP talks in Bangkok in November 2019.
3 See Hall Gardner, World War Trump: The Risks of the New American Nationalism. Prometheus Books, 2018.
4 Hall Gardner, China and the World After Tiananmen Square; Hall Gardner, Surviving the Millennium: American Global Strategy, the Collapse of the Soviet Empire and the Question of Peace. Praeger, 1994.
5 The five main demands include: 1) the complete withdrawal the extradition bill; 2) the demand that Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who is chosen by an Electoral College system and appointed by Beijing’s State Council, and not by popular vote, step down; 3) an inquiry into police brutality; 4) the release of those who have been arrested; 5) institutionalization of democratic freedoms and human rights. Demonstrators are also seeking free elections.
6 See Hall Gardner, World War Trump: The Risks of the New American Nationalism. Prometheus Books, 2018).