In his first week as President of the United States after his inauguration at noon today, East Coast time, the most earth-shaking question he will ponder is: Do we go to war with Russia and China?
Not this instant, of course, but as security advisers and hawking fellow Republicans have surely been telling him for several weeks now, Russia and China may be poised to test the golden-coiffed Commander-in-Chief’s mettle in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Surely, they may insinuate, the Donald won’t be the one to blink.
Ready to rumble with Russia
The Joint Chiefs of Staff would have reported that over the past year, the West and Russia have been gearing up for possible confrontation and even conflict in Europe and the Middle East.
Last year the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance moved four battle groups to Eastern Europe, closer to Russia. Now, American and British forces are entering NATO members Estonia and Poland, to counter possible Russian aggression, the Joint Chiefs would reason.
Western fears of Russia have been high since President Vladimir Putin’s invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in 2014, and the covert involvement of his troops in the ethnic Russian secessionist uprising in Eastern Ukraine. Before the invasion, Moscow accused the West of undermining Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, who was ousted in a popular uprising months before Moscow’s military incursions.
Those actions, NATO believes, contravene the 1991 accord between Russia, Ukraine and the West guaranteeing Ukraine’s borders in exchange for granting Moscow control over Soviet-era nuclear missiles on Ukrainian territory. After Putin’s land grab, the US and its European allies imposed tough sanctions against Russia and its key leaders.
Moscow meanwhile moved nuclear-capable missiles into the sliver of Russian territory between Poland and Estonia. The government also staged a nationwide evacuation drill involving 40 million Russians, many of them in government, in preparation for possible nuclear attack. And in recent weeks, Russia deployed its advanced S400 anti-aircraft missiles on its borders and in Syria, where it has threatened to shoot down NATO aircraft that attack Russian forces and the Syrian government troops they back.
The latest bone of contention between Moscow and Washington — or at least, the exiting White House occupant — was over accusations by the US Central Intelligence Agency that hackers under Russian government control stole emails from the Democratic Party’s computer servers, and leaked the messages embarrassing top candidate Hillary Clinton to help Trump win.
In response, outgoing President Barack Obama imposed new sanctions on Russia and threatened unspecified retaliation. For weeks after being briefed by intelligence officials, Trump dismissed the accusations. Last week he finally allowed: “As far as hacking, I think it was Russia,” though he was quick to add: “But look at the things that were hacked, look at what was learned from that hacking.”
Russian President Putin has denied all US intelligence accusations, and made the brilliant gesture of not retaliating in kind against Obama’s sanctions. He and Trump are set to meet on security issues, including nuclear, hypersonic and space weapons.
The American leader had mused weeks ago about reviewing the US-Russia accord limiting atomic warheads — a move sure to stir nuclear-war fears in Moscow. His meeting with Putin, of whom he has expressed good impressions, would also likely tackle NATO military deployment, which is raising Russian fears of a fourth invasion from the West, after those of Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Adolf Hitler.
The challenge from China
What about China? Unlike tensions with Moscow, which are due to NATO moves and CIA accusations, troubles with Beijing come out of the Trump administration itself.
Trouble No. 1: Newly elected Trump’s remarks last November about reviewing the One-China policy, which recognizes Beijing as the rightful government for all of China, including self-ruling Taiwan. He raised that option after Beijing bristled over his phone call with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, the first in decades between leaders of the two governments.
Trump thought the US could use the One-China policy as a bargaining chip for Chinese trade concessions. Seasoned diplomats and international affairs experts know, however, that any move to give formal independence or recognition to Taiwan would almost surely provoke military action to take over the island.
Last week Trump told the Wall Street Journal that the One-China policy could be subject to negotiation. On Monday, two leading state-run newspapers warned that China would take strong action if Trump continues his line on Taiwan after assuming office.
“If Trump is determined to use this gambit in taking office, … Beijing will have no choice but to take off the gloves,” admonished the China Daily, part of the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily paper.
The Global Times, backed by the People’s Liberation Army, went further: “The Chinese mainland will be prompted to speed up Taiwan reunification and mercilessly combat those who advocate Taiwan’s independence.”
In short, if Trump plays the Taiwan card, there will be war.
Trouble No. 2: His chosen Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the Senate in his confirmation hearing: “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building [in the South China Sea]stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”
That provoked Beijing’s second war warning. “Prepare for a military clash,” the Global Times thundered. “Tillerson had better bone up on nuclear power strategies if he wants to force a big nuclear power to withdraw from its own territories.”
And fighting can flare up fast: The US Army-sponsored RAND report “War with China.” warned last October that American and Chinese forces are so fearsome that each side has the incentive and capability to mount a devastating first strike.
As President Trump ponders whether to smile or snarl at Russia and China, Filipinos can breathe a small sigh of relief that President Rodrigo Duterte will hopefully end his predecessor’s suicidal policy of letting America use the Philippines as its military platform in Asia.