China, Russia and Iran are the three key players in what promises to be the Eurasian Century.
Donald Trump may be The Joker; The Fool; The Ace of Spades; the ultimate trickster. What nobody can tell for sure is how this shifty chameleon will seduce, cajole, divide and threaten these three countries in his bid to “Make America Great Again”.
Considering the composition of his cabinet, as well as his motormouth twittering, the world according to Trump sees radical Islam as the No 1 threat, followed by Iran, China and Russia.
The strategy of Henry Kissinger, Trump’s unofficial foreign policy guru, is a mix of “balance of power” and “divide and rule”. It will consist of seducing Russia away from its strategic partner China; keeping China constantly on a sort of red alert; and targeting Islamic State while continuing to harass Iran.
All this has the potential to backfire splendidly. Even a real “reset” with Russia, of the non-Hillary Clinton kind, is not exactly assured.
Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, may in fact be a cipher, a privileged ExxonMobil dealmaker, or a Trojan Horse for Kissinger’s views. Tillerson is a trustee of the hardline Centre for Strategic and International Studies think tank, along with Kissinger.
So let’s see how Kissinger’s shadowplay might develop on the new geopolitical chessboard.
Trump starts out already pitted against America’s vast and powerful intelligence apparatus. The American “deep state” – the military-industrial complex that survives regardless of what political party is in power – requires an existential threat to operate. And that threat, according to the Pentagon, is Russia.
The ever-shifting “war on terror” is dead. The new normal, as demonstrated by the Obama administration, is the second cold war.
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It all hinges on how – and if – Trump will be able to inflict pain on the US deep state, and how this might affect its “humanitarian” imperialist leanings.
Kissinger’s strategy implies having closer relations with Russia, whilst cajoling Moscow to betray its Eurasian ally Iran. Moscow is unlikely to betray Iran, and pursuing that strategy will only exacerbate Trump’s conflict with the deep state.
A Trumpian trade-off though is already on the cards; no more US sanctions on Russia if Moscow and Washington manage a common mechanism to smash Islamic State, as well as a new framework on nuclear disarmament.
There’s guarded optimism in Moscow that Trump’s business acumen will eventually lead him to discard counterproductive containment of Russia, freeing it to profit from the real deal across Eurasia: economic integration, via the Beijing-backed One Belt, One Road trade initiative to link economies into a China-centred trading network, and the Eurasian Economic Union.
Sensing a credible opening, Moscow has invited the Trump administration – represented by national security adviser Michael Flynn – to join the Syrian peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, alongside Iran, Turkey and the regime of Bashar al-Assad, due to start on Monday, only three days after Trump’s inauguration.
Russia and Iran are working as one in Syria. Russia has actively campaigned to bring Iran into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the regional security group. Bilateral trade – from energy to railways, mining and agriculture – is booming. Russia and Iran are set to ditch the US dollar and use rials and rubles for trade. This means bypassing the usual US weapon of choice: sanctions. Thus, betraying Tehran is out of the question for Moscow.
Trump, for all his rhetoric, cannot renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal signed by the members of the UN Security Council plus Germany in 2015. Tehran has met all its obligations. Trump also cannot fulfil his campaign promise to smash Islamic State, without Iran. Instead of his army of Iranophobic generals, he would do better to listen to the National Iranian American Council in Washington, which really understands Tehran’s stakes in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and the volatile Iran-Saudi cold war.
And Trump “getting tough” on China will hit a BRICS wall. The next summit between those five leading emerging market economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) is in Xiamen (廈門), southeast China, next autumn, and the hosts will press for further integration.
Trump’s generals will also have to inform him that America cannot afford a war in the South China Sea or the western Pacific, wars it would have no guarantee of winning.
Trump’s advisers – even the Sinophobes – must have told him that Taiwan and the South China Sea are Beijing’s top priorities.
As Beijing’s foreign ministry put it: “The one-China principle… is non-negotiable.”
Then there’s the 45 per cent tariff that might be slapped on Chinese products, and possible import quotas. Chinese scholars have concluded it is the United States that has most to lose in a trade war.
After Xi Jinping’s (習近平) masterclass at Davos, is that all there is? Kissinger, 93, had better get back to the drawing board.