Geopolitics in the Trump Era

The media have given scarce coverage of the renaming in late May of the US Pacific Command (PACOM) to “US Indo-Pacific Command” (INDOPACOM). The change was generally reported as a largely symbolic gesture, mainly underscoring the growing importance of India on the international scene.

But there is more to this change than simple symbolism. The PACOM already covered a vast area, including all the Pacific rim. The new designation extends the coverage to large sections of the Indian Ocean, making it by far the largest US command zone. It should be considered in the context of broader developments in the region and in Washington.

The US sees a dual threat coming from China. The country is seen as a commercial and economic threat, but also as a possible future military one, too. By extending PACOM to include India, the US is bringing another emerging power into the South Pacific game. India shares US concerns about Chinese assertiveness in the region and beyond.

The US security community has long been concerned with growing Chinese claims on sections of the Southern Pacific Ocean, putting pressure on US allies such as Japan and the Philippines. This was already becoming an issue under the Obama administration, but the Trump administration has gone further than its predecessor, reassessing the geopolitical threats to the US and putting China at the top of the list of its concerns, followed by Iran as a distant second. The Trump administration does not consider Russia to pose a major threat to US international interests.

Read in these terms, US ouvertures to North Korea could be interpreted as an attempt to strip China of a military buffer, potentially bringing the US army closer to the Chinese border. At the very least, the signs of warming US-North Korea relations are a thorn on the side of China.

Announcing INDOPACOM on 31 May, US Defense Secretary James N. Mattis made it clear that the inclusion of India served an anti-China agenda. He said the new area of responsibility seeks to strengthen country bonds across “a region open to investment and free, fair and reciprocal trade, not bound by any nation’s predatory economics or threat of coercion, for the Indo-Pacific has many belts and many roads,” an unambiguous reference to China’s “One Belt, One Road” policy for the region.

This ties in with the second type of perceived Chinese threat – the economic one. The US is targeting China through steep import tariffs on a variety of Chinese goods. While imports from China are indeed impacting the US market, the sanctions will almost certainly damage the US economy at least in the short term. But on broader terms, they add to US pressure on China at a time when Chinese economic and possibly political expansion is becoming more and more an issue. As in all wars, the US believes it can inflict more damage on China than the damage the trade war will cause the US. And as seen above, the new US approach is also targeted at China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative – another economic front on which China risks losses.

The other big geopolitical area where the Trump administration is deploying a new approach is the Middle East. The drivers appear to be both economic and ideological.

On the economic side, US shale oil development has lead to a revision in American approach to world oil policy. With few concerns for its domestic supplies, the Trump administration is using US economic, military and diplomatic might to “redefine the rules” on the international oil market.

The Trump administration has been quick at forging a close working relationship with Saudi Arabia. The Saudi leadership appears to be accepting the emergence of US prominence in oil, on the understanding that the US will never become a major exporter, and will thus leave Saudi dominance of the world market intact.

US relations with Saudi Arabia also support another prong of US foreign policy – a renewed “friendship” initiative towards Israel. The motivations behind such friendship are ideological, but tie in nicely with the geopolitical commonality of interests between Israel and Saudi Arabia – motivated by the common perception of a threat from Iran.

By withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the US has clearly taken sides in the broader Middle East conflict opposing the Sunni and the Shia factions of Islam. Unlike previous sanctions against Iran, the Trump administration’s are targeted at destroying the Iranian economy, attempting to form an “cordon sanitaire” around the country. European banks and oil companies have also begun severing economic ties with their Iranian partners, under the threat of serious US fines if they fail to do so. India is also reported to be cancelling oil contracts with Iran.

In this broad geopolitical picture, Russia and Europe do not appear to play a central role for President Trump.

US relations with Russia are ambivalent, with the Trump administration adopting a usually friendly attitude, with Congress instead showing much greater concern at Russian activities – especially its suspected meddling in the US political process and its aggressive policy of annexation of neighbouring territories.

EU-US relations began cooling already during the Obama administration. Asia was identified as being America’s emerging  focus of interest, with Europe seen as a trusted and reliable ally. The Trump administration has brought a dramatic change to this:

  • Trump has distanced himself from the traditional US commitment to NATO, even airing the possibility of withdrawing its 35,000 troops stationed in Germany
  • The US has withdrawn from the Iranian nuclear deal, which had been crafted with crucial EU cooperation
  • The US has imposed tariffs on imported European steel and aluminum, ostensibly as part of its strategy of preventing Chinese exporters from bypassing the tariffs it imposed on them
  • It has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement on climate change, another European pet project, seen as heralding  a new way of tackling complex international problems in a multilateral and inclusive manner.

European reactions

Among European leaders, there is a genuine feeling of betrayal and indignation. Chancellor Angela Merkel recently warned that the trade conflict risks escalating into full-blown war if the car sector becomes targeted. On climate, the EU is attempting to fill the void left from the breakdown of the US-China “axis”, and also to forge a new, more distributed network of “climate leaders”. On Iran, the EU is finding it much harder to forge a strategy to replace the US.

But do not expect a rapid, decisive European response to these changes in US policy. In most policy areas, EU decision making is based on lengthy consultations between its members, a complex and time consuming process.

But an EU reaction is nonetheless underway: trade is one of the rare areas where the European Commission has extensive powers to take rapid action. It has done so with the immediate launch of counter-tariffs in response to the US decision in June to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Europe.

In the area of defence, Trump’s criticism of NATO has accelerated an already existing project to forge a European defense initiative based on developing a common military procurement market and close military coordination between the EU’s national armies. Attempts to establish a joint European defense and military arrangement, put on hold in the 1950s and restarted in the 1990s in light of the end of the Cold War, have been proceeding at glacial speed. Trump has provided the magic wand allowing for much more rapid progress.

For the longer term, the EU will have to deal with a world where trade conflicts risk becoming more common. This is partly due to a reaction by voters in many countries to post-WW2 internationalism. The EU does not want to become a relic of the past internationalist era. It has the chance of instead showing the way towards a new internationalism.

Outlook

It is to be expected that over time, the international order will adjust to the new US policy. Europe will do its best not to find itself wrong-footed again by future unexpected changes in US policy. It is too early to determine if and how the Europeans will beef up their common foreign policy abilities – for example by giving the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs more autonomy in forging and representing EU foreign policy. But European governments are never again going to take US support for granted.

China’s response might be more predictable. The country is likely to conclude that the US will never be a reliable partner. It will thus continue to pursue its own pattern of geopolitical alliances and international power peddling.

In the long run, the Trump message to the world is: don’t count any longer on the US as a guarantor of world stability. Emerging economic powers in Asia, Africa and Latin America are listening.

Giacomo Valentini, 6 july 2018

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