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What foreign policy will the US adopt in the east next year as Cold War with China continues?

Cold War
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M K Bhadrakumar |

The leitmotif of the US foreign policy in 2018 is going to be a last-ditch attempt to “contain” Russia’s resurgence on the world stage. The US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s “yearender” in the New York Times on Wednesday makes this abundantly clear. Tillerson singled out China, Russia and Iran but had the harshest words reserved for Russia. This is what he wrote:

  • On Russia, we have no illusions about the regime we are dealing with. The United States today has a poor relationship with a resurgent Russia that has invaded its neighbors Georgia and Ukraine in the last decade and undermined the sovereignty of Western nations by meddling in our election and others’. The appointment of Kurt Volker, a former NATO ambassador, as special representative for Ukraine reflects our commitment to restoring the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Absent a peaceful resolution of the Ukraine situation, which must begin with Russia’s adherence to the Minsk Agreements, there cannot be business as usual with Russia.

Moscow announced this week that the Tartus naval base and the Hmeimim airbase in Syria are being expanded as permanent bases with the capacity to deploy nuclear ships and aircraft.

Tillerson was surprisingly laid-back regarding China. He stressed “American interests” in the relationship with China (not the Quad’s) and mentioned the key issues – Beijing’s leverage on North Korea, trade, intellectual property rights, and “troubling military activities in the South China Sea and elsewhere”. But he viewed China’s rise from a long-term perspective, “carefully” managing the relationship “for the next 50 years.” In Tillerson’s words,

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  • A central component of our North Korea strategy is persuading China to exert its decisive economic leverage on Pyongyang. China has applied certain import bans and sanctions, but it could and should do more. We will also continue to pursue American interests in other areas of our relationship, including trade imbalances, intellectual property theft and China’s troubling military activities in the South China Sea and elsewhere. China’s rise as an economic and military power requires Washington and Beijing to consider carefully how to manage our relationship for the next 50 years.

Of course, Beijing reacted nicely: “China and the US share a wide range of common interests in spite of some differences. However, our common interests far outweigh our differences. China-US cooperation conforms to the fundamental interests of both countries and the world at large, and cooperation is the only right choice for us. When it comes to disagreements, we shall strive to resolve them in a constructive way on the basis of mutual respect so as to avoid disrupting the long-term development of bilateral relations. We hope that the US could work with China to focus on cooperation and manage differences on the basis of mutual respect so that bilateral relations can move forward in a sound and steady way.”

With a renewed 6-year term as president after the 18th March election in Russia, Vladimir Putin will be an alpha male. By the way, the election date itself is hugely symbolic, dripping with strategic defiance of the US.

Ukraine will be the “hotspot” in US-Russia relations next year. 2017 is ending with the Trump administration removing restrictions on supply of lethal weapons to Ukraine. The Rubicon has been crossed. Russia will be closely watching how the US military aid to Kiev develops. Russia will resist any US attempt to shift the military balance in Donbass.

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Meanwhile, the possibility cannot be ruled out that the US might impose punitive sanctions against Russia next year. Herman Gref, the chief executive of Sberbank and an influential voice among Moscow elites, told Financial Times newspaper this week that if such stricter sanctions – against Russian oligarchs and/or state-owned corporations – are imposed, it will “make the Cold War look like child’s play.”

In an interview with Interfax on Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Moscow relies on “pragmatic approaches and realistic assessments” vis-à-vis US. “We do not entertain any illusions… We will respond to any hostile actions against Russia and our citizens in the way that is best for us… In fact, the sooner certain American politicians get rid of the illusions that Russia can be cowed by restrictive measures or a show of force, the better it will be for everyone, including themselves.”

Suffice to say, it will be in the Eurasian and Middle East theatres – the two are inter-related too – where the US will get bogged down. Make no mistake, Russia is determined to push through a settlement in Syria in 2018.

The point is, the US has no leverage over Russia – or China and Iran for that matter. Tillerson’s essay conveys the impression of a ineffectual superpower. Even the reference to Pakistan betrayed weariness: “Pakistan must contribute by combating terrorist groups on its own soil. We are prepared to partner with Pakistan to defeat terrorist organizations seeking safe havens, but Pakistan must demonstrate its desire to partner with us.”

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The US has no credible road map. Indeed, the cool war with China will continue, but Indian pundits shouldn’t get excited that 2018 will be a “kinetic” year in their “Indo-Pacific” parish. The Trump administration has no control over shaping that cool war. Basically, the US has 3 options: contain China’s rise as a military power; roll back China’s economic influence through a US-led regional alliance such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement; or, accept China’s rise and share the liberal international order with it as participant. But Washington has no identifiable strategy.

Meanwhile, the possibility cannot be ruled out that the US might impose punitive sanctions against Russia next year. Herman Gref, the chief executive of Sberbank and an influential voice among Moscow elites.

Suffice to say, it will be in the Eurasian and Middle East theatres – the two are inter-related too – where the US will get bogged down. Make no mistake, Russia is determined to push through a settlement in Syria in 2018. And it will be a bitter pill for the Beltway establishment to swallow defeat in front of the world community. Moscow announced this week that the Tartus naval base and the Hmeimim airbase in Syria are being expanded as permanent bases with the capacity to deploy nuclear ships and aircraft. It signals a power projection far beyond anything that the former Soviet Union achieved in the Middle East.

Read more: “China’s Belt & Road” distracting US?

With a renewed 6-year term as president after the 18th March election in Russia, Vladimir Putin will be an alpha male. By the way, the election date itself is hugely symbolic, dripping with strategic defiance of the US – 18thMarch is the date Crimea rejoined Russia four years ago!

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.