Diary from Trumpland

A new bonhomie

Print edition : July 19, 2019

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a gala concert dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and China, in Moscow on June 5. Photo: Sergei Ilnitsky/AP

Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meet on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on June 14. Photo: Alexei Druzhinin/AP

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reviews an honor guard with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran on June 12. The Japanese leader was in Tehran on a mission to ease tensions between the U.S. and Iran. Photo: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

At a rally marking the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, on February 11 in Tehran, Photo: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

China and Russia make it clear that they are ready to use their growing economic and diplomatic strength to prevent the U.S. escalating the situation in the Persian Gulf.

In early June, the United States attempted to tighten the United Nations’ embargo on North Korea. The U.S. said that North Korea had violated a cap on fuel imports placed by the U.N. Security Council. From one end of the planet, the Korean peninsula, to the other, Venezuela, the U.S. is on the warpath. Angry noises against Venezuela and North Korea come alongside direct threats of war against Iran. The accusation against North Korea was a part of this global assault. These are the inevitable noises made by U.S. hawks, but they are also the sound of Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. There is no easier way to return to the White House than on the wings of an F-16 fighter jet.

North Korea, Iran and Venezuela have been the main targets of the current U.S. war on the planet. Trump’s arrogance about his ability to overthrow governments or to coerce them fell flat. The attempt at regime change in Venezuela failed catastrophically, with the full weight of the hybrid war—the war of information and of isolation, the war of sabotage and sanctions—shielded by mass mobilisations of the poor and the committed across Venezuela. Fictions of diplomacy between the U.S. government and North Korea came to nothing as well, with the threats alive even as the South Korean government is deeply eager for a path to normal relations on the peninsula.

With Iran, the U.S. believed that it could define the terms of Tehran’s surrender of its civilian nuclear programme, but even that failed. Few countries in the world believe the U.S. storyline, keenly aware that the accusations against Iran are deeply motivated by an eagerness to undermine Iran’s sovereignty. If it comes to anything, it will come to a U.S.-driven war. A hybrid war seems unable to fulfil its promises. The keys in the fighter jets will need to be turned.

The making of Eurasia

But this is where the complexity lies.

After the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the U.S. found that it could do anything without challenge—bomb Iraq and Yugoslavia, push for a trade and investment system that favoured its allies, and so on. The entire decade of the 1990s seemed like a victory lap for the U.S., its Presidents (Bush and Clinton) preening at international meetings, beaming into the camera, making sure that everyone saw the world through their eyes, with the “rogue states” (North Korea and Iran) in their gunsights.

But in the two decades since the 1990s, much has changed. China’s economic growth has been spectacular, and its massive reserves have been used to build infrastructure across Asia and in Europe. While the U.S. was bogged down in its Afghan and Iraq wars, and its wars around the planet, the Chinese built up a system of trade that linked large parts of the world to its economic locomotive.

The key to the new period is not merely the Chinese economy but also its tightened links to Russia. China’s expansion of its Belt and Road Initiative took place along the southern flank of Asia and into Europe through Turkey. Russia takes up all of northern Asia and had not been a part of the Chinese project over these past 30 years, largely because Moscow saw its future in Europe and not in Asia. It was towards Germany and France that Russia looked, with great hopes for Russia’s closer links to the Group of Seven (Russia joined the G7 to make it the Group of Eight, or G8, in 1997). Tensions between Russia and China, inherited from the Cold War, lingered during those decades, with fears in China that Russia, which had capitulated to the West with the collapse of the USSR, would further become an instrument of Western power. Indeed, U.S. policymakers had long wanted to use Russia as part of a project to encircle China and prevent its rise (Henry Kissinger, on the other hand, counselled that the U.S. should ally with China against Russia).

The West overplayed its hand. The attempt to bring Russia to its knees through the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation into Eastern Europe set off an alternative trajectory. Ukraine was the focus of this conflict, where the U.S. and Russia clashed over its political future. In 2014, Russia was expelled from the G8 (now again the G7), and the U.S. and Europe imposed stiff sanctions against the country. It was this move that made Russia, which saw its future in Europe, make a future not in Asia but in Eurasia. Russia’s deepening alliance with China began in the aftermath of its expulsion from the G8. With China and Russia building close ties, the concept of “Eurasia” went from mere theory to practice.

In these past five years, China and Russia have built very close ties (“Close Encounters”, Frontline, June 19). It is these ties that enabled China and Russia to block the West’s attempt to further squeeze North Korea over the fuel cap. North Korea breathed a sigh of relief and now it has, essentially, two major powers willing to use their diplomatic strength to prevent an escalation on the peninsula.

It was China and Russia that provided Venezuela with a sufficient shield to prevent a bombing run by the U.S. Russian air defences played a key role here, but so did the decision of the Russian military to send in mechanics and advisers to repair their air defence system after the attack on the Venezuelan electrical system. Images of Russian troops arriving at Caracas airport sent a message, as did the military exercises conducted by the Venezuelan military alongside a detachment of Chinese troops. These played an important role in informing the U.S. that China and Russia stand together to defend their interests in South America.

It is clear that if the Russians had not intervened in Syria in 2015, the U.S. would have bombed Damascus and altered the direction of that terrible war. As it is, the U.S. used massive airpower to destroy several towns and cities in northern Syria. But the move to bomb Damascus was not permitted by the Russian military presence and by Chinese diplomatic moves. That is why the Syrian government openly thanked China and Russia, and Iran, for their efforts and then asked Turkey and the U.S. to withdraw their forces. Significantly, this statement was made when Syria’s Foreign Minister, Walid al-Muallem, met with the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi.

China sees Syria and Iran as important parts in its Belt and Road Initiative that has brought the concept of Eurasia to life. It has committed to help rebuild Syria as part of this project. If there is fear in the West of Iran’s influence outward to the Mediterranean Sea, the West is even more concerned about China’s ability to flank the totality of Eurasia, from the Korean Peninsula to the Mediterranean and then through Italy and Turkey into all of Europe.

By the time this issue of Frontline hits the newsstands, the U.S. might have already bombed Iran. Iranian officials hope that this will not come to pass. Part of their hope vests in the agility of Chinese and Russian diplomats to block the U.S. trigger finger.

The head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, is in talks with the Chinese and the Russians to seek new mechanisms to continue the nuclear deal and to find new methods to allow Iran to resume trade and ensure that there is no attack on Iran. The only bargaining chip in Iran’s hand is the threat to enrich uranium at a higher level than it is currently doing. This threat has already worried many, who say that it will only provoke the U.S. to strike Iran.

Russian and Chinese diplomats have been saying that the U.S. is pushing Iran to war, and that this “crisis” is entirely the doing of the U.S. Both countries have told the U.S. not to send additional troops to the Persian Gulf. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said that “a war in the Gulf region in the Middle East is the last thing we want to see”. Thus far, neither China nor Russia has given any indication of intervention to prevent a war.

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