In the nearly 4 weeks since Trump’s election, we’ve seen a daily freakout on this issue or that. Every day, we hear about another statement or appointment or Tweet that is apparently going to result in the impending arrival of the end times. For those thinking about career moves, becoming a Pfizer manufacturer’s rep in a blue state is a sure winner, because Xanax sales are certain to skyrocket.
Yesterday’s Freak Out by the Trumpharrumphers–which is spilling over into today–is that their bête noire took a phone call from the president of Taiwan. How this call came about is somewhat obscure. CNN reported that a former Cheney advisor now working the Trump transition, Stephen Yates, arranged it. Yates denies it.
That’s really neither here nor there. The issue is whether this is some grave blunder on Trump’s part. The immediate reaction by many is that this was thoughtless and rash, but I wouldn’t be so sure. It could very well be calculated to send a message to China that Trump does not accept the status quo that has developed over the past decades. China has challenged this status quo, particularly through its construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea. This could be Trump’s way of pushing back. Sending a message to the revisionist power that revisions can be a two way street.
It is a low cost way of sending that message. Unlike some alternatives, it is not latent with potential for an immediate confrontation. China would have to make an aggressive countermove. Consider an alternative way of sending a signal: sending US ships or aircraft to challenge Chinese claims in the South China Sea. That presents the potential of immediate conflict, due either to the decision of the leadership in Beijing, or a hotheaded commander on the spot. Recall that soon after Bush II took over that the Chinese forced down a US EP-3 aircraft off Hainan.
Not to say that Trump will not order freedom of navigation missions after becoming Commander in Chief. Just pointing out that taking the phone call certainly gets China’s attention, and gets it to think about what the new administration’s posture will be, without putting US and Chinese military forces in close contact in a way that could result in a disastrous incident.
One thing that is very striking about the hysterical reaction to The Call is that many of those responding most hysterically that it raises the risk of World War III have also favored a much more confrontational approach with Russia, especially in Syria. Gee, you’d think that declaring a no fly zone over Syria would create a far greater risk of an armed confrontation between nuclear superpowers than taking a phone call from the Taiwanese president.
This asymmetric approach to Russia and China makes no sense. Yes, Putin has a zero sum view of the world; wants to revise the post-Cold War settlement; nurses historical grievances; and believes that the United States is hell-bent on denying Russia its proper place in the world (or worse yet, overthrowing its government). But the Chinese have a zero sum view of the world; want to revise the balance of power in Asia; nurse historical grievances; and believe that the United States is hell-bent on denying China its proper place in the world. Russia hacks. China hacks. Indeed, if anything, Chinese hacks have been far more threatening to US national security than the alleged Russian hacks that have generated the greatest outrage, namely the DNC and Podesta email lacks. For instance, the Chinese hack of the Office of Personnel Management database likely caused grievous harm to US security: the DNC and Podesta hacks only embarrassed, well, political hacks. (Which probably explains the intensity of the outrage.) Insofar as Russian propaganda is concerned, if RT (which does not even register on the Nielsen ratings) and fringe internet sites gravely threaten US democracy, we have bigger problems to worry about: we will have met the enemy, and he is us.
The key issue is capability. With the exception of nuclear weapons, Russian capabilities are declining and limited, whereas Chinese capabilities are increasingly robust. The Soviets were big on “the correlation of forces.” The correlation of forces is strongly against the Russians at present. They have limited ability to project power beyond their immediate borders, and then only (in a persistent way) against ramshackle places like the Donbas and Abkhazia. The Russian Navy is a shambles: its current deployment off Syria would make Potemkin blush. The Navy faces the same problem that it has faced since the time of Peter I: it is split between inhospitable ports located at vast distances from one another. The submarine force has made something of a comeback, but its surface units are old and decrepit, and fielded in insufficient numbers. The potential for expansion is sharply constrained by the near collapse of Russian shipbuilding: even frigate construction is hamstrung because of the loss of Ukrainian gas turbine engines.
Russia is also in an acute demographic situation: during his recent speech, Putin crowed that fertility had increased from 1.70 live births/woman to 1.78–still well below replacement. This problem manifests itself in the form of increasing difficulties of manning the Russian military. It still relies on conscription for about 1/2 of its troops, and those serve for an absurd 12 months. After 8 years of reform efforts, 50 percent of the personnel are now kontraktniki, but the Defense Ministry’s refusal to release information on the number of contract soldiers who leave each year (while touting the number of new volunteers) suggests that there is considerable turnover in these forces as well. There is still no long-term cadre of non-commissioned officers, and the force structure is still very top heavy.
Moreover, this military rests on a very shaky economic foundation. In particular, Russian military manufacturing is a shadow of what it once was, and the fiscal capacity of the state is sharply limited by a moribund economy. This makes a dramatic expansion in Russian military capability impossibly expensive: even the modest rearmament that has occurred in the past several years has forced the government to make many hard tradeoffs.
In contrast, Chinese military power is increasing dramatically. This is perhaps most evident at sea, where the Chinese navy has increased in size, sophistication, and operational expertise. Submarines are still a weak spot, but increasing numbers of more capable ships, combined with a strong geographic position (a long coastline with many good ports, now augmented by the man-made islands in the South China Sea) and dramatically improved air forces, long range surface-to-surface missiles, and an improving air defense system make the Chinese a formidable force in the Asian littoral. They certainly pose an anti-access/area denial threat that makes the US military deeply uneasy.
In contrast to Russia, China is actually in the position of having a surfeit of military manpower, and is looking to cut force numbers while increasing the skill and training of the smaller number of troops that will be in the ranks after the reforms are completed.
Policy should emphasize capability over intentions. Intentions are hard to divine, especially where the Russians and Chinese are involved: further, the United States’ record in analyzing intentions has been abysmal (another argument for gutting the CIA and starting over). Moreover, intentions change. It must also be recognized that capabilities shape intentions: a nation with greater power will entertain actions that a weaker power would never consider.
Taking all this into consideration, I would rate Russia as a pain in the ass, but a pain that can be managed, and far less of a challenge to US interests than China. Putin has played a very weak hand very well. Indeed, as I have written several times, we have actually fed his vanity and encouraged his truculence by overreacting to some of his ventures (Syria most notably). But the fact remains that his is a weak hand, whereas China’s power is greater, and increasing.
I am not advocating a Cold War: East Asia Edition. But when evaluating and responding to capabilities of potential adversaries, China should receive far greater attention than Russia. Certainly there is no reason to risk a confrontation over Syria, and pique over embarrassing disclosures of corrupt chicanery that the perpetrators should damn well be embarrassed about is no reason for a confrontation either. A longer term focus on China, and managing its ambitions, are far more important. That is a relationship that truly needs a revision–a Reset, if you will. And methinks that Trump’s taking the phone call from the Taiwanese president was carefully arranged to tell the Chinese that a Reset was coming. A little chin music to send a message, if you will.
A more provocative thought to close. Realpolitik would suggest trying to find ways to split China and Russia, rather than engage in policies like those which currently are driving them together. A reverse Nixon, if you will. I am by no means clear on how that would look, or how to get there. But it seems a far more promising approach than perpetuating and escalating a confrontation with a declining power.
PS. This is fitting in many ways: