In the Korean peninsula, the situation is no less confusing. The official support for US-backed sanctions from China and Russia only partly hides their joint resolve to bring about a pacification of the Korean peninsula, implicitly acknowledging the Pyongyang regime’s nuclear status while sidelining Washington and, step by step, pushing US occupying forces out of South Korea, beginning with withdrawal of the American Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile batteries.
An officious document leaked from China by the overseas dissident site Duowei shows that the public admonitions from the Chinese leadership to Kim Young Un are a façade for its behind-the-scene connivance with the smaller communist neighbour with which Beijing “and other countries” continue to trade, while pledging increased commercial, humanitarian and military support and encouraging a gradual and voluntary nuclear and conventional disarmament in the peninsula. Vladimir Putin hinted at that strategy when he publicly praised Kim Jong Un who has been able, he noted, to achieve his objectives by developing nuclear and ICBM arsenals to protect his state.
The result of this subtle Sino-Russian policy intended to block the US drive to war without openly confronting Washington is that the two Koreas have resumed their bilateral dialogue without Washington and without the precondition that Pyongyang give up its atomic weapons. At the same time Japan, the Philippines and even Australia are visibly getting closer to both China and Russia, though Japan remains opposed in principle to Korean reunification, mainly for economic reasons.
The frustration of US policymakers (except perhaps Trump himself) at being left out in the Far East, after being sidelined in Syria and Iraq is palpable and the utter disorganisation of the State Department incites many diplomats and civil servants to leave an already depleted and demoralised administration.
A recent conference between the old Korean War allies of the US was hosted by Canada and the hapless Secretary of State Rex Tillerson doubled down on threats and calls for increased pressure and possible military action against North Korea, emblematised by the stationing of US stealth bombers in the region. However, in the face of the striking rapprochement between Seoul and Pyongyang, such moves are seen as churlish attempts at playing spoiler to prevent a détente and a peace treaty. The West is being edged out of the game.
Washington officially holds on to its dream of bringing the DPRK to unconditional denuclearisation, by force if need be. Trump’s recent imposition of tariffs on certain South Korean and Chinese exports to the USA may also reflect the wish to hit back at South Korea’s “peacenik” President and at the duplicitous Chinese. The current winter Olympics in Pyeongchang have brought the two Koreas closer than they had been in decades, as a result of quiet Sino-Russian diplomacy, but also because of the threatening US attitude. American Vice-President Mike Pence in Korea embodied the isolation of his country in regional strategic dynamics.
A joint Russo-Chinese move is also being staged in Afghanistan, with the support of Pakistan and in consultation with Iran, but at the cost of the western military presence and of the US-backed Ghani-led government.
With Pakistan now in China’s corner, strategically and economically, the American occupation forces risk finding themselves in a very uncomfortable situation in the landlocked graveyard of empires. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the US strategy in Afghanistan is at a “dead end” and Trump has vented his anger at and frozen financial aid to Islamabad which is gradually joining the Yuan-centric Chinese trade regime.
With China, Trump has flip-flopped, perhaps as part of his strategy of “keep’em guessing”, going from venting his spleen against Beijing’s mercantilist trade policies and insidious assault on US interests abroad to showering Xi Jinping with unreciprocated praise. The President wants massive Chinese investments and orders for US manufacturers and farmers (not forgetting his own family business deals in China), but he also needs to reduce the astronomical deficit ($275 billion in 2017 alone, higher than ever) his country runs in trade with the Asian giant and a tariff war seems inevitable.
Trump still wishes to strike a bargain with Moscow, but has been stumped at every step by a staunchly anti-Russian power structure in his country. In reaction, he works through personal parallel channels with the Kremlin and that leaves him open to accusations of long-standing collusion with Putin.
In Europe, where Germany has sunk into a prolonged interregnum which shows the exhaustion of the political system and its inability to manage the mass immigration crisis and the social backlash, French President Emmanuel Macron is working to take advantage of the American solipsistic eclipse by revamping the ailing EU and forging a more equitable relationship with China, which could translate into joint and cooperative ventures in Africa, Central and East Asia and the Pacific.
Europe, China, Japan, ASEAN and even Russia are vying to promote multi-lateralism, international institutionalism and global solidarity, as if to highlight in contrast the US’ retreat into an ideological ghetto. The President and his hardline supporters may enjoy vicariously the antagonism they arouse abroad and at home, but the price of that “In-Your-Face, Me-First” attitude will grow fast, especially if the current economic spurt in growth turns out to be a short lived mirage.
The stock market boom registered in the first year of the administration is fed by the sentiments and hopes of the wealthiest minority, but it does not dent the massive debt, further raised by the breakneck increase in military and infrastructure expenditures and the concurrent tax cuts while the federal budget is strained to a breaking point, as shown by the chronic flirt with government shutdown.
The White House’s hopes to bring the manufacturing industry back and make the US the world’s factory once again run against heavy odds since several other countries have filled that space, whereas robotisation and Artificial Intelligence are spiriting away an increasing number of jobs.
Many observers and analysts now acknowledge that the most significant, even if problematic, geo-strategic initiative afoot is China’s Belt and Road Initiative which meshes with Russia’s own plans for trans-Siberian Euro-Asian corridors of development from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Arctic to the Arabian Sea. Together, those land-based mega-schemes bear the potential of replacing the Asian continent at the centre of the world power system, thereby bringing to an end the five-century old hegemony of the western oceanic powers (Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, France, Britain and the USA in succession).
Concurrently, the dominance of the Middle Eastern Gulf energy producers is being challenged by the gigantic gas-extraction, liquefaction and transportation projects partly completed in the Russian Arctic, using the Northern Sea Route to deliver LNG to the Far East, Europe and even the US, given the competitive price advantage.
The petro-dollar is gradually being challenged by the petro-yuan and the Russo-Chinese campaign to extend an international commercial and banking system no longer based on the US currency is making inroads into hitherto captive markets of the West such as the Gulf states, Africa and Latin America.
The economic pull of China and Russia’s strategically pivotal policy put together, are hard to resist. Money goes and grows where the real economy makes it bear fruit and by that logic, China and its allies are likely to replace an increasingly dispensable US in many areas or at least to continue cutting its overseas influence down to size.
Despite extremely hostile environmental conditions, the first of the major energy ventures at Sabetta on the Sea of Kara has been completed, at a cost of 17 billion in dollar equivalent without any Anglo-Saxon participation or financing, by a Russo-Sino-Korean-French consortium headed by Total, which thereby demonstrated that, despite the officially strained political relations between Paris and Moscow, cooperation is going on behind the scenes.
There are unsubstantiated rumours that Total’s chairman Christophe de Margerie, who tenaciously fought for the project, bypassing US sanctions, paid the price with his life in a freak accident as his jet was taking off at a Moscow airport in October 2014 on the way back from a meeting with Premier Medvedev. The Russians are now building another similar project entirely on their own at Gydan, not far from the first one (Yamal) at Sabetta.
Converging developments are overtaking the long-standing hierarchy of global power inherited from the colonial age. The cultural, linguistic and scientific-technological advantage still remains with the West, mainly with the Anglosphere, but it is shrinking as the production of wealth and new knowledge, often inspired by the old, rises in the East and South. We are only a few years away from the formalisation of an economic and technological compact between the Far East, South Asia and Europe, mediated by Russia, which will undertake collaborative development ventures in other regions of the planet.
What will the US do in that new scenario, so unpalatable to its “unipolar” ruling elites? As long as Trump is in power, Washington can be expected to react tactically, trying to cut deals on a case-by-case basis, giving priority to the fight against immigration at home, while pulling farther away from international agreements, rules and institutions. A different President may try to restart the engine of liberal globalisation under the American flag, but the train has already left the station.
It may be said that Trump is completing the destructive mission unwittingly carried out by George W Bush Jr and interrupted by Obama’s attempt to slow down the system’s decline without repairing it.
The Karma of America has become embodied in Donald Trump. He shines a searchlight on a state whose resources are shrinking and allies are moving away, as it is dragged into bankruptcy by a hypertrophic, unchallenged military-industrial complex, captive of various minority interest groups and headed by a dysfunctional government pulled apart by a divided Establishment. (Concluded)