In case you haven’t been paying close attention – and who has in our post-election silly season – both Russia and China are making strategic advances in the dying days of the Trump presidency.
When Joe Biden moves to the Oval Office in January, he will confront a series of Russian and Chinese achievements made at Washington’s expense that both diminish and contain significant elements of America’s global reach.
For Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China, the chaotic and ill-disciplined Trump presidency offered space for advances, some of them unprecedented, both on the ground and in the diplomatic arena.
Take Syria. It was Obama, not Trump, who made the ill-considered demand that “Assad must go.” But Trump’s efforts in al Sham have proved to be the gift to Russia that keeps on giving.
Moscow’s policies have the relative advantage of supporting modest but effectual efforts to restore Syrian sovereignty throughout the country while Washington, when it does not conspire with Turkey against them, has thrown in with fractious dissident forces whose political horizons – in the best case — are limited by demands for regional autonomy from Damascus.
As a consequence of the war, the Russian navy now has a full-fledged naval base at Tartous on the Mediterranean shore and a state-of-the-art military airbase at Khmeimim.
Russia’s creation of such platforms for power projection are a small achievement relative to the assets enjoyed by US in the region, but in Russian terms they represent an unprecedented strategic expansion of existing capabilities.
Russian power notched perhaps it most significant victory when in 2018 it arranged with both Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Syrian President Bashar Assad to deploy Russian forces and observation points for the first time in the Golan Heights, not far from the settlement. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited this week.
During the Cold War, neither Washington nor Israel would have countenanced such a move, but in this case, Washington was silent and Jerusalem was a reluctant partner. As part of its successful diplomacy, Moscow arranged an uneasy compromise between Israel and Tehran in south-west Syria and resurrected the UN-supported security system along the contested Golan border that collapsed at the height of the insurgency.
Washington watched without comment as Russian forces deployed to the Golan frontier. In Syria, the United States continues to pursue a policy of limited tactical achievements lacking a purposeful strategic purpose. US policy aims at frustrating Damascus’ restoration of sovereignty throughout the country, including sabotaging Russian and Syrian efforts to reconstruct the country, arming dissident forces east of the Euphrates and building a door in the desert at the isolated base at Tanf near the Iraqi-Jordanian-Syrian border.
Moscow’s critics argue that Russia’s achievements in Syria are of dubious value … and they may be right.
But it is difficult to argue with the fact that in Syria, Moscow has objectives that are grounded in the powerful territorial, historical and political advantages conferred by the regime’s staying power. Whatever else Moscow has achieved, during the Trump years it has consistently expanded both its maritime and territorial reach into the heartland of the Fertile Crescent …. at Washington’s expense.
Ditto for the Russian advance in Sudan, strategically located along the Red Sea coast, the gateway to Suez, the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
Earlier this month, Khartoum agreed to the creation of a fully-fledged Russian maritime repair and logistics base on the Tartous model that is capable of supporting Russia’s nuclear-powered navy. In its initial stages, the extra-territorial facility will be built for 300 personnel and up to four vessels. In addition, Russia was granted the right to use Sudan’s airports and seaports to transport guns and ammunition in order to maintain the air defence of the Port Sudan area and to “keep the warships mission-ready.”
“The new logistics center in Sudan is just the first step, but one of exceptional significance,” explained Mikhail Khodarenok, who served as an officer at the main operational directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces.
Russia is by no means alone in the contest to control space in the area. Indeed it is late to the party. The US, Japan, France and China have facilities in nearby Djibouti and local navies are also busy expanding their military capacities throughout the volatile area. Indeed, last week five American service members deployed with the US-led MFO, headquartered in Sinai, died in a helicopter crash.
The short war between Armenia and Azerbaijan has failed to break the chokehold Trump still commands over the post-election US news cycle. But just because Washington is all but immobilised doesn’t mean that others are too. Indeed, Washington did make a half-hearted effort to end the fighting, but Pompeo’s State Department prefers presenting the Biden administration with controversial faits accomplis from the West Bank and Kabul to contesting Putin’s and China’s successful forays in their “near abroad” on Europe’s eastern flank or in Hong Kong.
Moscow has made use of the Armenian-Azeri war to establish Russia’s role as power broker in this corner of the former Soviet Union and to deploy military forces there to cement its new status. According to the Russian-mediated agreement, 1960 Russian peacekeepers will deploy in 16 observation posts to monitor the ceasefire.
During the Trump administration, China has accelerated its global effort to establish itself as a rising world power. Unlike Washington, which expects to maintain its global status by wielding the heavy hand of sanctions against friend and foe as its foreign policy instrument of choice, Chinese President Xi Jinping is expanding the country’s power the old fashioned way – doing favours for friends across the globe by building railroads and cement plants, and managing and building modern seaports along critical international trade routes from Djibouti to Piraeus and Haifa.
While Pennsylvania’s votes were being counted, China announced the successful establishment of the world’s largest trading alliance — the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) — responsible for almost 50% of international trade. Washington’s own efforts at such a pact – the Trans-Pacific Partnership — were repudiated by Trump. Just as Washington sought to exclude Beijing from the TPP, the United States has been pointedly excluded from this China-led agreement.
According to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, the RCEP area “covers the largest population, consists of the most diverse members, and has the largest potential for development. It is an important milestone of regional economic integration. The signing of the RCEP against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the severe global economic recession and rising unilateralism and protectionism is a strong boost to regional economic recovery and global economic growth. This shows that all parties are committed to multilateralism and free trade, firmly support an open, fair and win-win multilateral trading system, and stick to solidarity and cooperation in meeting challenges.”
The critique of “unilateralism and protectionism” is a not so subtle swipe at the evolution of Washington’s policies in this direction under Trump. The main elements of China’s power-projecting mantra – free trade, multilateralism and win-win solutions – were once wielded by Washington.
And let us not forget Beijing‘s power grab in Hong Kong, which has buried China’s commitment to “one country two systems” – a momentous change in the rules of the game that Washington seems not to have noticed.
Russia and China both present strategic challenges to the US president-elect, each of a different sort. Russia seeks incremental but not insubstantial security and diplomatic gains at Washington‘s expense. Beijing is looking to establish a model for China’s economic rise if not preeminence in the global trading system.
No matter Trump’s distractions, both offer the incoming Biden administration a model … and a challenge that it will be sorely tested to meet.