All eyes on Trump’s whims and fancies

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on December 25, 2018 Published on December 25, 2018

Defence Secretary James Mattis was the last White House ‘adult’ to quit (file photo).   -  REUTERS

From the Middle East to Afghanistan to trade wars, the US President made sure there was enough turmoil in 2018

What strategic moves would Adolf Hitler have made if the atomic bomb had been invented in the early 1930s? Would he have risked nuclear annihilation in his determination to spread Germany’s borders?

That may sound like a hypothetical question as we step into 2019. But it is one that holds increasing relevance as tensions rise in a string of global hotspots.

Under Donald Trump, US foreign policy is zigzagging wildly and that could have unpredictable, possibly explosive results in 2019.

Just a few days ago, Trump triggered the resignation of Defence Secretary James Mattis, seen as the last White House ‘adult’, by blithely tweeting ISIS was defeated and announcing the US would exit Syria, leaving the field to the Russian-backed Syrian forces and the Turks who are fighting America’s Kurdish allies.

Critics condemned the shock move, saying even though the Islamist group is down, it is definitely still dangerous.

Unsurprisingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the few world leaders to praise Trump’s move.

In fact, look in every direction and Trump is capriciously throwing fuel onto one fire after another. With Mattis gone, the world is facing “Trump unleashed”. Even with Mattis acting as a break on Trump’s most extreme foreign policy impulses, he abrogated the landmark Iran nuclear deal and slapped Iran with unilateral sanctions despite European protests.

And Trump has let his favourite country, Saudi Arabia, literally get away with murder in their savage dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He supported the Saudis to the hilt in their war with impoverished Yemen and backed them in their absurd blockade of Qatar.

Interestingly, the IMF says Qatar’s economy has now bounced back after perforce reorienting its economic strategy. It has even got its own new dairy industry to replace Saudi milk.

Now, especially with the US President under attack on all fronts by aggressive prosecutors, there is worry about where Trump-led chaos could land the world, especially with him ceding the field to Russia and Iran in the Middle East.

There is always the worry Israel will attempt a reckless raid on Iran to ensure it can’t develop nuclear weapons. Then there is the possibility the Saudis might develop the bomb to ensure they can match arch-enemy Iran.

The Afghan chess board

Closer home, there’s concern about how the Afghan poker-game will play out. India has been pushed to the sidelines as the Taliban has gone from strength-to-strength. And Trump’s reported plan to pull back half of the 15,000 US troops in Afghanistan isn’t good news for India.

The Americans are not about to vanish totally from the sub-continent, aiming to retain at least two bases at Bagram and at Kandahar.

The planned US troop drawdown, meanwhile, has further undercut Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad as they attempt to negotiate with the emboldened Taliban.

The Americans recently held talks with the Taliban in Qatar and an Afghan delegation was on hand to join in but the Taliban backed off before that could happen. Soon afterwards, Khalilzad was in Islamabad with a tough message for Pakistan army chief General Bajwa, to bring the Taliban in line.

And last week, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani inducted former intelligence officials Amrullah Saleh as interior minister and Asadullah Khalid as defence minister. Both Saleh and Khalid have strong views about Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan’s troubles and their opinions will guide Afghan government moves in coming months.

Pakistan checked

Even though the US pullback in Afghanistan, which admittedly Trump flagged during his election campaign, will create problems for India, New Delhi’s been pleased with some US actions. Every other US President has attempted to play nice with Pakistan, mainly because they needed to land supplies in Karachi and take them to Afghanistan via Pakistan badlands.

Trump, free of long-term ambitions in Afghanistan, has been sticking it to the Pakistanis, resulting in outraged howls from across the border.

On the economic front too, the Pakistanis have been having a tough time. IMF talks have almost ground to halt with Pakistani negotiators complaining the agency has set impossibly tough conditions for much-needed loans. IMF demands are said to include raising interest rates, already at 10.5 per cent.

Even more controversially, the IMF wants Pakistan’s currency to be free-floating which the Pakistanis reject, saying it could be subject to speculative attacks because it is thinly traded. And spending cuts sought by the IMF would include slicing into the defence budget, a demand that won’t make the generals running the country happy.

Pakistan has, in the past, been compared to a man holding a gun to his own head and saying: “Come any closer and I'll shoot”. That attitude may still prevail in 2019. One government official involved in the IMF talks told Dawn newspaper: “It is possible the IMF may come around, considering our position and will not let us collapse”.

Chinese checkers

Then there is Trump’s trade war against China whose economy is decelerating reportedly as a result of US tariffs. But a slowing Chinese economy will have knock-on effects on the rest of the world, especially commodity-exporting nations. The trade conflict is also hitting the US, proving the maxim trade wars produce no winners.

Last month, for instance, China imported no US soyabeans. China’s much-vaunted Belt & Road Initiative is raising concerns it may bankrupt a string of Asian and African countries. Sri Lanka’s already been forced to cede control of Hambantota port and now it seems the Kenyans will be forced to hand over control of historic Mombasa port to China because it can’t repay its debts.

Pakistan, which is getting the biggest Chinese investments, could be building up a repayment burden of $7 billion in the coming year and be making similar repayments for the foreseeable future. The Pakistanis insist the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will pay for itself but talk is rife Chinese corporations are getting all the benefits and Pakistani companies can’t compete with them on equal footing.

Bangladesh will need to tread cautiously to avoid falling into a similar debt trap. The Chinese insist they are not a new East India Company. India, though, will have to watch the countries around it and cannily play its diplomatic cards to counter the flood of Chinese money pouring in everywhere. Then, last but not least, there’s China’s growing military assertiveness in Asia’s seas, creating a potential flashpoint with the US and its allies. Remember the purported Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” 2019 is shaping up to be very interesting indeed. Let us hope it is not too interesting.

Published on December 25, 2018
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