The appointment of Robert O’Brien, a skilled negotiator and non-ideological foreign policy professional, to succeed John Bolton as national security adviser marks a significant turning point in the White House’s national security strategy to confront and prevail against robust adversaries, especially China and Iran, in an increasingly complex and dangerous international landscape.
The U.S.-China trade dispute transcends soybean purchases and trade deficits. It constitutes the beginning of a grand geopolitical, economic, military and technological realignment of global power between Washington and Beijing that will play out for decades, especially in Asia and Europe.
China seeks to restore what it considers its rightful place atop the world’s largest economies, where the Middle Kingdom led for centuries until the mid-1800s.
The Belt Road Initiative, potentially a multi-trillion global infrastructure investment program, helps underdeveloped economies achieve greater domestic growth at the expense of strategic sovereign assets being surrendered to Beijing when lendee governments cannot pay back onerous debt terms to Chinese lenders.
China seeks to manage Asia’s commerce by asserting sovereignty over South China Sea waters more than 1,000 miles from its coastline, atop vast fisheries and energy reserves, through which 30 percent of the world’s commerce and energy supplies pass annually.
Beijing resents the U.S. military presence that reassures Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Southeast Asian partners that free and open shipping lanes in international waters will remain a bastion of western Pacific commerce.
China is rapidly expanding its military forces, with fivefold budget increases since its WTO entry in 2001, to deter and compel U.S. military forces back to Guam, and eventually restricted to Hawaii, so that China can achieve military supremacy over the western Pacific region and the Asian continent.
The European Union, America’s largest trading partner, watches passively as China’s massive investment in major European ports and the creation of a 17-country European trading bloc portend greater long-term financial and economic dependency on Beijing.
China seeks to dominate the worldwide 5G technology network to be activated in the next decade, accruing significant zero-sum economic, financial and military advantages. The White House states that China annually steals hundreds of billions in U.S. intellectual property, the reversal of which is a major driver of Washington trade stance.
The strategic decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies will also mean that global supply chains will continue to transition elsewhere in Asia, Latin America and even the United States. The likelihood they will return to China diminishes as the trade dispute is prolonged.
The Trump administration sees not only a powerful economic and military peer-competitor across the negotiating table, but also a Chinese Communist Party that demands Leninist-style absolute control over all aspects of China’s politics, society and economy — including all trade arrangements.
The White House has concluded that this is the singular moment to extract maximum concessions from China, and that any delay only strengthens Beijing’s ability to withstand deterrent American tariffs and sanctions.
That strategy has earned the support of many Democratic leaders even within the nation’s otherwise venomous political polarization.
In Russia, Vladimir Putin faces an increasingly poorer and more restive society, even as he ramps up massive military spending for new nuclear weapons, the militarization of the vast Arctic coastline, and the active destabilization of NATO and the EU.
Even as Moscow eyes the potential riches of Arctic development, especially significant oil and natural gas reserves as well as shorter shipping routes between Asia and Europe, Beijing has announced it plans for an active Arctic role so Chinese ships can speed to Europe’s leading ports, as well as across North America’s Arctic region to East Coast ports in the United States.
It’s why China sought in 2016 to purchase an old U.S. naval base in Greenland, and in 2018 to build three airports there. It’s why the White House expressed interest in purchasing the semi-autonomous Danish island, potentially rich in rare-Earth minerals and hydrocarbons estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey at about 52 billion barrels of oil equivalent.
As the Trump administration proceeds with the establishment of a U.S. Space Command, the need to defend the U.S. Air Force’s 21st Space Wing stationed at Thule Air Base in western Greenland, to support U.S. and Canadian ballistic-missile defenses and space missions, is more critical than ever.
That mission includes monitoring of North Korea, which is proceeding with missile and rocket testing, while Japan — America’s singular economic and military partner in northeast Asia — and South Korea resurrect historic grievances to decouple their intelligence-sharing and impose reciprocal trade sanctions, fraying the region’s security and commercial ties.
In the Middle East, Iran’s audacious attacks on Saudi oilfields temporarily shocked global oil markets and revealed its increasingly desperate attempts to collapse U.S.-backed Sunni alliances, and to compel European business partners to further urge Washington’s sanctions withdrawals and further concessions to Teheran to prevent war and ease regional tensions. This would open the gateway to Iran’s nuclear weapons developments and consolidation of regional hegemony at the expense of Arab neighbors and Israel.
The attacks will ultimately fail, but Tehran’s hegemonic agenda continues to advance in Syria, where tens of thousands of Shia militiamen undermine regional stabilizations plans; in Lebanon, with Hezbollah precision-guided rockets being readied to attack Israel; and in Yemen, where Tehran-backed rebels who staged the 2014 coup undermine peace, threaten shipping lanes and terrorize millions of starving Yemenis.
Tehran also violates the 2015 nuclear agreement while European powers entice it with billions in aid to support a collapsing economy, destroyed by an aggressive regional militarization at the expense of domestic investment and reforms.
The EU, built for peaceful prosperity but not for power projection, grapples with flattening growth projections for the next decade, led by Germany’s lethargic industrial export sector. Many European markets remain dependent on Russian oil and natural gas pipelines despite the Ukraine war and new energy finds near Cyprus and Israel.
Parliamentary elections in May reveal the further collapse of centrist parties in favor of nativist anti-immigration movements on the right, and eco-radical anti-capitalist movements on the left.
The continent is entering an era of strategic loneliness amid the increasingly hostile tensions between the U.S. and its Asian and Middle Eastern adversaries, even as China consolidates its plans for long-term European economic and financial dependency on Beijing.
The many more challenges worldwide — especially spreading Islamist terror networks, the India-Pakistan standoff in Kashmir, Venezuela’s ongoing collapse and Africa’s swelling demographics — reveal just how extensive and demanding the geopolitical agenda will be as Robert O’Brien newly coordinates the inter-agency process and prepares options and recommendations for President Trump to decide and execute in the defense of American national security.
• John Sitilides, geopolitical strategist at Trilogy Advisors LLC, specializes in global risk analysis and regulatory affairs.
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