Trump has stressed his desire for warmer ties with Russia, while steadily bashing China
Trump's Russia stance will likely create friction with Republican lawmakers, analysts say
President-elect Donald Trump has been playing global favorites on Twitter.
He has showered praise on Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling him “very smart!,” and dismissed charges that Moscow tried to hack the election process – even as he’s bashed China for currency manipulation, skewing trade and failing to rein in North Korea.
It’s unusual enough for a president-elect to try to sway foreign policy before he’s in office, let alone in 140-character bursts. While Trump aides have said some of his statements shouldn’t be taken “literally,” the tweets offer insight to his foreign policy views and raise a question: When both China and Russia are challenging US power globally, why does he favor Moscow and not Beijing?
Trump’s positions on Russia and China mark a sharp turn from current policies – and that might to the point. Trump and much of the Republican establishment have made clear they aim to dismantle parts of President Barack Obama’s legacy. Trump is also looking to use international relations in pursuit of economic ends, even as some observers worry his approach is based on misperceptions of economic forces.
Some analysts point to the possibility that Trump is taking a deeply strategic approach; others say he simply fails to understand the crucial importance of long-standing US alliances. At the least, it is an approach that contrasts with Obama, who has tried to find areas of common interest with China to bridge serious divides. At the same time, he has endeavored, with little success, to isolate Russia for a series of international violations.
“It’s a sign of confusion if you’re making trouble with the Chinese at the same time as you’re making trouble with US allies in Asia, and it’s a sign of confusion if you’re trying to make up with Russia at the same that you’re not tending to American alliances in Europe,” said Steven Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Trump “acts like a guy who thinks he can make everybody mad at the same time and not pay a price for it,” Sestanovich said.
Russia has conducted a stealth invasion of Ukraine, annexed Crimea – the first attempt to alter European borders by force since World War II – and is believed to have supplied the missile that brought down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, shot down over Ukraine in 2014.
Moscow has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his country’s civil war, including in the bombing of civilians in Aleppo, in direct opposition to the US. The Russian military has buzzed US aircraft and ships. And the US intelligence community found with “high confidence” that Russia was behind hacking during the presidential election campaign meant to sow doubts about American democracy.
And yet Trump speaks warmly of Putin and his desire for better cooperation with Russia, publicly dismissing the hacking allegations and accusing the intelligence community of acting politically.
That stand has damaged morale within the intelligence community and puzzled observers who wonder whether it’s a strategic decision or a function of Trump’s admiration for authoritarian figures, possible business deals with Russian oligarchs, or as-yet-undiscovered links or financial debts. Russian officials have said they were in contact with the Trump campaign throughout the election.
Matt Rojansky, head of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, said one reason could be Trump’s belief that the US should do more work with Russia to defeat terrorism and his view of that challenge as a “civilizational battle between radical Islam and, broadly speaking, the forces of Western civilization.”
Trump and his aides, particularly his future national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, are much more comfortable including Russia under the “Western civilization” umbrella than prominent Republicans such as Arizona Sen. John McCain and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, Rojansky said. That will cause friction, possibly sooner rather than later.
McCain will hold hearings Thursday to examine Russia’s role in the election hacking. The Arizona senator and Graham have announced that they will also lead new sanctions against Russia. McCain already is working on legislation with the leading Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin.
If Trump’s stance on Russia might fray some of his alliances in Congress, he’s already put European allies on edge with his warmth toward Putin and questions about the worth of NATO. He’s also unnerved Asian allies by questioning the cost of helping Japan and South Korea defend themselves.
“I can see why it’s a temptation for a big shot like Trump to think that smaller powers don’t matter and you just solve your problems with the other big guys,” said Sestanovich, who is also a professor at Columbia University. “That’s just a mistake. The other guys are going to eat your lunch if you have let American alliance ties wither. I think that’s what he doesn’t get.”
He said that, “The biggest lever we have with the Chinese is our network of alliances, similarly with the Russians.”
Some analysts have suggested Trump is practicing a sophisticated version of the “triangular diplomacy” former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon used to play the Soviet Union and China off against each other in the 1970s.
But the two nations are no longer bitter enemies and instead have a well-defined, if mutually wary, relationship.
“There’s no way by improving relations with Russia you get a significant bang for your buck with the Chinese,” Sestanovich said.
China, like Russia, has targeted the US with cyberattacks. Beijing has pushed US companies in China to give up proprietary technology, it has contested US claims to freedom of navigation through Asian waters, its military has buzzed US naval vessels and Air Force jets, and it recently stole a US underwater drone.
If Trump seems to look the other way on Russian transgressions, China gets no free pass.
The President-elect, who manufactures parts of his clothing line in China, often charges that Beijing steals American jobs with unfair trade practices. “China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won’t help with North Korea. Nice!” he tweeted Monday. Soon after winning the presidency, he antagonized Beijing by holding a phone conversation with Taiwan’s leader.
Trump has long made China a bogeyman, accusing it in a 2012 tweet of having “created” the concept of global warming in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive. He has particularly fixated on China’s economic practices, blasting it on trade and currency throughout the presidential race and blaming it for the loss of American jobs. Trade and job losses were central rallying cries of his campaign.
Richard Bush, director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, said Trump’s criticisms reflect a lack of understanding about international economics. “The jobs China is accused of stealing, many were lost a long time ago to Korea or Japan and moved from there to China,” he said. “A lot of that job loss occurred because of technology change,” he said.
And despite Trump’s promises to bring jobs back to the US, Bush said, “Nobody in the US would do them at the wages companies would want to charge. Those jobs are never going to be gotten back.”
Bush also pointed out that there are limits to how much any US president can change relations with China. “Will the American business community sit idly by and watch Trump undertake a trade war with China? They have a lot at stake in this,” he said.
In the meantime, Trump’s stream of anti-Chinese Tweets poses risks, he said.
While Trump might be trying to create bargaining positions or exert pressure, his tweets might be misunderstood, Bush said, creating the chance that “China would regard a potential challenge as more dangerous than it actually might be.”
This story has been updated.