President-elect Donald Trump isn’t even in the White House yet, but he has managed to shake up America’s foreign policy more severely in the last few weeks then many presidents that have served a full-term.
His choice of Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil, for the position of Secretary of State has rattled not just Democrats but many Republicans. Tillerson is accused of being too close to Russia and too friendly with Vladimir Putin following years of interaction between the world’s largest oil company and the Russian regime. Specifically, some accuse him of having a conflict of interest due to ExxonMobil’s investments in the Russian Federation.
Rex and Vlad: Best Buds?
ExxonMobil has a profitable operation at Sakhalin Island in eastern Russia and had begun a drilling program in the Arctic Kara Sea. The firm had agreed to explore shale oil areas of western Siberia and in deep waters of the Black Sea if sanctions are lifted. According to the Washington Post, deciding whether to lift economic sanctions on Russia will be one of the first priorities if Tillerson secures his position as Secretary of State.
Trump has made no secret of his desire to smooth relations with the Kremlin and it has to be said that, in terms of changing behavior, International economic sanctions imposed after Russia annexed Crimea have had little effect. Supporters of Tillerson believe that his extensive international experience would be more effective than that of a career diplomat in arriving at a consensus with Russia that was more constructive and less confrontational.
From the point of view of U.S. domestic policy, Tillersonn’s nomination has a lot to commend it but, internationally, his closeness to Putin and a fear that he may be willing to compromise on issues that Russia desires addressed may create more problems than they solve. In particular, the incoming Trump administration has shown little regard for the role of NATO in containing Russian territorial ambitions or Europe’s security.
Russia has made no secret of its desire to extend its control into the Baltic states and to assert influence over parts of Eastern Europe that were formerly in the Soviet Union. If Tillerson was to concede Russian priorities in Europe in return for concessions that the U.S. holds dear, a fracturing of the North Atlantic Alliance could be a real possibility.
Forget the Bear, What About the Dragon?
While the new president’s moves regarding Russia promise a thawing of relations, his comments and early actions regarding China are potentially even more explosive. One telephone call from Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ying-wen, and a few off-the-cuff comments in a CNN interview have potentially turned on its head a principle that has guided Sino-U.S. relations since diplomatic ties were formally re-established in 1979.
With occasional lapses, the U.S. and China have paid lip service to the concept that China and Taiwan are one country while still allowing the U.S. to sell arms to Taiwan and, in theory, at least offer protection from invasion. In practice, though, many are critical of the policy suggesting that it has not prevented China from aggressively expanding its territorial ambitions into the South China Sea.
Clearly, this has economic and political advantages in terms of resource extraction and regional power politics but it also has a military element limiting the U.S.’s ability to intervene in a crisis over Taiwan or bordering countries. So far, the Chinese have protested vehemently about both the telephone call and the comments made but appear to be hoping that Trump’s comments are born out of naiveté rather than a calculated change in policy.
It seems more likely though, judging by the policy team that he’s building around him, that this is part of a more planned strategy to shake up U.S. relations with China. Trump’s comments suggest that he and his team are not happy with the relationship with China and are looking to address a number of issues including Beijing’s currency policy, China’s military build up in the South China Sea and they seek to improve cooperation regarding North Korea.
In a Financial Times article, Trump is quoted as saying “Look, we’re being hurt very badly by China with [currency] devaluation, with taxing us heavy at the borders when we don’t tax them, and building a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea. And frankly, they’re not helping us at all with North Korea.”
Whether his policy moves, still in their infancy at present, turn out to be all they appear or get watered down remains to be seen, but they have certainly been successful in terms of grabbing the headlines.