Risk of su­per­power con­flict high­est in mem­ory

The Australian - - WORLD - GER­ALD F. SEIB ANAL­Y­SIS

At a gath­er­ing of busi­ness lead­ers in Lon­don a few days ago, John Saw­ers, a ca­reer Bri­tish diplo­mat and for­mer head of the MI6 in­tel­li­gence ser­vice, de­liv­ered a sober warn­ing: for the first time in liv­ing mem­ory, there is a re­al­is­tic prospect of a su­per­power con­flict.

His dec­la­ra­tion came as the West­ern mis­sile strike at Rus­sia’s friends in Syria was im­mi­nent. But that con­fronta­tion is only a small part of the trou­bling equa­tion he de­scribed.

The US, a ma­ture power, si­mul­ta­ne­ously con­fronts an ag­grieved and newly as­sertive Rus­sia as well as an ag­gres­sive ris­ing power in China. This is the back­drop for not only the stand­off in Syria but also ris­ing trade tensions with China.

This is a more dan­ger­ous brew than is com­monly re­alised. The world has now moved be­yond the days of both a tense yet well­reg­u­lated US-Soviet ri­valry and a pe­riod of clear Amer­i­can dom­i­nance, and into a new pe­riod with dif­fer­ent risks and fewer wellun­der­stood rules of the road.

Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping is in­tent on ex­pand­ing Chi­nese eco­nomic in­flu­ence across Asia and be­yond, es­tab­lish­ing a new mil­i­tary pres­ence in the South China Sea and ce­ment­ing his own per­sonal and un­ques­tioned power at home. All told, he “has taken China in a very dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion,” Saw­ers told The Wall Street Jour­nal’s CEO Coun­cil.

Mean­time, Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, sim­i­larly es­tab­lished as an un­chal­lenged leader in­def­i­nitely, be­lieves Rus­sia has been the tar­get of sus­tained ef­forts by the West to re­duce its global role. He sees “a kind of straight­line ef­fort across ad­min­is­tra­tions to keep down his power,” Wil­liam Burns, the for­mer deputy sec­re­tary of state and one-time US am­bas­sador to Rus­sia, told the con­fer­ence.

So Putin isn’t just prop­ping up Syr­ian dic­ta­tor Bashar al-As­sad but pro­tect­ing his in­flu­ence in Ukraine and in­ter­fer­ing with in­ter­nal pol­i­tics in the West, just as he thinks the West in­ter­fered in po­lit­i­cal af­fairs around the edges of Rus­sia. Oh, and he seems to have just as­serted his right to poi­son an un­friendly de­fec­tor in Britain.

In re­sponse, the US and its West­ern al­lies have united to im­pose swift penal­ties for the poi­son­ing, im­pose harsh new sanc­tions on Putin’s oli­garch friends and, now, strike Rus­sia’s Syr­ian ally. If you were the Rus­sian leader, Saw­ers noted, “you would prob­a­bly see this as a con­certed as­sault on Rus­sian in­ter­ests.” Moscow has de­nied car­ry­ing out the at­tack.

Mean­time, Burns added, the tra­di­tional arms-con­trol in­fras­truc­ture, which long pro­vided sta­bil­is­ing bal­last for re­la­tions be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Moscow, “is crum­bling”.

This hardly means a clash is ei­ther im­mi­nent or in­evitable, of course.

Amid it all, Wash­ing­ton still seeks to work with Rus­sia and China to con­tain the nu­clear am­bi­tions of North Korea and Iran. But it does mean the sit­u­a­tion calls for clear strate­gic think­ing in the West, and dex­ter­ous diplo­macy from Wash­ing­ton.

Yet it isn’t clear the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, with a new sec­re­tary of state await­ing Sen­ate con­fir­ma­tion, an un­der­staffed and de­mor­alised diplo­matic corps and a newly ar­rived na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, is en­tirely pre­pared for the mo­ment. “I’m afraid this present Amer­i­can ad­min­is­tra­tion is not geared up for sub­tle diplo­macy,” Saw­ers said dryly.

What Don­ald Trump has sought to do, though, is to in­su­late his per­sonal re­la­tion­ships with Xi and Putin from the ris­ing tensions with their coun­tries.

For their part, the Chi­nese and Rus­sian lead­ers seem to be try­ing to do the same. And that cer­tainly pro­vides a kind of safety buf­fer.

The risk is that the forces that have been un­leashed could prove too great to be con­tained by per­sonal re­la­tion­ships.

Still, trade ten­sion is merely one sign of grow­ing fi­nan­cial com­pe­ti­tion be­tween the world’s two most pow­er­ful economies — a com­pe­ti­tion that could well grow as Trump and Xi pur­sue con­tradic- tory ap­proaches to the new global econ­omy.

Trump’s de­ci­sion to con­sider re­viv­ing the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship trade pact he long be­lit­tled seems to re­flect a fear his Amer­i­cafirst ap­proach was merely clear­ing the way for grow­ing Chi­nese in­flu­ence. Mean­time, hints of re­newed Amer­i­can sup­port for Tai­wanese in­de­pen­dence, heard oc­ca­sion­ally from congress and the White House, could prove a se­ri­ous flash­point with Bei­jing.

Putin seems ea­ger to both demon­strate Rus­sian power and set­tle old scores. Put it all to­gether, and the risks of great-power con­flict “are now non-neg­li­gi­ble,” Saw­ers said, in a clas­sic bit of Bri­tish un­der­state­ment.


A boy makes his way along the dam­aged streets of Douma, which in­ter­na­tional in­spec­tors were due to visit to­day

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