June 2017. Crisis in the Greater Middle East and Far East Asia.
President Trump faces a summer of looming international crisis over North Korea and Iran. How Trump 'deals' with these crises could determine whether regional crises remain 'regionalised' or whether they could spiral up into wider global conflicts. Both crises are very different but could detonate a 'Third World War'.
The Syria war involves a partially failed state stretching from eastern Syria into western and northern Iraq and the destruction of the Islamic State Caliphate, the race to control land and resources in the territory of both countries could trigger conflict between Iranian and US backed forces over the Deir al-Zour province.
While Russia and the US have put into place 'deconfliction' measures, a setback for pro-Iranian forces could in this theatre of conflict be a threat to Assad's ability to assert sovereign control. While Russia's interests do not necessarily clash with the US, Iran's goal of having a land bridge between Tehran across Shia Iraq to Syria and Lebanon does.
This concentrated flashpoint could provide the spark that ignites a wider regional gunpowder keg as the summer of 2017 has seen an upsurge in Persian Gulf hostility between Saudi Arabia and the GCC states and Iran. As IS disintegrates and is destroyed in northern Iraq,both the US and Russia and Iran are scrambling to seize territory.
Both Trump and Putin are prepared to treat Sunni territories as pieces on the geopolitical chessboard. With Assad's power in Damascus assured by Russia's decisive use of air power in late 2016 against the rebels of east Aleppo, the struggle is now a three cornered one between Iran, Russia and the US over the settlement.
While the destruction of IS in theory removes a threat to the Sunni autocracies, one of the Caliphate's two main 'near enemies', this and Assad's survival and the threat of the relative preponderance of Iran has had the Gulf States wanting a rebalance of regional power once more back their way. Iran stands as the main threat to that.
One reason is the land route from Southern Lebanon to Iran would achieve one major geostrategic goal it had aimed at from the outset of its intervention in the Syria war back in 2012-the creation of a Shia crescent. It was against that and for the protection of Israel as well as for the benefit of having a Sunni state in Syria that the West intervened.
The demand 'Assad must go' was one intended to blend Western 'democracy promotion' with the Qatari-Turkish support for the Arab Spring of 2011. The evident failure of this by 2013 was ignored by the Western state because the alternative to having to align between Sunni autocracies and Iran would be to align with Sunni democracies.
The key to that was believed to be Qatar. As the Sunni rebel forces, 'moderate' or otherwise, have been crushed in northern Syria and in the east by pro-Iranian forces, they are of negligible geopolitical values and so expendable. Qatar and Turkey have dropped the rebels and tilted towards a new alignment-with Iran.
While the realignment was coming even before Trump's May 2017 Riyadh summit with the GCC states and Egypt, his decision to align firming behind the Saudis resulted in Qatar deciding on rebalancing towards Iran along with Turkey so as to jointly develop new Persian Gulf gas fields and to gain a better position over Syria.
Thus the enmity towards Iran held by Trump and his advisers and generals could come further into play in the course of 2017 if Iran commands a potentially very dominant position in relation to a political settlement over Syria in alignment with Russia. With Russia and the US competing for interest there, Iran is the major third force.
While Russia would not align with Iran in direct confrontation with the US, even under Obama and Hillary Clinton, the idea of creating a Sunni 'Third Force' was about staving off the threat of Iranian dominance and fighting IS. Trump could well conclude that the destruction of IS through force then would require Iran to be rolled back.
Given that Saudi Arabia is portraying the Houthi rising against which the Saudis have been fighting since 2015 as an Iranian and now Qatari threat to the strategic chokepoint of the Strait of El-Mandeb and security of their territory, Trump and his generals could well be on the verge soon of contemplating a war against Iran.
Ratcheting up the threats against Tehran and following through would be the one 'escape forwards' for Trump whereby he could try a strategy of war with a foreign threat to unify his domestic critics over the 'Russian connection' scandal and to degrade Russian power without a catastrophic head on collision with Moscow over Syria's fate.
Trump is regarded in mid 2017 as a 'lame duck' President hobbled by domestic scandal. While a war with Russia as a nuclear power is unthinkable, a war with Iran, a power Russia is aligned with in certain respects over Syria, could well be one way to increase his strongman image and bargaining hand with Moscow in determining a peace deal.
The question is over which crisis would Trump be prepared to show US 'resolve'. He has not yet openly threatened Iran, though Michael Flynn had 'put Iran on notice' as soon as Trump entered the White House. On the other hand, Trump has effectively drawn 'red lines' over North Korea's pursuit of any nuclear threat that could threaten the US.
China Balances Saudi Arabia with Iran in the Persian Gulf.
The two crises are far apart, though they are interconnected because they affect the global economic and political power of China while Russia is far more the regional power with whom the US could actually have better relation with the better to try and affect peace both in Syria and over North Korea where Russia is a Pacific Power too.
China has a relatively minor role in Syria, though it has been ready to support Kurdish PKK militias against Turkey had Erdogan continued to covertly back Sunni jihadists both within Syria and northern Iraq as well as in Xinjiang, the resource rich Western province of China that pan-Turkic nationalists call 'East Turkestan'.
China has an interest in Iran checking Saudi power and would be ranged against US military intervention against it over Syria. Iran and China have cultivated oil and gas supply ties. In June 2017 it was reported to be interested in Iran joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, one that aims at balancing the West's NATO.
China's attempt to use trade and economic deals to balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia is said to be designed to offset the danger of the US instigating divisions between the Gulf States and Iran. But the US administration under Trump regards both Iran and, to an extent China, as being powers plotting to limit its global influence and power.
While China would want to balance the Saudi and GCC states with support for Iran too, the US could see that as a plan to assert Chinese dominance over the Middle East and downgrade its power over the globe's main source of energy. This is not least the case as China and Russia would appear to be aligning over North Korea and in Central Asia.
NATO retains a stake in the mineral rich state of Afghanistan long after the terror threat from it has ceased to be the major one. While Trump would appear to have dropped US interest in Ukraine, leaving it to a German led EU to deal with Putin in preserving the peace in Eastern Europe, he has decided to concentrate his focus on Korea.
A US and China Crisis Looms over North Korea.
It might be thought subtle diplomacy would mean the US showing it would want China to commit to certain actions- or non-actions- in return for the US conceding on certain others. Demanding China lives up to exclusively US interests and ambitions, in regard to Asia, is just a recipe for breeding conflict instead of preserving peace.
Both in China and the US, the rising tide of nationalism is bound to put pressure on Xi and Trump alike. Grandstanding on China is an even more unwise course of action for Trump's administration to take, though they would appear to be far more restrained than other leading Republicans such as the intemperate John McCain.
McCain certainly has a very primitive understanding of global power politics, so his comments about Chinese 'bullying' in Sydney recently were largely irrelevant and designed to make him appear as the real 'tough guy' who would have been a better President than Trump had he not lost in 2008 to Barack Obama.
US leaders are behaving as if China has a choice either to fulfil US demands as if it were an uncontested Global hegemon and China has only the choice of compliance or unfortunate consequences. North Korea is not a mere Chinese client state or 'puppet': the regime is a law unto itself with its own 'rationale'.
Of course, it's useful for US politicians to pretend China has the choice and the power to defuse North Korea's nuclear programme because it could be used to deflect attention away from their own repeated failure to deal successfully with North Korea. Trump's strongman attempts to deal with it are entirely in line with this approach.
So while Trump could lean towards 'limited' strikes against Iran in the Persian Gulf as a way of threatening it to back down over Syria, should events escalate there or as Israel launches a Third Lebanon War against Iranian backed Hizbollah, he might also choose to take a stand over North Korea and China's role in East Asia.
The Pivot to Asia and the Chinese March West: Contest for Hegemony over The World Island
The South China Sea island building project is an attempt by China to dominate the sea lanes and assert military reach and power. But it's also part of a counter move against the US forming bilateral naval ties with a chain of states surrounding China's seaboard from the east as well as on land to the west.
This is precisely what Chinese spokeswoman Hua Chunying meant when claiming China "opposes a certain country’s show of force in the South China Sea under the pretext of navigation and overflight freedom, challenging and threatening China’s sovereignty and security". That 'certain country' is, of course, the US.
One reason China built an oil and gas pipeline to the west through Myanmar is because the US wanted to control the sea passages between the Greater Middle East and China so it could use the threat of cutting off its oil tanker supplies as a form of Great Power political leverage, what Michael Klare described as akin to 'nuclear blackmail'.
This was an main reason for the 'Pivot to Asia' and for building up the US navy after 2011. The ambition of 'containing' China to the east would complement the strategy of countering China's 'March West', one given impetus by the China Belt Road and Initiative and inroads made into resource rich Central Asia.
The US military presence in Afghanistan was never just about 'terrorism' and more about occupying a strategic piece of the Grand Chessboard of Eurasia, retaining the Bagram air base, asserting control over the valuable mineral resources and securing the construction of the TAPI pipeline from Turkmenistan through to India
As geopolitical analysis John Foster emphasised, the TAPI gas pipeline was vital in uniting the Central Asian states with energy hungry South Asian states, what Hillary Clinton termed in 2012 a 'New Silk Route Initiative'. Trump has been under pressure to scale up US troop numbers to secure US interests in Afghanistan.
The MOAB detonation in north Afghanistan was a move to show Assad in Syria and Kim Jong Un in North Korea that the US was led by an unpredictable madman who was prepared to unleash US bombing prowess on those he deems a threat to US interests. It was also a signal to Russia and China the US was 'back'.
Russia would have to rein in Assad and China would be required to keep Kim Jong Un in check or the US would. The problem is that in both Syria and North Korea there are wider geopolitical interests at stake beyond both theatres of action and that have escalated the threat of a direct head 'collision' that could precipitate earthquakes.
With Syria, the fact Trump cannot act against Assad directly without threatening a conflict with Russia has meant Washington turning towards the possibility of downgrading Assad's power by potentially aiming threatening conflict with Iran by aligning with Saudi Arabia in its regional proxy war.
The danger of ratcheting up the rhetoric against Iran-and even of direct conflict with it- would be that China's 'March West' has seen it aligned closely with Tehran as a major energy provider and strategic ally. China is pro-Assad too because Turkey has been covertly supporting Sunni jihadists in Xinjiang as has Saudi Arabia.
Many of Trump's closest generals and political team regard Iran in paranoid ways as the source of all covert terrorist threats against its allies and so interests. But Iran has China as an ally and the idea it could be 'put on notice' and taken out is simply not realistic and could cause a global war. As could mishandling the North Korea crisis
North Korea: A Concentrated Geopolitical Flashpoint on the Far East Tip of the Eurasian Continent.
China, quite simply, does not have as much direct control over North Korea as Secretary of state Rex Tillerson would imply it had. While it has every interest in getting it to back down on its nuclear missile programme, Pyongyang aims at accelerating it in order to play off all three Great Powers-Russia, China and the US.
If Pyongyang sees that the US is antagonistic to China, the more interest it has in upping the ante so that China would have to offer it more as a way out of the crisis: if China does not, Russia could step in as both powers are concerned as much with North Korea as they are with US anti-ballistic missile programmes.
Both China and Russia have realigned in opposition to the US using the North Korea crisis to foist the anti-ballistic THAAD system into South Korea. While it is claimed it is to defend South Korea, China regards this as a potential threat to the relative deterrent power of its own nuclear defence system capabilities.
THAAD’s surveillance capabilities could offer early tracking data to parts of the American ballistic missile defence system. As this would erode China’s ability to target the U.S. in the event of war it could alter the balance of power in favour of the US given that they are deploying THAAD systems in Guam also and in space.
The US is militarising space and helping to stimulate an arms race among the US, China and Russia, as well as pushing both Eurasian powers to align to a degree in opposition to the US and erode the advantage the US had had since the 1970s in being capable of aligning towards one in order to offset the power ambitions of the other.
This is where the danger of the North Korean crisis could escalate into a Second Korean War and a Third World War. It has been compared by Niall Ferguson to the Cuban Missile Crisis. China would not back down over the South China Sea or put maximum pressure on Pyongyang without the US making concessions elsewhere.
If North Korea presses ahead with its nuclear programme, it is unlikely to just allow the US to threaten direct military action against it; this would create a failed state on its north eastern border, or else the prospect of US troops storming towards the River Yalu once more and a eventually running a US client state right up to it.
Crude US unilateralism of the kind offered by John Bolton is dangerous. He's argued that either China stops Kim Jong Un by sanctions and measures to collapse the regime or else the threat of destabilisation on China's north eastern borders would happen anyway by a US war to destroy it-it is China's choice on America's terms.
The danger is while North Korea presses ahead with missile testing, both China and Russia are signalling they both need to scale up their nuclear weapons defence programmes in order to deter the threat to their power from the US deployment of THAAD in client states such as South Korea-this is happening already.
Demilitarising the Korean crisis would require multilateral negotiations about how to respond to North Korea and not threats of unilateral US military action to threaten China. Offering Kim Jong Un a way out would take time and patient diplomacy as well as concessions from the US to both North Korea and China.
Anatol Lieven once argued that the US should withdraw its military from South Korea and that could be put on the table should North Korea agree to back down. Building new US bases, as at Jeju, has only intensified further the spiral of paranoia and insecurity North Korea thrives on and potentially antagonises China.
It is both dangerous to insist China bear sole responsibility for stopping North Korea's nuclear programme while the US suggests it's either this or US force that would decide its fate. It would be better to indicate that diplomatic compromises could be offered in reaction for cooperation on dismantling the nuclear programme.
If Kim Jong Un were to be forced to the table by all the Great Powers showing it would be best off negotiating, then the US could offer a peace treaty ending the first Korean War, agreeing to withdraw THAAD and scale down and withdraw its own military in response to decommissioning its nuclear programme.
The failure to start putting such diplomacy into effect risks the heightened possibility of there being mutual misunderstanding over North Korea and of stumbling into global war, as North Korea is but on flashpoint in a region where all the geopolitical fissure lines and stresses meet in one concentrated space.