As noticed in the past month, U.S. foreign policy registered spectacular and unexpected modifications. Accustomed to waiting for new American President D. Trump to respect his campaign obligations/promises and those constantly listed on his own Twitter account – becoming his own spokesperson –, we missed precisely these dramatic changes. Such a change – yet to be definitively over, with there being room for a new change during Israeli Premier B. Netanyahu’s upcoming visit to Washington – was the attitude toward the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.
As known, in December 2016, former President B. Obama decided not to use the U.S. veto against a UN Security Council resolution which declared such demographic implantations illegal, marking a reversal of stance which stupefied and unsettled Jerusalem. The stance taken by Trump, winner of the presidential elections, hence the future president, was discussed at length. As I pointed out at that time, D. Trump stated that “as the United States has long maintained, peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians will only come through direct negotiations between the parties, and not through the imposition of terms by the United Nations.” At the same time, he pointed out that the adopted resolution, the first of its kind in the last 40 years, which Netanyahu dubbed as “anti-Israeli,” is “extremely unfair to all Israelis.”
Moreover, after the fact, Trump stated that the said resolution “will make much harder to negotiate peace,” and wrote on Twitter (on December 23) that “things will be different” at the UN after he takes office on Jan. 20, 2017. But recently, after he took office, D. Trump offered a changed stance in the same dossier. On February 3, somewhat cautiously, R. Tylerson, the new State Secretary, announced a new U.S. policy when it comes to Israeli settlements, stating that they are not “an impediment to peace” but that their expansion “may not be helpful” in solving the conflict. Several days later, another change of tack occurred in the same dossier, when D. Trump stated that he does not believe that “Israeli settlement growth in Palestinian territories is ‘good for peace.’”
Of course, such sinusoids in programming the foreign policy direction can be accepted during the first 100 days since taking office at the White House, when the new administration is getting accustomed to the difficult diplomatic dossiers of the U.S. superpower. However, since we are talking about the most powerful state of the planet, such contradictions in defining a political line in a dossier of such difficulty are even harder to accept, assuming that more reservation until the complete assimilation of the nuances of the issue is the indicated attitude. Because such jolts are deleterious for the health of the region they concern, a volatile region such as the Middle East, and can have catastrophic consequences.
However, it seems this is not the only case. Another one, with consequences just as dangerous if not more, was seen in recent days. As is well known, D. Trump announced a substantial change in U.S. foreign policy toward China, having had, ever since his inauguration, a much-debated phone conversation with the president of Taiwan. This conversation was immediately interpreted as a reversal of Washington’s posture toward China, an announcement of the abandonment of the more than four decades old “one China policy.”
The policy was historically undertaken following President R. Nixon’s famous openness toward Beijing in February 1972, which was reflected in Beijing replacing Taipei within the UN Security Council, as well as in large scale American-Chinese geopolitical cooperation, which undeniably hastened the end of the Cold War. On the contrary, Trump’s attitude was hardened by the raising of tension in the South China Sea to very high levels, through the statements that R. Tylerson made before Congress in his confirmation hearing, according to which the U.S. should block the Chinese ships’ access to the Spratly Archipelago, which is deemed by Beijing as being under China’s sovereignty. While initially, namely while Trump had not yet taken office, Beijing reacted calmly, waiting for him to take over his presidential prerogatives but simultaneously showing that Twitter diplomacy has its shortcomings and is not on China’s liking, the statements made about China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea suddenly lifted the temperature of relations between the two great states to red-hot levels.
While at first the Chinese diplomacy’s spokesperson set the record straight, marking a certain line beyond which Beijing is even considering war, the Chinese Foreign Minister himself most recently entered the arena. It has to be pointed out that the reaction of Wang Yi, the head of Chinese diplomacy, followed the visit that James Mattis, the new U.S. Secretary of Defence, paid to South Korea, where he announced the deployment of the anti-missile shield, and to Japan, where he reiterated U.S. support for Tokyo with regard to the China-Japan dispute in the Senkaku-Diaoyu dossier. According to a Japanese newspaper: “Mattis said America would no longer be that tolerant of China’s behaviour in the South China Sea. He pledged to take an active role in protecting freedom of navigation… Specifically, the US is set to increase the frequency of patrols within 12 nautical miles of man-made islands China has constructed in the sea.” When asked by a journalist for his comment on the new U.S. stance, while visiting Australia, Wang referred to “a stronger and even more aggressive posture toward China on a range of issues.” The question was: “How concerned are you really by the possibility of war between the U.S. and China?” The Chinese diplomat’s answer was cautious but firm, emphasising “that a war between the United States and China was unthinkable because of the disastrous losses that conflict would bring to both sides” but also that “any sober-minded politician, they clearly recognise that there cannot be conflict between China and the United States because both will lose, and both sides cannot afford that.” The build-up of tension in bilateral relations was ended, maybe, through a phone conversation between the two presidents, Trump and Xi Jiang, on February 9. In it, the American President pointed out he will continue to respect the “one China policy” direction, while Chinese President Xi replied that “I believe that the United States and China are cooperative partners, and through joint efforts we can push bilateral relations to a historic new high.”
Obviously, this unexpected and overnight reversal of posture toward China has its motivations. We are not the partisan of some of the most common explanations, namely either the lack of experience of the new American administration or D. Trump’s lack of familiarity with foreign policy issues and his natural tendency to treat these issues like a businessman would, although each of these can claim a spot in the complexity of the case. We tend to believe that the White House assessed that the new presidency has opened too many confrontation fronts: with China, with the EU (see F. Mogherini’s recent statement, warning the U.S. not to interfere in the organisation’s internal affairs, which is unprecedented), with the world of Islam, with Mexico or with Ukraine. And, from a strategic standpoint, these multiple fronts were opened incautiously, without some of the directions sought in the long-term being robustly established: the agreement with Russia, free trade agreement with the UK, among others. Which creates a risk not so much of external confrontation but which offers a precious gift to the powerful opponents in Congress and to public opinion against the new presidential administration’s overall policy: general external hostility toward Washington’s external orientations. Hence, efficient ammo for the opposition to D. Trump. On February 10, in his usual confrontation with the hostile U.S. media, D. Trump wrote on his Twitter account: “The failing @nytimes does major FAKE NEWS China story saying “Mr.Xi has not spoken to Mr. Trump since Nov.14.” We spoke at length yesterday!”