Trump continues to heighten geo-political tension

Muhammad Zamir | Published: July 15, 2018 21:58:48 | Updated: July 16, 2018 21:26:02

US President Donald Trump plays golf at Turnberry golf club, Scotland, Saturday, July 14, 2018. Trump spent the weekend at his sea-side Trump Turnberry golf resort in Scotland, where aides had said he would be busy preparing for his Monday summit in Helsinki, Finland. —AP Photo

On  June 27, President Donald Trump speaking before a packed house in North Dakota suggested that being President was not really very tough. He also pointed that the Heritage Foundation had come out with a report some months earlier that pointed out that his Administration had already implemented "64 per cent of our top agenda items". He claimed that such an achievement had been accomplished "at a much faster pace than even Ronald Reagan."

The reason for all this confidence appears to have originated from a few factors. He appears to have taken over the Republican Party completely. He has also created a bit of history through his Summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He is at present overhauling the US judiciary through a series of conservative appointments. Through such an initiative, he will have the chance to change the judicial future of the United States for decades to come thanks to the recent retirement announcement of US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. This will give the President a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape the ideological bent of the Supreme Court. A majority of the Supreme Court justices have already upheld a version of Trump's controversial travel ban, deeming it an acceptable use of his executive authority. This has led some analysts to observe that Trump now sits at a crossroads of history.

That is an idea that is cheering the Republicans and terrifying the Liberals. For Democrats, Trump's victory lap is being viewed as being more akin to a hit-and-run. The prospect of two Supreme Court vacancies being filled through the President's conservative picks has led to fears among the Democrats that the 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion-rights ruling could be overturned. Trump's political opponents, with little chance of blocking a justice nominee, are nevertheless now hoping to galvanise voters instead with the issue during the coming November's midterm elections.

While Trump has been savouring his success, many in the rest of the world are asking questions about what to expect next. They have been expressing concern about the thousands of immigrant children who remain separated from their parents after crossing the Mexican border illegally. Another mass shooting took the lives of five at a Maryland newspaper.

Trump's brash approach to foreign policy in recent past has also created anxieties in European capitals. Leaders were concerned about what waited for them in the Summit discussions that took place in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) headquarters in Brussels. As expected, the Summit on July 11 and 12 turned out to be a consequential meeting - probably the most important one since the end of the Cold War.

Trump's hostility to multinational institutions and his belief that America's allies were taking advantage of its security guarantees at relatively low cost brought sensitivity among many NATO alliance members. They now realize that the most successful post-World War II security institution could be at risk. Such fears had multiplied after Trump recently feuded with allied leaders at the G-7 Summit in Quebec, Canada where he complained that NATO was worse than NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) - which he is trying to renegotiate with Mexico and Canada. Trump also scolded Germany for its dependence on Russian energy. He called on NATO leaders again to live up to the target of member countries' defence spending and if possible to raise this from 2.0 per cent to 4.0 per centof their gross domestic product (GDP). Some of the NATO members have already started to think of doing just that - especially those from Eastern Europe. Poland thought that it was a good idea but indicated that such a measure should be accompanied with some form of assurance that the US would also be willing, if necessary, to station US troops in that country. Others have mentioned that they will think about it.

After that came Trump's visit to Britain on July 13 and 14. This was his first formal visit to United Kingdom after his assumption of office. This included a ceremonial meeting with the British Queen and a less than open high-tea and dinner with the British Prime Minister May. His stay was categorised as a working visit. This meant that there was very little formal pageantry normally associated with State visits of a close ally. His arrival, as expected, also sparked off mass protests in London. This persuaded Trump and his party to stay out of central London and call on the British Queen at Windsor Castle and also meet Prime Minister Theresa May at her official country residence, Chequers, in Buckinghamshire, west of London. Subsequently, Trump played golf in a golf course owned by him in his mother's homeland, Scotland.

The trip to Britain drew media attention because of Trump's public criticism of Prime Minister May's Brexit strategy. Later on however Trump apologised to May for the furor over his withering public critique. He blamed this, as expected, on the media and 'fake news'. To make up, he promised a US-UK bilateral trade agreement after Britain leaves the EU.

 Trump is optimistic about his meeting with Putin to be held in Helsinki on July 16. Strategists have mentioned that Trump's summit with Putin would be a high-profile and headline-grabbing encounter - somewhat like his recent meeting with the North Korean leader in Singapore. It is generally agreed that the talks will focus on the geopolitical mire in Syria, fears of a new nuclear arms race and Trump's effort to convince North Korea to end its own nuclear and missile programmes.

This busy schedule for Trump over the last ten days in all likelihood was clouded by the bad blood generated between him and European Union leaders over a gathering trade war sparked by his imposition of sanctions on steel and aluminum imports to the US and the continuing trade fiasco with China.

It all started on February 16 this year when the US Commerce Department recommended a 24 per cent tariff on all steel imports and 7.7 per cent on aluminium. It was seen as a policy directed at China, which is the world's largest maker of steel. On  March 22, China responded by saying that it would impose tariffs on US goods worth US $3.0 billion. On March 22 President Trump announced a plan to impose further tariffs on Chinese imports worth US$60 billion but granted temporary exemptions from aluminium and steel tariffs to the EU, South Korea and other countries. On  April 02, China imposed 25 per cent tariffs on 128 US products including wine and pork. On  April 03, the US government proposed new additional tariffs on Chinese imports worth US $50 billion. These included: televisions, medical equipment, aircraft parts and batteries. On April 04, 2018 China proposed tariffs on US goods worth US $50 billion. On April 05 President Trump announced he was considering additional tariffs on Chinese products worth US $100 billion. On July 06 new tariffs announced by both countries in June come into effect. Peterson Institute for International Economics has predicated that these evolving tariff structures will affect China with regard to agricultural products, energy, industrial products and transport vehicles. Similarly, these will affect the USA with regard to industrial products, transport vehicles and energy.

China's Commerce Ministry has already lodged a complaint with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) with regard to these US tariff measures and accused USA of starting the "largest trade war in economic history". They have also retaliated by imposing a similar 25 per cent tariff on 545 US products including cars, soya beans and lobsters worth a total of US$34 billion. USA in this context has argued that the American tariffs are the result of Mr Trump's attempt to protect US jobs and stop what he calls "unfair transfers of American technology and intellectual property to China".

Similarly, Russia has also announced extra duties on US imports in retaliation for earlier US steel tariffs. Russia is introducing extra duties on a range of products imported from the US that can be replaced by locally made equivalents. They include road-building equipment, products for the oil and gas industry, and tools used in mining.

Trump has also imposed tariffs on imported washing machines and solar panels, and started charging levies on the imports of steel and aluminium from the European Union (EU), Mexico and Canada. The US tariffs imposed so far would affect the equivalent of 0.6 per cent of global trade and account for 0.1 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP), according to Morgan Stanley.

Karishma Vaswani,  Asia business correspondent of BBC has aptly observed that it is "not a real war - but the US and China are at the beginning of a trade war - and no one knows just how bad it could get."

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.


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