January 8, 2020
At the dawn of the 2020s, the global national security chessboard has the major pieces in motion, most recently, the US and Iran. The US strike on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, is just one developing scenario in a globe beset by new challenges to the US-led security order. Scenarios with China and Russia are also in motion, as are all three together. In most cases the Trump Administration is implementing a harder-edged, more decisive approach to dealing with challenges to American interests – and many of them are well past due.
IRAN: Since Iran is timely, let’s begin there. General Soleimani, Iran’s “indispensable man” who has been called Iran’s “David Petraeus and Stan McChrystal and Brett McGurk all rolled into one,” is widely credited with Iran’s region-wide fusing of “insurgent and state power” in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, which is a variation of the approach Russia is using in Ukraine with its “little green men”. The Department of Defense and the State Department cited Soleimani’s planning of imminent attacks on US personnel as the rationale for the strike – but that really only partially explains the question of “why now?” Soleimani has been on the American radar for years, with both the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration choosing restraint with Tehran, and in particular the latter not wanting to upset the prospects for the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. President Trump chose to avoid President Clinton’s mistake in not striking Osama Bin Laden when he had the chance – this was a decisive move against an implacable enemy of the US after years of finding reasons not to do it.
CHINA: In China, President Trump has similarly upended the approach of his predecessors in dealing with Beijing. Chinese economic protectionism, a systematic military, economic and technology cyber and espionage campaign against the US, and an increasingly aggressive approach to the South China Sea has prompted the US to unprecedented moves in response. Unlike the Obama Administration or even the Bush Administration, President Trump has moved to respond to these Chinese provocations with decisiveness. The ongoing trade war with China introduced valuable strategic uncertainty in the relationship and drives home the point that the US will not passively tolerate forced technology sharing, nonexistent patent enforcement, and unlimited protectionism and trade deficits.
In a major step forward in our response to the China challenge, President Trump recognized the challenge of Chinese “state champion” corporations such as Huawei, which are required by Chinese laws (the 2017 National Intelligence and the 2014 Counter-Espionage Law) to provide to the PRC data passing through its 5G communications networking technology – and limited their sale in the US and US Government agencies. Rightly, this Administration recognizes the strategic nature of the race for 5G and its broad-ranging impact in both civilian and military applications – the Pentagon has even made select military installations available to American industry to develop and test technologies.
Finally, the Pentagon under President Trump has stepped up the Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) patrols of US naval ships near contested shoals in the South China Sea – to challenge China’s island-building campaign to turn these shoals into Chinese military outposts. These operations are a crucial reminder to America’s allies of our commitment to the security of the region.
RUSSIA: Despite his friendly demeanor to the Russian president, President Trump’s moves on the international scene have largely been decisively oppositional to Russian strategic interests. These include the imminent completion of the Aegis Ashore anti-ballistic missile facility in Poland, to complement an additional facility established in Romania in 2016 over the vociferous objections of the Russians. Both these facilities will be armed with SM3 anti-ballistic missiles (manufactured at Raytheon Missile Systems in Tucson). Further, in 2018, the Trump Administration stood up the US Navy 2nd Fleet at Norfolk VA, responsible for operations in the Atlantic Ocean, is now fully operational and widely seen as a response to increased Russian naval assertiveness.
BOTH RUSSIA and CHINA…: And in a direct challenge to both Russia and China – in a much delayed but necessary move, the Trump Administration officially withdrew the US from the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in August 2019. For Russia this means the US has finally called them on their cheating on the treaty – Russia first denied the existence of and then deployed the 9M729 cruise missile – and it allowed the US to quickly develop its own intermediate range missile systems for potential deployment to counter the Russian weapons. However, perhaps the most strategic rationale for withdrawal from the INF Treaty was that China was not subject to its provisions, allowing China to develop and deploy over 2,000 missiles, many along its coastal areas, and 95% of which would have been illegal under the treaty. These missiles help China target Taiwan, Japan and US bases in the region, and in theory, could also deter US aircraft carriers from coming to the defense of allies subject to Chinese attack. Deployment of US intermediate range missiles in response help deter Chinese use of such weapons and encourage China’s engagement in arms control negotiations.
Further, the standing up of US Space Force as the sixth branch of the US military, a seemingly singular President Trump initiative in 2019, is a strong statement about the intention of the US to integrate operations in space and to address dramatic increases in military space activities by both Russia and China in recent years. Even while the Space Force is largely an evolution of the space-related efforts of DOD, USAF, US Navy and US Army, this is a direct message to Russia who believe they did this same thing when they renamed the Russian Air Force to the Russian Aerospace Forces in 2015, and to China, who has been explicit about asymmetrically targeting America’s reliance on space assets.
….RUSSIA, CHINA AND IRAN….Finally, as if we needed any other indication of shifting global geopolitics, these three powers are becoming increasingly aligned together. Certainly, China and Russia are finding common cause in aligning against the United States. According to former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats in testimony to the US Senate in January 2019: “China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s.” And as of Friday 1/3/20, the three countries began their first ever joint naval drills in the Gulf of Oman – China sent a guided missile destroyer, and Russia sent 3 ships – a frigate, tanker and a rescue tug boat – from its Baltic Fleet.
Many of President Trump’s moves on the global national security chessboard have exhibited a decisive, hard-nosed approach to making decisions that other Presidents have put off for years – from engaging China in a trade war and combatting Chinese systemic espionage, to withdrawing the US from the INF Treaty with Russia, and yes, striking General Soleimani – each of these steps should have happened years ago. Secretary Esper had it right in his comments on Iran last week – “the game has changed” – this geopolitical chess game will take many more years to complete.