Shashi Tharoor: Trump, Putin and Xi — The Trinity of ‘Unknowns’
The emerging leadership of the Xi-Putin-Trump trifecta will dominate global geopolitics for the next few years.
The emerging leadership of the Xi-Putin-Trump trifecta will dominate global geopolitics for the next few years.(Photo: The Quint/Arnica Kala)

Shashi Tharoor: Trump, Putin and Xi — The Trinity of ‘Unknowns’

Too caught up to read the story? Listen to it instead.

Three individuals, three countries and their emerging relationship are likely to dominate global geopolitics for the next few years: President Donald Trump in the US, embarking on the second year of his turbulent term, President Xi Jinping in China, newly anointed, in effect, Supreme Leader for life, and President Vladimir Putin in Russia, re-elected to another term that will see him complete a second decade at the helm of his country.

This is an extraordinary trifecta, and what’s striking is how many unknowns these three men embody.

We still don’t really know, for instance, what an “America First” foreign policy might mean in practice. Is this the end of what Ian Bremmer calls the era of “US hegemony in security, trade, and the promotion of values [which] provided baseline predictability for the global economy?” If so, what will the new unpredictability consist of?

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Will Trump and Putin Unite to Check China?

American unilateralism could spring a few surprises this year: Trump’s surprising announcement that he will meet North Korean supremo Kim Jong Un is merely one of them. One area to watch closely is the evolution of the US-Russia-China triangular dynamic, which has changed under Trump and might change further if the political scandal over his campaign’s contacts with Russia ever subsides.

Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. (L-R)
Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. (L-R)
(Photo: Altered by The Quint)
A Washington-Moscow thaw would draw Putin away from Beijing, to which he had become noticeably more sympathetic in recent years, especially given their shared views in the UN Security Council on Libya, Syria and other issues. But right now it does not seem to be on the cards.

The world as we know it has largely been shaped by Westphalian principles, and the strongest disruption to Westphalian sovereignty is, of course, the rise of a strong China, fuelled by economic prowess, military might, and a renewed eagerness in the application of its hard power. The South China Sea has become the site of a host of territorial disputes that open the floodgates to attempts at capturing the region’s economic resources and strategic value.

Also Read : 18 Years of Vladimir Putin: From First Election to Meeting Trump

This is not a fleeting moment, but rather a part of a wider mobilisation within the leadership ranks of China’s elite, revealing their willingness to use hard power across the globe: in the South China Sea, in Pakistan, in Bhutan’s Doklam plateau, and across Africa.

Russia is a similar hard-nosed player, with Putin having asserted its might decisively in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and more recently in Syria. Unlike the Russians, the extent of Chinese willingness to assert hard power is yet to be revealed — though China’s capacity to flex its muscles in its backyard is an indication of unsettling global aspirations. (At a more trivial level, China’s disregard for global rules by supporting hackers to attempt to gain access to critical strategic intelligence resources suggests the same thing.) With his extraordinary freedom from term limits, President Xi Jinping will not want to look weak, including in the face of threats from a unilateralist America.

Can Economic Interdependence Ensure Stability?

Not all is rosy for Xi. China is the only country with a scalable global economic strategy, but it is experiencing a slowdown, making it the most important and most uncertain driver of change today. Its current growth is down to 6 percent – after decades of double digit growth – and it seems unlikely to rise above that for the next five years. (This would hardly be bad news for most of us: China still adds a Switzerland every year to the global GDP, since its reduced growth is still about $800 billion and, according to the IMF, it is on course to be a $15 trillion economy by 2020).

But nations exporting to China are already feeling the pinch of reduced demand: the collapse of the global steel industry is directly attributable to China’s slowdown.

So Chinese workers are “stealing” western jobs but western markets would have no consumers unless they’re willing to allow those jobs to go to China!

US President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping arrive for the state dinner with the first ladies at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 9 November 2017.
US President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping arrive for the state dinner with the first ladies at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 9 November 2017.
(Photo: AP)

Also Read : China Hopes to Avert Trade War, Pledges More Open Economy

To maintain control in the face of a slowing economy, Trump knows that China may be tempted to assert nationalism to increase domestic support, such as in territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands in the Sea of Japan. For their own corresponding reasons, China’s neighbours, facing electorates and domestic pressures, drum up nationalism, raising the stakes in rhetoric and the flexing of muscles.

If these actions develop an irrational momentum, they may disrupt the world’s geopolitics, including the global modular supply chain. This could be bad news for the rest of us, since it is globalisation that has permitted the diffusion of wealth away from traditional manufacturing countries into less developed countries; any disruption would threaten the new-found prosperity of emerging markets like India.

Economic interdependence is not necessarily an insurance against instability.

China is Japan’s largest trading partner and Japan is China’s second most important commercial partner, and yet tensions pervade the relationship. If things go wrong between the US and China, their economic interdependence won’t necessarily prevent conflict.

And of course, between the US and Russia, there is little inter-dependence to speak of.

Also Read : Xi Jinping Ruling China ‘Forever’ May Not Be So Bad. Or Is It?

Losing More than ‘Jobs’

Trump’s populist objections to globalisation in its current avatar are a key part of the problem. For instance, China’s trade with its Western partners has brought vast benefits to consumers in the US. But it is equally true that large numbers of American workers have lost their jobs in the process.

The Trumpist response has been increasing political denunciation of global trade, hostility – even violence – towards foreigners, and petty complaints about trade imbalances with individual countries. Protectionist barriers have begun to go up in the very nation that had for years advocated the free flow of goods, labour, and capital — an irony that would have been funny had it not smelt a great deal like hypocrisy.

Trump promises to bring back jobs that have been “lost” to China. In the process, if the world degenerates into retaliatory tariffs, national belligerence and even conflict, the world might lose a lot more than jobs.

(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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