America is Not Trying to Divide Russia and China – America is Engaging in Ping Pong Priorities

As the proverbial dust clears from a G20 summit that saw Donald Trump pursue a (temporary) policy of detente in the trade war with China while palpably ignoring Russian President Vladimir Putin, some commentators are suggesting that the US is utilising a “divide and rule” method in respect of its relations with the two Asian superpowers. While this hypothesis is clearly attractive to those who imagine the Trump administration having some Kissingeresque qualities, unlike in the Kissinger era, the Trump White House is resolutely divided among its own high ranking officials. This is especially true when it comes to foreign policy.

The fact of the matter is that the Trump White House is divided between factions inclined towards free trade who therefore necessarily seek less strained relations with China versus protectionists who represent the hawks of the trade war. Some (though it must be emphasised not all) of the pro-free trade faction also tend to favour a more traditionally neo-con/Obama style approach to Russia. On the other hand, Trump himself tends to represent a faction of his administration that prefers to engage in proto-detente measures with Russia while seeking to implicitly downgrade relations with the economically powerful China.

Amidst these divisions, Trump appears to have devised a method where he gives each faction what they want some of the time. As events like the wars on Russia’s borders (Donbass vs. Ukraine) and the Syrian conflict are anything but static and as domestic stock market statistics, the employment rate and overall economic growth in the US are also anything but static, Trump is able to pivot his stances on Russia and China based on tackling specific issues at any given time. Taken in totality one can call this approach “ping pong priorities”. 

In this sense, far from engaging in a master plan to “divide China and Russia”, something that would be virtually impossible due to the long term strategics visions of policy makers in both Beijing and Moscow, Trump is instead taking his relations with both China and Russia one event at a time. Just prior to the G20, the following happened:

–Sharp declines in the US stock markets in October 

–An announcement days prior to the G20 summit that General Motors will close four American factories

–Sustained stress to a US agricultural sector hit hard by the trade war 

–Little meaningful growth in the industrial sector when compared to loses in the agricultural sector 

Because of this, domestic economic pressures to create some form of relief for those in the US suffering from the trade war clearly took precedent over all other matters that Trump would have otherwise had to deal with at the G20. At the same time, Russia’s skirmish with Kiev regime forces in the Sea of Azov along with the Robert Mueller “Russiagate” investigation seemingly taking a turn for the worse from Trump’s perspective, combined to make it all the more easy for Trump to cancel his planned private meeting with the Russian President. It is against this background that the US President has offered several positive Tweets regarding progress on a trade agreement with China:


And yet one could imagine that if at sometime in the next two months China and the US fail to agree on a more substantial trade deal while tensions between Moscow and Kiev might conceivably cool down somewhat – the world could witness a fawning Trump press conference next to Vladimir Putin while on the same day Trump might Tweet rhetorical missiles at China.

Even in a subsequent Tweet where Trump mentioned that the three superpowers should work together on money saving arms reductions, the inclusion of Russia in the statement seemed like a calculated afterthought given the frosty reception Trump offered Putin compared with a more substantial and ultimately more cordial meeting with Xi. Such a Tweet is fully in keeping with the current state of Trump’s ping pong priorities.

The fact of the matter is that while many appear to be unconsciously nostalgic for the Sino-Soviet split of the Cold War era, in 1961 the Soviets and Chinese themselves had a falling out that was bilateral rather than conjured up in Washington. Beyond this, it took over ten years before the Nixon administration successfully exploited the Sino-Soviet split for America’s alleged gain, while even during the height of the split, both countries supported the Communist forces in Vietnam up to the point of America’s withdrawal from the south east Asian country in 1975.

Today, with win-win pragmatism and economic necessity defining the close China-Russia partnership of the 21st century, it would be difficult for any US administration to “divide” China from Russia. Beyond this if any country could divide Russia and China, it would not be the United States but India as Russia is keen on maintaining a balance between both China and India rather than playing favourites in the way that the US has done by forming a new and growing partnership with India.

Yet the recent RICs format meeting between China, Russia and India – the first such meeting in that format for 12 years, is a solid indication that Russia is far more intent on fostering an Indo-Chinese rapprochement than it is on playing one side against the other.

Thus, when all is said and done, it is clear that China and Russia remain as united as ever and that even India’s tepid relations with China are being used by Russia as an attempt to foster trilateral dialogue based on the fact that Russia enjoys uniquely positive relations with both Beijing and New Delhi. From this perspective, the RICs format appears less divided than the Trump White House.

And yet by highlighting the policy and even ideological divisions of the Trump White House, this is not to say that the US administration is as amateurish and chaotic as some would imply. Just as the concept of divide and rule is used in both hot and cold warfare, Donald Trump appears to be using the same tactic internally in the form of “ping pong priorities”. This is to say that as global trends shift, Trump shifts his policies towards Russia and China accordingly, thus satisfying (or at least partially satisfying) all factions of his White House based on which global and domestic events suggest a particular response or mentality directed towards China and Russia. The domestic motivation for Trump’s ping pong priorities is made all the more clear when one understands that China’s openness to imports from multiple nations including the United States is the material outgrowth of a concerted policy effort that began prior to Trump’s election, let alone prior to Trump’s trade war. In this sense, while China understands that it is not making any concessions to Trump by simply promoting a policy of openness to imports which was inaugurated prior to Trump’s electoral victory, Beijing is perfectly willing to engage in a latter day version of ping pong diplomacy by allowing Trump to think he won a game of ping pong with China, when in reality Trump has been busy playing ping pong with his own advisers and cabinet members and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

While ping pong priorities may suggest a lack of authenticity, considering that Trump’s greatest rivals are domestic rather than geopolitical, from his perspective it makes good sense to balance his own White House in much the same way that Russia for example balances its relations between China and India. Thus, there is plenty of divide and rule going on, but in this instance, it is all happening within Washington.

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