(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters)
March 1 (Reuters) - With Russian nuclear threats, India and Pakistan on the brink of all-out war and now U.S.-North Korea talks breaking down in Vietnam, it has been a messy week for diplomacy. Great powers seem ever more willing to embrace the drama of confrontation over meaningful communication – and even when they try, it seems increasingly hard to bring them to a deal.
In Hanoi, the failure of the meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean counterpart Kim Jong Un appeared to take even the two main participants by surprise. North Korea may have been more willing than most observers expected to offer to disarm much of its nuclear arsenal, but it wanted much more in return – a near-complete end to sanctions – than Washington could offer there and then. The question now is whether Pyongyang will try to hammer out a new deal or return to rocket and nuclear weapons tests, again ramping up the risk of direct conflict on the peninsula.
Nuclear powers India and Pakistan have been taking military risks on a scale unseen in decades. An attack in Indian-controlled Kashmir blamed on Pakistan-based militants prompted New Delhi to launch air strikes on its neighbour for the first time since 1971. Even if a degree of calm returns in the coming days, this conflict has moved the boundaries of what both nations expect from future confrontations. That may make them even quicker to attack in future – or keener to find other routes, including militant attacks and beyond, to needle each other.
Both Russia and China have – in their own very different ways – also become adept at using unconventional, not directly military tactics to get their own way. Cyber attacks, the use pf deniable non-uniformed military forces, building artificial islands or using state-backed corporations to wield power are all much harder for potential foes to manage, particularly an increasingly distracted United States. Last weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin signalled a potential return to Cold War-style atomic brinkmanship, warning that Moscow was ready for another here Cuban missile crisis if the United States deployed medium-range nuclear missiles to Europe.
In apparent support for that message, Russian television then broadcast a list of Moscow’s top targets in the continental United States in the event of war. Relations between Washington and Beijing have also deteriorated over the last year, fuelled by a trade dispute, regional military posturing and very different visions for the long-term global future.
Almost the only good diplomatic news this week came from the most recent trade talks between the United States and China, with Trump agreeing not to impose a new roster of sanctions. That provides a modest diplomatic opening – provided such progress can be maintained, no easy task with the 2020 U.S. presidential election looming. Beijing also remains cautious. Chinese help was clearly not enough to produce a deal with North Korea on Thursday, despite Pyongyang’s dependence on its northern neighbour.
The result has been a worsening environment for international trust, including when it comes to mankind’s most dangerous weapons. Moscow has long been furious over the upcoming deployment of U.S. antiballistic missile rockets in Eastern Europe, and the United States has worried for several years that Moscow’s new missile types breach the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty. Still, some fear that Washington’s withdrawal from that agreement may simply make matters worse, setting off a new arms race.
Meanwhile, major powers are clearly already modelling both nuclear and conventional conflict against each other with a level of realism not seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall. A poll of U.S. active service members by the "Military Times" newspaper showed a dramatic increase here in the proportion who believed the United States could be involved in a major war, perhaps within a year. While worries over North Korea had dramatically fallen since 2017, those over Russia and China rose even more markedly.
For Moscow and Beijing in particular, a core tenet of military strategy is now based around taking advantage of perceived Western weakness, and potential U.S. reluctance to reinforce allies. In January, a former Chinese admiral suggested that in the event of war over Taiwan or the South China Sea, Beijing’s best approach would be to sink two U.S. aircraft carriers. It would be enough, he said, to push the United States out of any conflict. “What America is afraid of most is taking casualties,” Lee Kuan was quoted as saying.
The more likely countries believe they are to win outright, the more likely they are to risk these wars. But there are also dangers to starting much more limited conflicts – such as that between India and Pakistan this week – and trusting they will not run out of control.
Couple that with a world in which leaders like Trump and Kim can’t agree on continuing talks through to an already planned lunch, and you have a world growing more worrying by the week. ** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralyzed by a war-zone car smash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party, and is an active fundraiser for the party.
Editing by Giles Elgood
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