Over the weekend, three world leaders, US president Donald Trump, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s leader Xi Jinping stepped off the diplomatic path over their differences on world issues and switched to displays of military might.
In a show of force after North Korea’s two ICBM tests, two US B-1B bombers capable of delivering nuclear weapons, escorted by South Korean and Japanese fighters, took off from Guam Saturday, July 29 and cut across the Korean peninsula. There was no word on whether they entered North Korean skies.
Further west, US Vice President Mike Pence toured East European capitals. Speaking in Tallinn, Estonia, he assured “our Baltic allies” – as well as Georgia and Montenegro, his next destinations: “We are with you and will stand with you on behalf of freedom.” He said that the president would soon sign the latest round of sanctions voted on by Congress, since “Russia’s destabilizing activities and support for rogue regimes and its activities in Ukraine are unacceptable.”
Shortly after President Donald Trump criticized China over failing to deal with North Korea, President Xi Jinping in a general’s uniform viewed a huge military parade Sunday marking the People’s Liberation Army’s 90th anniversary. Xi is the PLA’s commander in chief. Whereas the annual parade usually takes place in Beijing, this one was staged at the remote Zhurihe military base in Inner Mongolia., with the participation of 12,000 soldiers, 100 bombers and fighters and a display of 600 weapons systems, 40 percent of them new products of China’s arms industries.
“The world isn’t safe at the moment,” the Chinese president told his people. “A strong army is needed more than ever.”
The Russian president meanwhile showcased his naval might in a huge parade of vessels stretching from the Dnieper River in Moscow to Saint Petersburg, through the Baltic port of Kaliningrad, to Crimea on the Black Sea and up to Russia’s Syrian base at Tartus. Taking part were 50 warships and submarines.
Standing on the deck of the presidential warship as it sailed past the Kremlin’s walls, Putin congratulated the Russian navy on its great advances.
He then disembarked, headed to his office and ordered 755 U.S. diplomats to leave the country by Sept. 1, in retaliation for the new round of sanctions against Russia ordered by the US Congress. More than 1,000 people are currently employed at the Moscow embassy and three US consulates in Russia.
“We waited for quite some time that maybe something will change for the better, had much hope that the situation will somehow change, but, judging by everything, if it changes, it will not be soon,” Putin said. “It is time for us to show that we will not leave anything unanswered.” He added menacingly that there are many areas of Russian-American cooperation whose discontinuation would be harmful to the US. “I hope we don’t have to go there,” he said.
These muscle-flexing steps by the three world powers add up to an ominous shift from their brink-of-cold war diplomatic interaction to a new level with the potential for tipping over into limited military clashes.
The penny has finally dropped for Trump that President Xi has no intention of cracking down on North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, even though he declared after a successful second test of an intercontinental ballistic missile that “the US mainland is without our striking range.”
The message from Beijing was clear: The threat to Chicago and Los Angeles would have to be dealt with by the White House in Washington, not Beijing.
Xi may accept that the US president may eventually be forced to take some military action against North Korea’s missile and nuclear facilities. But he may also be counting on such action being a one-off, like the 59-US Tomahawk missile barrage that hit the Syrian air base of Shayrat on April 7. Because that dramatic strike was not the start of an organized campaign against the regime in Damascus, it failed to unseat Bashar Assad and in fact made him stronger. Once America has vented its anger, the Chinese president hopes its military offensive against Kim will be over and done with.
For six months, Putin waited to see whether Trump was able to beat down the media-boosted war waged against his presidency by political and intelligence enemies at home, much of it focused on the Russian dimension. His patience with the US president and his troubles at home is clearly at an end.
On Sunday, July 30, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called the new sanctions “completely weird and unacceptable,” adding "If the US side decides to move further towards further deterioration we will answer, we will respond in kind. We will mirror this. We will retaliate,” he stressed.
The gloves have clearly come off for the ramping up of friction among the three powers in the various world flashpoint arenas, whether in Europe, the Far East, or other places.