WHO WILL TEST TRUMP FIRST?
Who Will Test Trump First? Russia, Iran, and North Korea Rush to Beat China to the Punch
Almost two weeks now into the Trump Presidency and it appears to be a competition to see who will test the United States on the foreign relations and national security front first. Conventional wisdom is that China is very good at using an opponent's complacency to test a new President of the United States. In fine tradition, China is usually the first power to do so, but this time it seems to have competitors in Russia, Iran, and North Korea.
Take the events of the last few days. First, on Saturday, almost as soon as the much-heralded phone call between Trump and President Putin ended, Russia and its Ukrainian rebel allies launched their largest military offensive in Eastern Ukraine in several months. Russian artillery which had been silent for several months opened fire on a large swath of strategic eastern Ukraine territory. In a telltale sign that the Russians were running the offensive, Ukrainian soldiers started to receive threatening texts from Russian electronic warfare units. The clear Russian grand strategic goal appeared to be to test President Trump’s intentions with regard to sanctions, and resolve and to see if they could force him to accept a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea.
Then, on Sunday, the Islamic Republic of Iran test-fired a Medium-Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM) that exploded after travelling 1,010 kilometers. Although they have fired several in the past in breach of the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, this is the first in the Trump Presidency. President Trump has said that he will stop the Iranian long range missile program. He told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that tearing up the Iran nuclear deal was his first-priority. On Monday, the Iranian-backed Yemeni Houthi rebels carried out what the Saudis are claiming was a suicide boat attack on one of its frigates. Now reports are swirling that the Iranian-backed Houthis thought that they were attacking an American warship.
Additionally, on Monday, it emerged that North Korea had restarted its plutonium-manufacturing 5 MW reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear facility. Just prior to Trump’s inauguration, North Korea had threatened to launch two Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and South Korea had reported seeing two missiles on mobile launchers but they were reportedly smaller than a North Korean KN-08 ICBM. Trump made it clear during the election campaign that tackling and stopping the North Korean missile and nuclear program was a key priority.
By contrast China has been engaged in a mere war of words with the United States in reaction to President Trump’s tearing up the Trans Pacific Partnership and threat to end the ‘One China Policy’ in favour of Taiwan. Additionally, Trump’s Secretary of State pick, Rex Tillerson, in confirmation hearings, warned that the United States would deny China access to its seven man-made islands in international waters in the South China Sea. China has responded to both Trump and Tillerson’s comments by warning that it sees the risks of war rising and threatening to increase the readiness of its military forces. Today it announced that it might deploy a second carrier to the South China Sea when it officially joins the navy in 2019 and showed mock up photos of what might be early warning aircraft on its only operational aircraft carrier the Liaoning.
In summary, we are not through week two of the Trump Presidency and it looks like several non-status quo actors are ready to challenge the United States on a strategic level. Hang on to your seats it is going to be an interesting month.