From the Forecast: “Given the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, it is very unlikely that sanctions will be reduced, which appears to leave U.S.-Russian relations suspended for now.”
Update: It has been a less-than-ideal year for our forecasts of U.S.-Russia relations. At the beginning of the year, we expected that Russia would be willing to make compromises in exchange for the removal of sanctions or for concessions on issues in its near abroad, especially in relation to the frozen conflict in Ukraine. We expected that the United States, while interested in such accommodations, would be so inwardly focused that it probably wouldn’t give Russia any ground. As a result, we expected that U.S.-Russia relations would be “suspended” – that is to say, they would not get much better or worse.
As we have said in previous installments, our assessment of Russia’s imperatives was, broadly speaking, accurate. The height of Russia’s charm offensive came during the July 16 Helsinki summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. While they took no concrete steps toward repairing U.S.-Russia relations, it seemed that Russia might be poised to offer concessions, and that the U.S. might even agree to them. One of the many rumors that swirled after the summit was that the two sides had come to be of a similar mind on the long-simmering conflict between Serbia and Kosovo. Despite a brief period when it looked as if the parties were close to reaching some kind of agreement, that conflict seems no closer to resolution.
Our assessment of U.S. imperatives, it turns out, was another matter. Not only did relations not improve after the Trump-Putin summit, they deteriorated further. At the end of 2017, the U.S. identified Russia and China as its two primary rivals on the international stage. Notwithstanding Trump’s desire to reconcile with Russia – a desire, it should be noted, shared by every occupant of the White House since Jimmy Carter – U.S. institutional inertia and overall political hostility and distrust toward Russia have rendered any positive steps null.
But there was an even starker development that we did not foresee: On Oct. 20, Trump said the United States would withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The INF Treaty became an important part of former President Ronald Reagan’s legacy and was one of the first major trust-building measures between the United States and the Soviet Union. While the U.S. has not formally withdrawn from the INF, and Russia has suggested there may be room for negotiation, the symbolism of leaving a treaty that marked the end of the Cold War is unmistakable.
The United States’ primary issue is not with Russia – though multiple administrations have accused Russia of violating the treaty. (Russia, likewise, has accused the U.S. of violating the INF with anti-missile deployments in Eastern Europe.) The Trump administration’s complaint is that countries like China, North Korea and Iran, which are boosting their missile stocks, are not party to the treaty; paired with Russian violations, their omission, the U.S. argues, renders the INF Treaty obsolete. In the long run, the U.S. would likely prefer some sort of deal – revamping its nuclear missiles will potentially cost trillions of dollars – but treaties are about more than the substance of an agreement. They are about trust, and there is little reason for the parties involved to trust each other.
Far from suspended, U.S.-Russia relations continue to deteriorate, and we likely have yet to see the worst of it. That’s a negative grade for our forecast from the start of the year.
From the Forecast: “[More aggressive Japanese policy] will bring Japan into direct competition with China. … Though it is unclear what exactly Japan will do, it is clear that Sino-Japanese relations will strain under the weight of Tokyo’s newfound self-reliance.”
Update: This has been one of our most reviewed forecasts this year, and its overall performance has been mixed. Last week’s official meetings in China between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping were positively cordial. The two leaders signed $3.6 billion in economic deals, along with a $29 billion currency swap, and agreed to set up a long-discussed defense hotline between their countries. According to Abe, Sino-Japanese ties have entered a new dimension; according to Xi, a new chapter has been gloriously opened.
This might suggest that our forecast for Japan and China is off track. But Abe went straight from Beijing to hosting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Japan, signing a number of economic and security deals with him and promising to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific – an anti-Chinese catchphrase if ever there was one. Meanwhile, China’s foreign minister quickly made his way to the Philippines to continue Beijing’s courtship of a country critical to its desire to break out of the first island chain.
Relations between Japan and China are ambiguous because the countries have both shared and diverging interests between them. China is Japan’s top trading partner. Though China depends more on exports to the United States, Japan is easily its second-most important trading partner. Both countries are hurt by the United States’ recent moves to restructure its global trading relationships; while China has borne the brunt of U.S. tariffs and sanctions, Japan, too, has felt the squeeze. These economic interests give relations between China and Japan a cooperative quality that at times obscures their territorial disputes in the East China Sea or their moves to create regional alliance structures that isolate the other.
There is also, on some level, a shared ideological affinity between the two powers. Both were forcibly modernized by military encounters with the West – and both have sought to restore agency to Asia and push back against foreign powers’ interference in the region. Even so, China and Japan’s economic interests and desire for Asia to avenge colonial depredations are not enough to cancel out the fact that they are natural rivals. Both powers are proudly independent and suspicious of the other’s intentions. China remembers the Rape of Nanjing, and Japan has not lost the underlying sense that when it comes to the hierarchy in East Asia, Tokyo should be on top.
Perhaps the best way to describe Sino-Japanese relations is with the old adage, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Because of that process and recent events, this forecast may seem off track. Keeping your enemies close means that, at times, it may appear to the casual observer that you aren’t enemies at all. We chalk up the negative trend line less to a faulty forecast than to the halting nature one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world – one ultimately defined not by altruism but by competition.
From the Forecast: “Central Asia must confront internal pressures that threaten to tear it apart as outside powers exploit it for their own purposes.”
Update: We end this installment of the forecast tracker on an upward trend line. Central Asia is often overlooked. Yet like the Balkans, the Caucasus and the South Pacific, it is a peripheral region in a state of rapid transformation because of internal power dynamics and great power competition. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan now appear to be vying for regional power in Central Asia. Kazakhstan is larger and richer in resources, but Uzbekistan is the region’s most populous country, and it recently managed to pull off a transition from one dictator to another with far less upheaval than outside observers (including us) expected.
External powers have turned their gaze to this part of the world, which, according to the great British geopolitical thinker Halford Mackinder, is a pivot of global power. In the last two weeks alone, Germany, Romania, Russia, China, the United States, the EU, the United Arab Emirates and Japan have held official high-level political summits or economic meetings aimed at signing new trade deals with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Perhaps most notable has been the U.S.-Russia tussle over influence in Uzbekistan. On Oct. 19, Putin and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev hailed their strategic ties. Russia followed up with a $350 million loan to Uzbekistan, and the two signed a new economic cooperation program. Five days later, U.S. officials were in Tashkent to sign $2.5 billion worth of deals.
Complicating matters, this predominantly Muslim part of the world has been ruled by secular-minded dictatorships. A similar combination of great power competition, artificial borders and sclerotic leadership led to the collapse of Syria and Iraq and to the rapid growth of jihadism as a force to be reckoned with throughout the Middle East. It’s not just foreign powers that have cast their eyes on Central Asia; for groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaida, the region poses a mighty temptation. This is one of the primary reasons why any hopes that Central Asia will soon experience political liberalization are misplaced. Maintaining stability in this part of the world takes an iron fist – the authoritarian governments there keep a lid on potentially destructive forces.
This was not the year we expected these forces to upend the regional balance of power – but we did expect that this kind of competition for influence in Central Asia would help define 2018. Unlike the other two forecasts reviewed here, this one gets an overwhelmingly positive grade. In 2018, the question looms as to whether an equilibrium has been reached, or whether the building pressure will explode into the open. That is a question for another time; in the interim it is safe to say that an uneasy peace remains in one of the world’s most pent-up potential geopolitical hotspots.