Is Trump facing his own Falklands moment?

In early 1982, the UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher’s position and her political future were under threat. She faced sharp criticism from within her government and the public following savage government spending cuts, a declining manufacturing industry and high unemployment. Then, the Argentinian military invaded the Falkland Islands, a remote and disputed UK protectorate in the South Atlantic.

Against the advice of many in her government, many of her close advisors and then US President, Ronald Reagan, Thatcher ordered a formidable military response to the Argentinian invasion of a British territory. The UK was victorious after six weeks of deadly and widely media-covered conflict that resulted in considerable casualties and large material losses on both sides but a surge in Thatcher’s popularity. Some even saw her actions as putting the ‘Great’ back into Great Britain.

Margaret Thatcher remained UK Prime Minister until 1990, making her the UK’s longest serving prime minister in the 20th century.

US President, Donald Trump, is facing sharp criticism and loss of popularity because of many domestic issues, notably for his response to the coronavirus pandemic and the uninspiring US economic and jobs recovery from the pandemic’s initial shock. Importantly for Trump, he is a long way behind his Democrat opponent in the opinion polls with the presidential election less than four months away.

Trump is blaming many others for his domestic failings and falling popularity, and is taking pot shots at China on a number of issues, most recently the Hong Kong National Security Law, territorial disputes South China Sea, Huawei and a longstanding trade imbalance.

In recent days, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has ramped up the US rhetoric about the territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China and (non-US) nations who, nevertheless are US allies.

Trump is vulnerable to his own Falklands moment. This time the player is mightier (militarily and economically) and the stakes for the world much higher than in 1982.

Never poke an eagle or a (panda) bear

An increasingly relevant sideshow to the effects of, fight against and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is the November US Presidential election. Donald Trump has begun his re-election campaign using many of the same themes and ‘tools’ that got him elected in 2016, mainly bluster, bullying (anyone who disagrees with or argues against him), isolationism and consistent selection and redefining of facts and the truth. As a result, the US is facing the erosion of its status as the global superpower.

China seems to be taking the opportunity presented by Trump’s bluster, poor judgement, lack of leadership and isolationist moves to fill the global leadership gap left by the US, to show the world that China is the equal of (or greater than) the US as a global superpower and to tidy up what it sees as domestic matters. The World Health Organisation is just one battlefield between the US and China.

China is quietly but assertively absorbing the Trump Administration’s anti-China vitriol. At the same time, it is escalating the addressing of longstanding domestic matters, such as the integration of Hong Kong into the People’s Republic of China, the security of shipping lanes in the South China Sea (the recent sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat), the security of its land borders (the escalating stand off on the India-China border) and the safety of its citizens overseas (China’s actions in response to the extradition proceedings of the Huawei CFO who is also the daughter of its founder).

The US and China, in attacking each other and the other’s perceived allies, in their battle to be the world’s biggest geopolitical influencer, risk spreading their animosity throughout the world. Rising tensions between the US and China have the potential to inflame and divide the world, with serious geopolitical, economic and military consequences for everyone, more so in this fragile coronavirus period.

Meanwhile, other global worries fester

COVID-19 has become the source of almost all news headlines, leading news stories, media opinion pieces and political posturing. That’s mainly because of the speed and severity of its global spread, its sudden negative impact on business activity, household spending and economic growth in the world’s second biggest economy (China) and the threat of the same negative economic and political impact on many other economies. It has become the number one geopolitical worry. However, other worries and hot spots continue to fester.

The US is about to send an aircraft carrier to Vietnam. The last such official US aircraft carrier visit Vietnam was two years ago and the one before that was in 1975. Also, over the last two or so years, the US has also increased its naval and air force presence in South East Asia in general and the South China Sea in particular. Vietnam is one of several South-East Asian countries who are in dispute with China over ownership or sovereignty of parts of the South China Sea.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has issued a report that suggests that Iran has enough enriched uranium to produce a single nuclear weapon. However, the IAEA believes that it would take Iran months or years to manufacture a warhead capable of delivering it over long distances.

Lebanon has announced that it will default on a USD1.2 billion bond payment this week – it’s first ever default on a foreign debt obligation. According to the Lebanese Prime Minister, the country’s “debt has become bigger than Lebanon can bear, and bigger than the ability of the Lebanese to meet interest payments.” Lebanese businesses are closing, people are losing jobs, inflation is soaring and (business, consumer and political) confidence is falling. The Middle East does not need another economically and politically unstable nation.

Meanwhile other struggles (political, economic, structural whether internally or with another country) continue or are intensifying in Israel, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Russia, India, Kashmir, Pakistan, Malaysia and various Latin American and African countries.