This week's unnerving incident in which US jets intercepted two Russian bombers off the coast of Alaska leaves us wondering how to read events. Russia sent the two "nuclear-capable" bombers to within 100 miles of Kodiak Island April 17, prompting the US to scramble two F-22 stealth fighter jets from Elmendorf Air Force Base. The US and Russian craft were side-by-side for a full 12 minutes, until they crossed out of the US Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). (The Telegraph, April 18) This came as ExxonMobil was seeking a waiver from US sanctions against Russia to move ahead with its Black Sea venture with Rosneft. The decision rested with the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), while Secretary of State (and ex-Exxon CEO) Rex Tillerson is officially recusing himself from any matters involving the company for two years. Still, it is counterintuitive (at least) that OFAC turned down the waiver April 21. (NYT, April 21; Fox Business, April 19)
Then there was Trump's absurd claim to the Wall Street Journal April 12 that "Korea actually used to be a part of China." This is apparently a talking point he picked up from Chinese leader Xi Jinping during their meeting in Florida days earlier. "He then went into the history of China and Korea," Trump related. "Not North Korea, Korea. And you know, you're talking about thousands of years…and many wars. And Korea actually used to be a part of China. And after listening for 10 minutes, I realized that it's not so easy."
An official with the foreign ministry in Seoul of course responded by saying Trump's comment was "historically untrue" and "not worthy of a response." Public Radio International tries to mince the matter by pointing out that at various times Korean kingdoms were tributary states of the Chinese empire. But that's not the same thing as "part of China." PRI may wish to get up to speed on the difference between sovereignty and suzerainty.
In an editorial, China's Global Times got its licks in at Seoul for daring to take offense at this historical revisionism, writing that Trump's comment has "launched a new wave of nationalism" from South Korea. The op-ed notes that there is no record of Xi's supposed history lesson and said Seoul should ask Washington for an explanation, not Beijing. It then goes on to hedge: "The Korean Peninsula had been intertwined politically, culturally and economically with China in different parts of history. Historians from both sides hold different opinions toward the nature of such a relationship." (Shanghaist, April 21)
In any case, these "historical" questions are intensely politicized in a region of growing tensions, and we are left wondering if Trump committed a clueless flub or was sending a coded message. We were similarly left wondering after Trump famously took a phone call from Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen after his election. Is he really that dumb, or is there some method to the madness? Operating on the latter thesis, the politics seem to have done a complete 180 between the two incidents: from intentionally humiliating China (presumably in anticipation of cozying up to Russia) to cozying up to China (possibly in response to an actual breach with Russia). We note that Trump's April 4 missile strikes on an air-base of Russia's Syrian client state came precisely as he was meeting with President Xi.
So we are left wondering: Is Trump's breach with Putin real, or is all this part of an elaborate charade to throw Congress off the scent of ongoing Trump-Putin collusion? We frankly aren't sure which hypothesis is worse. While the prior of course threatens global catastrophe, the former means continued consolidation of the Trump-Putin fascist world order. In any case, even if it is all a charade, global catastrophe is not to be ruled out. Events have a habit of taking on a life of their own. See 1914.