22 February 2019

Candidate Trump vs US National Intelligence. 2019 Forecasts (II)

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

Image source: Mediafax

The main US intelligence agencies presented the list of foreign and internal threats in Congress • ”If I hadn’t been elected president, there would have been a war with North Korea with possibly millions of victims” • 2019 forecasts for Southeast Asia, Eurasia, China, Russia, North Korea. Economic development, military accumulation, ideological confrontation • Cooperation between China and Russia to continue in 2019 • Authoritarian rule will dominate Southeastern Asia • Even without nuclear tests, North Korea does not seem to give up its nuclear program • Rusia will be one of the challengers to US power • The US National Intelligence report is a signal of concern

The main US intelligence agencies presented the list of foreign and internal threats in Congress

In the first part we mentioned the recent Congress hearing of representatives/chiefs of the US National Intelligence Community, beginning with the National Intelligence`s director, Dan Coats. This event is periodically held at the beginning of each year, and might have gone unobserved if it didn’t start with a short Twitter outburst from the president Donald Trump. The reaction followed statements made by Dan Coats during the hearing, which were also supported by other panel members, regarding the threats to the United States.

The president’s criticism towards the intelligence community did not refer to the manner in which these threats from China or Russia were forecasted, nor to their predictions regarding cyber warfare. If the president ever manifested other options, they have been silenced by the immense pressure of the public and US lawmakers. However, foreign policy dilemmas regarding Iran and North Korea are connected not only to threats, but also to the internal policy.

There are two relatively secondary files in regards to their direct level of threat to the US, but which are viewed as major when presidential measures to protect Israel or fight against terrorism need to be justified - in the case of Iran -, or to demonstrate the president’s capability to find diplomatic solutions and solve a conflict which the rest of the world considered unsolvable – in the case of North Korea. Therefore, both are extremely important electoral-wise, so that is why President Trump was irate over the fact that the US Intelligence Community’s predictions were not in line with his own expectations and might even affect the solidity of his stances on the two problems.

In 2019, the year in which electoral campaigns for the 2020 presidential election are set to begin, everything – from public statements, foreign and internal policy decisions, political wars within or with the US Congress and even Twitter posts – will be subsumed to electoral calculations.

The president’s criticism towards intelligence agencies kept the first pages in the media for several days. Of course, there was no response from those the president accused of “naivety”. It was already contained in the report presented to the Congress.

Following that, the media found other subjects of interets.

But let us return to the initial moment, the moment when the US Intelligence Community presented the report to Congress. The document includes forecasts of the six major agencies regarding the threats the United States might face in 2019. Based on it, American lawmakers can make decisions regarding the level and distribution of the country’s defense budget on areas of priority. Based on it, security and military policies are shaped. Based on it, even the President of the United States can shape his foreign policy agenda. That is, if he doesn’t check, as some media sources report, on opinion polls too often.

Because the Defence and Security Monitor also offered, during January, a series of forecasts regarding the various areas of interest for Romania, several of these being the same with those outlined in the US Intelligence Community report, a look into the perspective of American intelligence specialists is, I believe, not only informative but also necessary. After all, there are few places in the world where there is enough power to know what is happening, to intervene and change current evolutions, and Washington is the first among them.

Of the two contentious problems, the second refers to a file from which President Trump hopes to receive both political, and electoral dividends, North Korea.

”If I hadn’t been elected president, there would have been a war with North Korea with possibly millions of victims”

… said President Trump during his State of the Union Address, a statement he also previously made and which, this time, caused astonishment to the meeting’s chairwoman, Ms. Nancy Pelosi, seated at the US Congress presidium. The reference to North Korea, regarding a second meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, shows the importance of the Korean problem for the current president.

Following the first meeting between the two in Singapore, he had stated: “A nuclear threat from North Korea does not exist anymore”. The US Intelligence Community report contradict him. Director Dan Coats has said, during Senate hearings, that North Korea has no intention to give up on nuclear weapons. And CIA Director Gina Haspel, although appointed by the current president despite criticism from some political circles, added insult to injury by saying that the North Korean Government remains committed to establish a program to develop long-range missiles which could be a direct threat for the US. Although tests with these kinds of weapons ceased, the CIA director’s statements show the CIA’s view on the real and hidden evolution of the North Korean military program.

The things would take a further turn away from the American president’s expectations, when a UN report, made public several days after his speech in front of the US Congress, stated that North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development programs are intact and that Pyongyang is using civil facilities to protect them from eventual US air raids, including by displacing them in airports.

Despite all these, President Trump showed no hesitation to continue his political and diplomatic rendez-vous with the young North Korean dictator, in his attempt to demonstrate the benefits of giving up nuclear program. The fact that this is happening in Vietnam, a country which rather functions on the Chinese development model, is probably not accidental, as Western capitalism, with its beautiful but complicated tendencies of democratic debate, is not the first choice not even in South Korea.

The meeting will span for two days, February 27 and 28, during which the two leaders will have enough time to ask each many questions: about the current situation in American basketball (Kim is a big NBA fan), about how are the elections in Western countries, how they are held or regarding the real situation of North Korean airports. For the moment, the chief of the main American intelligence structures have not been very gentle with President Trump’s hopes and expectations.

Neither did the report’s remarks for Southeastern Asia in 2019 offer many reasons for calm. A multitude of dragons and Siberian tigers are preparing to contest US dominance in the region.

2019 forecasts for Southeast Asia, Eurasia, China, Russia, North Korea. Economic development, military accumulation, ideological confrontation

The US Intelligence Community report reserved its most extensive analysis for this region, where the US is counteracted not only economically and militarily, but also ideologically. The authoritarian society models proposed by Russia and China are a provocation for the liberal capitalism promoted by the West, which sees itself challenged as it had not been for decades with the problem of an international division regarding the world’s economic and social development.

Cooperation between China and Russia is predicted to continue in 2019, to counter-balance the United States in the Southeastern Asian region, both through bilateral collaboration and by using the international institutions the two states are part of. The phenomenon is not new, being a continuation of developments from the last couple of years:

  • the two states intensified their cooperation in the energy, military and technologies sectors, especially after 2014;
  • China became the second-largest UN budget contributor for peacekeeping operations and the third in overall UN budget. The presence of Chinese diplomats in representative positions of the UN and its associated organizations has already become a custom. China’s influence is directed towards zones and structures which concern human rights and the Taiwan problem;
  • Russia directed its efforts towards antiterrorism structures, where a Russian envoy leads the UN’s specialized agency;
  • both states will use the platform offered by the UN to promote stances based on sovereignty, opposed to those taken by several Western states, based on human rights, democracy and fair governance;
  • both states are interested in increasing their influence and representation with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for the benefit of their national industries, but also for control of the Internet.

Authoritarian rule will continue to dominate in Southeastern Asia, promoted mainly by China, where the following evolutions are predicted for 2019:

  • the concentration of power will continue, which will probably result in strengthening decisional centralism, which in turn will weaken political and social correction mechanisms in the case of wrong decisions;
  • the Chinese government will make use of technological accumulations: facial recognition, biometry, installing GPS devices on vehicles and others to increase its capabilities to monitor and control;
  • Chinese leaders will try to extend their country’s economic, political and military capabilities, will intensify investment into energy and infrastructure by utilizing the Belt and Road Initiative, diminishing American influence being their objective;
  • it is possible that this offensive on multiple areas will provoke counter-reactions, especially from those states which are allies of the US, but will be dependent on the size, location and power of the military capacities of China, placed outside national territory. Following the inauguration of its military base in Djibouti, China is exploring the possibility to establish similar bases, to make military agreements with other African, European, Oceanian or South/Southeastern Asian states;
  • China’s authoritarian capitalist model will be promoted as a superior alternative for development, thus intensifying the competition among world powers, with consequences in the decline of the international support for democracy, human rights, rule of law;
  • reforming the international governance system was a task assumed by President Xi, presented during the Central Committee International Relations Conference in 2018, and will result in increased activism of Chines foreign policy and a connection of its internal governance vision with the foreign one;
  • Beijing will act towards reformulating the international stance of human rights, especially within the UN. The intention is not only to block the criticism directed towards it, but also to erode current norms which list the obligations and rights of the international community in supervising the way in which human rights are respected, and imposing definition of these rights based on economic standards;
  • China will continue its military project in the South China Sea, including the construction of military or dual-use facilities in the Spratly Islands, to exert control in this region at the expense of the United States;
  • at the same time, China will continue political pressures but also the granting of economic benefits towards Taiwan to accept the concept of One China, the end result being Chinese control. This process will also be used as an indicator of US commitment to stay engaged in the area. Six of China’s 23 diplomatic partners were already convinced, starting with 2016, to cut ties with Taiwan;
  • The People’s Liberation Army is currently undergoing its most complex restructuring program, with the objective to be prepared to launch modern, fast operations with the use of cutting-edge technology. The role of the Chinese Communist Party in the army will increase. The modernization of military structures will be oriented towards supporting a large spectrum of missions, including abroad, with emphasis on naval, air and long-distance operations.

Even without nuclear tests, North Korea does not seem to give up its nuclear program, which is seen by the country’s leaders as the only one which can guarantee the regime’s survival. The US Intelligence Community report is not very optimistic in its analysis regarding the Pyongyang regime’s current intentions:

  • despite the fact that it didn’t perform nuclear or ballistic missile tests for more than a year, and has declared its willingness to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, the North Korean regime is not willing to give up all of its nuclear weapons nor its production facilities. The continuation of nuclear negotiations have the purpose to obtain concessions for the regime from the US and the international community;
  • in a speech at the beginning of 2019, Chairman Kim Jong-un said that Pyongyang will continue to not make tests or develop nuclear technology, but conditioned this on the US taking “practical actions”. In rough translation, these requested actions involve amending the economic, diplomatic and military-related US sanctions against the regime;
  • at his previous meeting with President Trump, Kim requested a complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, connected with previous North Korean demands to end the US military presence in the region, as well as the bilateral military drills between the US and South Korean military, which involve cutting-edge military equipment;
  • North Korea will continue to minimize the effects of US pressures, through diplomatic actions, countermeasures to these sanctions or through procedures to avoid them. The meetings between Chairman Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in (three times in 2018!) are part of this new Pyongyang diplomacy, and the results of these bilateral summits also had practical aspects: agreements to reconnect the national  road and railroad systems, the promotion of reforestation (probably in demilitarized zone), cultural exchanges and even military ties;
  • Kim has tried, and probably will try again in 2019, to also create a regional pressure against the US to lift the sanctions, with North Korean official statements insisting on the fact that the elimination, even partial, of these sanctions are necessary to allow diplomatic progresses;
  • according to the report’s estimations, the sanctions are producing effects, as North Korean exports and imports have decreased in 2018 compared to 2017. The North Korean regime resorted to operations to bypass UN sanctions by using methods specific to contraband to ensure part of its refined oil necessities;
  • regarding the conventional military capabilities, they will continue to develop, to remain a credible threat towards South Korea, Japan and US forces in the region. The priorities will be artillery systems, ballistic missiles and drones.

Rusia will continue to be one of the challengers to US power in Eurasia and the Pacific region, as President Vladimir Putin has at his disposal the necessary political, military and diplomatic means to promote Russia’s interest beyond its Asian borders. The report reviews its internal situation, military capabilities and the level of its ambition in the region:

  • despite the fact that an economic growth below expectations and a high level of distrust in its official policies represent challenges for the Kremlin, the centralized power structure and the large echo of anti-American propaganda will strengthen President Putin in his attempt to promote Russia towards a status of international power, which could rival with the US;
  • internal confidence in the Russian president fell dramatically in 2018, reaching lows recorded just before the annexation of Crimea, but despite this the Kremlin has enough efficient persuasion instruments – control of the media, financial dividends, repressive structures – to intimidate the opposition and also bring intellectual elites in line;
  • Russia will continue to strengthen military, commercial and energy ties with US opponents in the region and will initiate strategic partnership with them. Alongside the strategic relations between Moscow and Beijing, ties will be strengthened with states in the Middle East, Southern Asia, Africa and Latin America;
  • Russia’s objectives will be prioritized while having a vast array of options at its disposal – weakening the liberal international order led by the US, divisions in Western political and security institutions, promoting the Kremlin’s viewpoint in international matters, using US decisions to withdraw from certain regions and projects to promote its own involvement, with reduced financial and military costs, consisting of media campaigns, cyber attacks, limited military interventions;
  • its success in Syria strengthened Russia’s trust in this type of operations, although the transformation of a military victory into a post-conflict functional construction could prove difficult for Moscow;
  • the military priorities for 2019 will consist of modernizing its air defense, electronic warfare capabilities and sub-water/submarine operations;
  • Russia and China are, at the beginning of 2019, at a level of cooperation not seen since the mid 50s, and the relation is in continuing ascension this year. Both states have common interests and perceptions in relation to the US, especially with regards to unilateralism and interventionism, as these are perceived in Moscow and Beijing. They are both against the Western model of promoting democratic values and human rights;
  • through their actions to extend global influence, Russia and China contribute to the weakening of current security norms, which have been functioning for several decades, and increase the risks of regional conflicts, especially in the Middle East and Southeastern Asia;
  • the latest changes of US policies in security and trade will also have their contribution to the decisions of some of Washington’s allies to identify new bilateral and multilateral partnerships, in promoting an attitude of increased independence from the US, which will create opportunities for Russia and China.

The United States Intelligence Community report is a signal of concern…

… not only with regards to the intensification and strengthening of foreign threats towards US , but also as a result of the last period’ decisional context. The previous paragraph discloses the fact that discontinuing support for American interests in certain regions and changes in both attitude and political-diplomatic options are not helping US relations with its partners and create unexpected opportunities for Washington’s rivals.

Maybe these last assessments, slipped in at the end of a chapter, produced the discomfort the US president felt due to the document drafted and supported by the main national American intelligence agencies.