WASHINGTON — With the United States preoccupied by the sobering reality of more than 100,000 Americans dead from the coronavirus, China has pushed in recent weeks to move troops into disputed territory with India, continue aggressive actions in the South China Sea and rewrite the rules of how it will control Hong Kong.
At roughly the same time, Russian fighter jets roared dangerously close to American Navy planes over the Mediterranean Sea, while the country’s space forces conducted an antisatellite missile test clearly aimed at sending the message that Moscow could blind U.S. spy satellites and take down GPS and other communications systems. Russia’s military cyberunits were busy, too, the National Security Agency reported, with an innovative attack that may portend accelerated planning for a strike on email systems this election year.
The North Koreans said they were accelerating their “nuclear deterrent,” moving beyond two years of vague promises of disarmament and Kim Jong-un’s warm exchanges of letters with President Trump. Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, is re-establishing the infrastructure needed to make a bomb — all a reaction, the Iranians insist, to Mr. Trump’s decision two years ago to reimpose sanctions, reaffirmed in recent weeks as the State Department dismantled the last elements of the Obama-era nuclear deal.
The coronavirus may have changed almost everything, but it did not change this: Global challenges to the United States spin ahead, with America’s adversaries testing the limits and seeing what gains they can make with minimal pushback.
It has not created a new reality as much as it has widened divisions that existed before the pandemic. And with the United States looking inward, preoccupied by the fear of more viral waves, unemployment soaring over 20 percent and nationwide protests ignited by deadly police brutality, its competitors are moving to fill the vacuum, and quickly.
In some cases, Mr. Trump has helped them along. His announcement on Friday that the United States was severing ties with the World Health Organization left the field clear for China to broaden its influence over the organization. On Saturday, Mr. Trump delivered a gift to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia: Aboard Air Force One, almost offhandedly, he said he would invite Mr. Putin to an expanded meeting of the Group of 7 nations. Russia was banned from meetings of the world’s major economic powers after its 2014 annexation of Crimea and attacks on eastern Ukraine.
Most of the European allies have rejected past proposals to bring Russia back into the fold, noting that Moscow has never loosened its hold on Crimea, and Mr. Trump did not explain his change of policy. Apart from Mr. Pompeo’s declaration in February that the United States “does not and will not ever recognize” Russia’s claim to the region, though, Mr. Trump’s proposal suggests the United States is moving on.
Mr. Trump has also withdrawn from various U.N. bodies and from important international accords, most recently the Open Skies Treaty — actions that also weaken ties with allies and cede ground to China, Russia and others.
The retreat is also happening in sub-Saharan Africa, where Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper is weighing cuts in U.S. troop levels and aid to French-led counterterrorism efforts in ways that analysts say could open the door to China and Russia. Already, they are dangling deals for new ports and railroads, arms and mercenaries, and medical supplies to help combat Covid-19.
“The scope of medical and economic disruption that will come from Covid-19 will leave opportunities for both nations, and others, to try to gain advantages,” Stanley A. McChrystal, a retired four-star commander of the Joint Special Operations Command and American forces in Afghanistan, said in an interview.
The United States has not stayed entirely on the sidelines, though, creating potential arenas for new competition and possible collision. The race for a coronavirus vaccine has come to involve both China’s People’s Liberation Army and the U.S. military, which has said it would mobilize to distribute any breakthrough discovery.
American warships have sailed into disputed waters in the South China Sea in recent weeks to assert freedom-of-navigation rights, continuing a standoff in a region that Beijing asserts is its territory, backed up by the establishment of new air bases.
And the United States is speeding ahead in a renewed conventional and nuclear arms race, though its strategic rationale — other than to overmatch Russia and China — has never been fully described by this administration. Not long after the Pentagon announced in March that it had successfully tested an unarmed prototype of a hypersonic missile, a weapon that could potentially overwhelm an adversary’s defense systems, Mr. Trump boasted that a “super duper” missile was on the way. Presumably it is intended as an answer to Russia’s introduction of the Avangard, which made it the first country to claim it had deployed an operable hypersonic weapon, and a range of similar weapons that China is developing.
Mr. Trump’s new arms control negotiator, Marshall Billingslea, warned recently that Mr. Trump meant it when he vowed that America would always have the most potent nuclear force in the world. “We know how to win these races, and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion,” he said, even as the country ran up record deficits to avoid an economic implosion because of the virus. “If we have to, we will, but we sure would like to avoid it.”
Middle East Power Vacuum
It is not only China and Russia that are challenging the United States. Across the Middle East, there is a sense that Mr. Trump’s oft-expressed desire to withdraw from the region — along with his National Security Strategy’s focus on a renewed competition among superpowers — offers new leeway.
Iran has bet that Mr. Trump, for all his emphasis on doubling down on sanctions as he completes America’s exit from the 2015 nuclear deal, is not willing to risk outright confrontation. Tehran has gradually accelerated its production of nuclear fuel and ignored requests from international inspectors for access to suspected nuclear-related sites. But it has not raced ahead, perhaps calculating that a slow rebuilding of its stockpiles will not result in a strong international backlash.
And in the Persian Gulf, even after the U.S.-led killing in January of Qassim Suleimani, a senior commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Iran’s terrorism mastermind, Tehran is episodically testing America’s limits.
Nearly a dozen Iranian fast boats conducted what the Navy described as “dangerous and harassing approaches” to six American warships in the Persian Gulf in mid-April, prompting Mr. Trump’s order “to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.” Iran backed off in the gulf — but then stepped up oil shipments to Venezuela, in a challenge to the U.S.-led embargo meant to displace President Nicolás Maduro, who has stayed in office despite a vigorous American campaign to force him out.
In mid-May, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said American attempts to disrupt the course of Iranian tankers carrying fuel for Venezuela were “dangerous” and “provocative” acts. Iran has threatened retaliation against U.S. forces in the gulf and throughout the Middle East if Washington interferes with Tehran’s oil deliveries.
And in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State, a year after losing its last territorial foothold, is resurgent with a spate of roadside bombings, ambushes and other attacks as U.S. troops in Iraq pull back from four bases and suspend training in the country, along with other Western allies, because of coronavirus restrictions. Mr. Trump, after initially declaring in 2018 that the group had been defeated, has barely mentioned its recent gains.
Russia and China are active in the region. Russia continues to support the government of President Bashar al-Assad as he nears a brutal victory in Syria’s civil war. And China maintains a military base in Djibouti, near an American one there. Chinese diplomats and state-owned enterprises have increased their presence throughout the region.
“China has significantly expanded its engagement in the region, especially in the economic and diplomatic realms,” said Patricia M. Kim, a China analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace who worked on a recent report on China and the Red Sea area. “And for the U.S. to remain relevant — to be able to shape norms in the region and help states manage China’s growing presence — it needs to significantly increase its own engagement.”
From Russia, Testing Boundaries
Mr. Trump’s willingness to invite Mr. Putin back into the company of the major Western allies — mostly as an effort to counter China — is all the more mystifying because friction between American and Russian forces is running high. From international territory and airspace off Alaska to the Black Sea, combat planes and warships are pressing new boundaries and renewing years-old brinkmanship.
On Friday, two U.S. Air Force B-1B bombers flying a long-range training mission over the Black Sea prompted Russian fighter jets to scramble and intercept the American warplanes. At least three times in the past two months, Russian fighter jets intercepted Navy P-8 surveillance planes over the Mediterranean, most recently on Wednesday.
In an intercept in April, a Russian jet conducted a high-speed, inverted maneuver, 25 feet in front of the P-8. “Another unsafe #Russian intercept of @USNavy P-8 in international airspace above #Mediterranean Sea!” the U.S. military wrote, tweeting a video of the encounter.
If these had been encounters with Iranian or Chinese forces, Mr. Trump would have almost certainly protested. But amid the throes of a pandemic, he has not been eager to ratchet up tensions with Russia. “I don’t see it,” Mr. Trump said when asked whether Russia was toying with U.S. military forces. “We had a very good relationship with Russia.”
That is not what top NATO officials and American commanders say.
The U.S. military on Tuesday accused the Kremlin of secretly sending at least 14 fighter jets to eastern Libya in May to support Russian mercenaries battling alongside a beleaguered commander, Khalid Hifter, in his campaign to oust the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, the capital.
The unusually blunt and public criticism by two top American generals underscored the Pentagon’s broader concern about Moscow’s growing influence in Libya and a looming security threat on NATO’s southern flank.
Closer to home, Air Force F-22 Raptor fighter jets intercepted two Russian maritime patrol planes in April about 50 miles from Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, in an echo of the Cold War. A month earlier, a pair of Russian reconnaissance aircraft were intercepted by U.S. and Canadian jets 50 miles from the state’s coast over the Beaufort Sea.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, said the Russian aircraft were intercepted in the Bering Sea north of the Aleutian Islands and never entered U.S. or Canadian airspace.
In mid-March, two Russian strategic bombers flew over a U.S. submarine that surfaced in the Arctic Ocean and were subsequently escorted by American and Canadian fighter jets.
“What we do see is, I think, a continuous effort for them — as they do in the Covid-19 environment, outside the Covid-19 environment — to continually probe and check and see our responses,” said Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, the head of the military’s Northern Command, which oversees homeland defense.
China Seizes the Moment
During the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump spoke publicly, in a New York Times interview, about leaving it to South Korea and Japan to secure the Pacific, saying he was tired of paying so much to help defend allies who were running big trade surpluses with the United States. And as Mr. Trump has argued with Seoul and Tokyo, and not significantly bolstered ties with Southeast Asia, President Xi Jinping of China has seen his moment of opportunity.
From the waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans to the heights of the Himalayas, China has pressed forward on expanding its military footprint.
“I think what Beijing is pursuing — and it’s a rational interest — is hegemonic authority over Asia,” said Elbridge Colby, the former Pentagon official who was the main writer of the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy, which focuses on how the American military should reshape itself for great-power competition with Russia and particularly China.
It is most evident in the South China Sea. Beijing has continued with its yearslong strategy of pressing maximal territorial claims. Turning outcroppings of rock into full islands, it is forming a bulwark against the claims of competing nations and against the findings of a 2016 international tribunal, which sought to limit China’s aggressive maritime actions.
In April, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel collided with a Vietnamese fishing boat near a disputed archipelago, sinking the small vessel. The same month a Chinese seismic survey ship, escorted by Chinese Coast Guard vessels, entered waters designated as the exclusive economic zone of Malaysia, daring the Malaysians to push back. There have been parallel confrontations with Indonesia and the Philippines.
The Trump administration has continued President Barack Obama’s policy of not taking sides in the territorial disputes while asserting that the United States aims to maintain freedom of navigation in the region. Mr. Esper insists that the United States will continue naval operations “to send a clear message to Beijing that we will continue to protect freedom of navigation and commerce for all nations, large and small.”
But China’s leaders appear to suspect that they are empty words; Mr. Trump has no appetite for facing off with Beijing over scarcely populated territory half a world away.
And in an annual policy report last month, the Chinese government dropped the term “peaceful reunification” when discussing Taiwan, the democratic, self-governing island, breaking with a tradition of using that phrase in the reports since 1992. Li Keqiang, the Chinese prime minister, also omitted “peaceful” when he called for reunification at the opening session of the National People’s Congress on May 22.
The U.S. Navy has announced at least three instances of transits of its warships through the Taiwan Strait this year. And last month, the State Department notified Congress of a potential sale of advanced torpedoes to Taiwan worth $180 million, the latest of several large arms sale packages to the island.
“We need to change things on Taiwan to improve the deterrent and make clearer where we stand,” said Mr. Colby, who added that the United States had to “end any remaining ambiguity about how we’d react to the use of force.” Without that, China may well doubt that Mr. Trump sees Taiwan’s de facto independence as a vital American interest.
Tensions involving China extend to the roof of the world. Along a disputed border in the Himalayas, Indian and Chinese troops engaged in scuffles and shouting matches in recent weeks. Indian officials say the Chinese military made at least one major incursion into Indian territory. Both sides have amassed thousands of troops in the disputed areas, leading to the tensest such standoff since 2017.
On Wednesday, Mr. Trump weighed in via Twitter. “We have informed both India and China that the United States is ready, willing and able to mediate or arbitrate their now raging border dispute,” he wrote, in an echo of an offer he made last year on the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir.
Neither side seemed interested in his offer.