No President Trump and no war in South China Sea

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump waving to supporters in Cincinnati, Ohio, US, on Sept 1, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

Is the world in crisis? Syria's bloody civil war rages on. The Brexit vote shocked the world. Russia's neighbours are nervous. Turkey and Brazil are in turmoil. Venezuela's political and economic meltdown is gathering momentum. There is plenty of trouble out there, but some of the world's most important headline risks are exaggerated. Here are three examples.

Tensions in the South China Sea won't trigger a serious military conflict. China has long been at odds with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and other neighbours over maritime boundaries there. China's reputation took a hit earlier this summer when an international court of arbitration ruled in favour of a claim from the Philippines that China's territorial claims in the South China Sea are not valid. The reaction from Beijing was predictably belligerent. Its naval build-up there continues, and it made headlines with joint naval operations with Russia.

That said, the risk of serious conflict remains low. China's President Xi Jinping will project toughness in defence of national pride to keep as much as possible of the Chinese public and the military on his side as he undertakes high-stakes economic reforms. But these reforms also demand that China avoid the kind of open conflict, especially with the United States, that would prove very bad for business. Nor do China's neighbours want conflict. They depend to varying degrees on Chinese investment, access to Chinese markets and good security relations with the US to ensure China's influence remains benign.

Nor will a new round of charges and threats from high-ranking officials in Moscow and Kiev lead to a surge of violence between Russia and Ukraine. There has been a return to sporadic fighting in recent weeks in eastern Ukraine, and the Russian government has accused Ukrainian troops of infiltrating northern Crimea to commit acts of terrorism. Ukraine denies the charges and accuses Russia of inventing plots as a pretext to further destabilise Ukraine.

Both governments benefit from a spike in tensions. Russia gives itself cover to issue warnings ahead of talks with European leaders on the sidelines of the upcoming Group of 20 meeting in China and raise further doubts about Ukraine's reliability as a partner for Europe at a moment when its economy and politics have begun to stabilise. Ukraine benefits from the attention by reminding European leaders that the country still needs friends at a time when their attention has focused on Brexit, events in Turkey and upcoming elections.


Fortunately, neither Russia nor Ukraine has an interest in open conflict. Russia doesn't want war, because an invasion of Ukraine would bring heavy costs and risks with little tangible benefit. Ukraine doesn't want a war with Russia because it knows it can't win. Thus, the two sides will continue to issue charges and make headlines. Low-level violence will continue to flare from time to time. But for now, there is a clear limit to how far this fight can go.

Finally, US voters will not elect Mr Donald Trump president. Earning the Republican nomination depended only on winning the support of enough regular Republican voters who are angry with social and economic changes under way in the US. In Mr Trump's case, his message brought him just under 14 million of these voters. But winning the presidency means capturing a much broader segment of a very diverse electorate. To beat Mrs Hillary Clinton, he'll need to win between 65 and 70 million votes, and he remains intensely unpopular with women, most minority groups and university-educated white voters.

We can also judge his chances by looking at key states. US presidential elections are decided not by national vote totals, but by a system known as the "electoral college", which grants the candidate who wins each state a number of electoral votes based on each state's population. Beyond the idiosyncrasies of this system, it's clear that Mr Trump must win all three of the key states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania to win the election. For the moment, he trails in polling in all three states.

All these stories have longer-term implications we should be aware of. The risk of an accidental collision in the South China Sea is enough to keep navies on alert, and the anxieties of China's neighbours will continue to grow with the longer-term expansion of China's economic and military power. For the foreseeable future, there will be no long-term solution to the struggle between Russia and Ukraine that is acceptable to both sides. Violence will flare again in years to come, even if it never leads to all-out war. Mr Trump can't win, but his brand of xenophobic nationalism will live on - perhaps in the form of a new Trump television network.

But for now, the fears these stories arouse are exaggerated. That's good news for a world with so many other problems to contend with.

  • Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of Superpower: Three Choices For America's Role In The World. Find him on Twitter@ianbremmer.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2016, with the headline 'No President Trump and no war in South China Sea'. Subscribe