Russia's 3M22 Zircon anti-ship hypersonic missile. Screen grab: Military Technology Zone/ YouTube

US President Donald Trump’s extraordinary deference to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin has puzzled not only American pundits and politicians across the political spectrum but also the United States’ friends and foes abroad.

At the much-talked-about press conference with Putin after their talks, including a secretive two-hour meeting, in Helsinki on July 16, Trump declined each and every opportunity to criticize Moscow’s aggressive and illegal actions that have led the US and its allies to impose sanctions on Russia.

Worse still, Trump kowtowed to his Russian counterpart, publicly siding with the latter over America’s law-enforcement and intelligence agencies on the widely held belief that the Kremlin meddled in the 2016 US election.

As Trump’s behavior at what was dubbed the “surrender summit” or the “treason summit” was so dismal, bizarre and inexplicable, it has given rise to a widespread debate over, if not strong belief, whether Moscow actually has “kompromat” – compromising material – on him.

For instance, according to Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, “Millions of Americans will continue to wonder if the only possible explanation for this dangerous behavior is the possibility that President Putin holds damaging information over President Trump.”

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi held the same view, arguing that Trump’s press conference with Putin “proves the Russians have something on the president, personally, financially or politically.”

Indeed, as Leon Panetta, former defense secretary and Central Intelligence Agency director, reasoned, whether the Russians have something on Trump or not, “no one really knows. But the way he behaves, there’s a clear signal that the Russians have something on him.”

While some of America’s present or former officials and politicians view Moscow’s kompromat as the reason behind Trump’s baffling press conference, China, with which the Trump administration is engaged in an all-out trade war, apparently has a different explanation.

Different rivals, different approaches

An editorial by Chinese state-run Global Times on July 20 said “Russia’s economy is weak” and it has “serious geopolitical conflicts” with the US. Yet the US president, the paper observed, “suddenly reversed the hardline US stance” toward Moscow.

By contrast, the commentary pointed out, though “China has a robust economy and has many tools at its disposal,” the US has identified the Asian giant as “its strategic competitor and is exerting more pressure” on China not only on trade but also in other areas.

A few days after his much-criticized summit and press conference with the Russian president in the Finnish capital, Trump threatened to go nuclear on China, by expressing his willingness to put tariffs on all US$505 billion worth of Chinese goods imported annually to the United States.

According to the Global Times, the main reason that Trump – “a man who values strength” and “attaches great importance to military strength, especially nuclear strength” – treats the two countries differently is that Russia is “a nuclear power” while China is “relatively weak” in terms of military and especially nuclear power.

Such observations and, to some degree, conclusions by the influential offspring of the People’s Daily, China’s top newspaper, are right.

Though it has vast size, a large population and rich natural resources, in nominal terms, Russia’s economy (about $1,530 billion) is only the size of South Korea’s – and hugely smaller than those of the US ($19,390 billion) and China ($12,000 billion).

In terms of military, especially nuclear, capabilities, Russia is, however, very powerful. As Trump admitted, the US and Russia are “the two largest nuclear powers” on Earth, possessing up to 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons.

This, coupled with President Putin’s adventures, has enabled Moscow to maintain its influence and engagement in the globe’s major issues and flash points. In much of its global undertakings, notably in Ukraine and Syria, Russia is opposed to the US and its allies, however.

From Trump’s perspective, as Russia is a “great nuclear power,” “getting along [with it] is a positive thing” regardless of Moscow’s geopolitical conflicts with Washington and its alleged meddling in American politics.

The Global Times’ view that Trump “respects” Russia (while disregarding China) because Russia is a nuclear superpower is not surprising. During and after his meeting with Kim Jong-un last month, Trump legitimized, honored and praised North Korea’s reclusive, regressive and aggressive dictator.

While it is better to engage in diplomacy with a foe such as a nuclear-empowered North Korea than go to war with it, Trump’s excessive flattery was diplomatically unnecessary and strategically unwise.

By treating Kim in such a manner, instead of encouraging or forcing him to denuclearize, Trump has emboldened the young dictator and others like him to maintain or achieve nuclear capacities. The mere fact that – unlike his predecessors, including Barack Obama, who vowed not to reward Pyongyang’s “provocative behavior” – the fact that he agreed to meet with Kim has already given him huge international legitimacy, prestige that his grandfather and father as well as dictators or leaders of some other countries craved but didn’t receive.

In fact, the central argument of the nationalistic Global Times’ editorial, headlined: “China can learn from Trump’s respect for Russia,” is that to get respect or fear from the US, Beijing “must speed up its process of developing strategic nuclear power” and “strengthen its nuclear prowess.”

In this context, Trump’s deferential posture toward Kim Jong-un and especially Vladimir Putin could lead to far-reaching, counterproductive consequences.

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Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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