Maybe there is method in Donald Trump’s seemingly odd tilt to Putin’s Russia. It could, theoretically, be part of a larger strategy of separating Russia from China, of breaking up their quasi-alliance. If successful, that could be a very good thing for America’s security. It could also go terribly wrong.

It would also not be the first time the U.S. has tried differential pressure. In April 1953, President Eisenhower convened his top foreign-policy and defense officials in the White House’s top-floor solarium to make a single strategy out of divided U.S. approaches to the Soviet Union. Ike disliked the costs and risks of the Truman Doctrine. Secretary of State Dulles wanted to “roll back” Soviet power. George Kennan wanted containment.

Project Solarium concluded in July with a long-term strategy of toughness toward Moscow but willingness to talk. Their report little mentioned China, whom we were still fighting in Korea. China, a presumed Soviet puppet, should be kept down, distant and out of the UN, with no diplomatic or trade contact. This might promote Sino-Soviet tension and lead to breakup of the bloc.

Well, in a few years the bloc split, but we don’t know if U.S. policy made it happen. (Beware of magnifying “agency,” the belief that our actions sway reality.) There were many causes. Since 1927, Mao had received nothing but bad advice from Stalin. Mao disdained Khrushchev, especially for his 1956 secret speech. Mao’s 1958-61 destructive Great Leap Forward persuaded the Soviets to withdraw their foreign aid and technicians. By 1960, the Sino-Soviet split was clear, although it took a dozen years before Nixon utilized it.

Three years ago, I suggested elsewhere a differential Russia-China strategy to head off Cold War II, namely tugging apart the Shanghai Cooperation Organization before it became a new Sino-Soviet bloc: “Evaluate which is the bigger long-term threat, Russia or China. Treat the lesser with some forbearance, emphasizing diplomacy, and the greater with firmness, emphasizing economics and military preparedness” (Parameters, Spring 2014, p. 8). 

Could someone in the Trump camp be thinking along similar lines? Paul Manafort likely advised Trump to improve relations with Moscow, but he departed the campaign in August under a cloud of serving as an unregistered Ukrainian foreign agent with ties to Russia. His advice may not have been a bad idea, depending on its long-term intent and clever execution.

No one who advises Trump or he has named to high office has proposed a coherent foreign-policy strategy. Scowling at Obama’s alleged weakness and passivity and repeating, “We’re gonna get tough,” is not a strategy. If there are academics among them, one would have published on the subject. Fareed Zakaria noted last Sunday that Trump always advocated treating Russia nicely but China toughly. Did he come to this all on his own?

The danger in a be-nice-to-Russia approach is giving Putin everything he wants: a fractured subservient Ukraine, a weakened NATO with no forces in the Baltic States and a falling-apart European Union. So far, Trump has publicly gone along with all of that, a dangerous retreat of American power in Europe. If that’s not what he intends, he’d better say so; otherwise, he becomes Putin’s poodle. 

Trump’s approach to China is quite different: adversarial but still “transactional” (deal-making). He finds an issue or two to use as leverage, such as trade and Taiwan. His Taiwan phone call was no mistake but was calculated to get Beijing’s maximum attention, which was furious but constrained. Trump’s questioning out loud why we should preserve a One China policy was a further slap. Trump, ever the businessman, then suggested a fairer trade deal could soothe relations. Beijing may not be quite so transactional.

Tough bargaining is normal in real estate but stays within limits because negotiators know that next week they could reach a mutually acceptable dollar figure. It’s just money. Between nations, such deal-making often fails because it’s not just money. Angry nationalism is not calmed by dollar offers. Beijing could take Trump’s words as real threats and attempts at humiliation. 

One means of Chinese retaliation has weakened, that of withdrawing massive sovereign-wealth funds from the U.S., which includes Treasury bills. Beijing has already withdrawn half to cover the panicked flight of private Chinese capital, with zero impact on the U.S. economy. (Much private Chinese wealth flees back into U.S. banks, industries and homes. We are the safe haven.) 

China’s absurd claim to Scarborough Shoal west of the Philippines, on the other hand, is dangerous. Near Scarborough, a Chinese submarine-rescue ship seized a U.S. Navy underwater “research” drone, subsequently released. These drones detect Chinese submarines, something Beijing knows and hates. (For the record: Keeping track of China’s subs is lawful and a good idea.) 

Why did China move just now? The timing suggests retaliation for Trump’s Taiwan provocations and to warn of escalation. Trump says he will not stand for such Chinese behavior. What happens when two counterpunchers face each other?