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Sino-US Ties: From Ping Pong Diplomacy to Tit-for-Tat Diplomacy

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In an unprecedented move and in the latest escalation of the on-going tensions between the US and China, the Donald Trump administration ordered China to shut down its Consulate in Houston. This unprecedented move in the steadily deteriorating ties between the world’s two largest economies drifts the world a bit closer to the precipice of a major crisis, the ramification of which could be perilous for the world.

The reasons for the Trump administration’s decision was for the alleged involvement of the consulate and other Chinese diplomatic missions in the country of economic espionage, visa fraud and attempted theft of scientific research. The US announced visa restrictions on students, imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over the new National Security Law passed recently on Hong Kong and considering a sweeping travel ban on the millions of members of China’s ruling Communist Party. China quickly denied the charges. Trump’s drastic measure to close the consulate also meant this was the first time a Chinese mission was ordered to be closed in the US since both countries normalised diplomatic relations in 1979. The US consulate is one of five in the US, not counting the embassy in Washington D.C.

China quickly reacted to the US decision as “political provocation”, rejecting the US justification that there was a need to protect American intellectual property and information from Chinese spying. The justification was premised that under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, nation states “have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs” of the receiving state. Though no further details were issued, the US alleged that China has been engaging in massive spying and influence operations throughout the US for years and therefore justified its decision on ordering to shut down the Houston consulate.

The first indication to the Chinese retaliation was that it might order the US to close down its consulate in the city of Wuhan. While the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin attacked the US decision to order closing down the consulate in Houston as an “outrageous and unjustified move which will sabotage” China-US relations, he also warned of the proper and necessary response. This response came soon as a retaliatory measure when China ordered the closure of a US consulate in south-western China in Chengdu in Sichuan province, and ordered to cease all operations, a move that escalates tensions between the two countries to a new level. China was irked that it was given just 72 hours notice to shut down its Houston consulate office and therefore came up with commensurate “legitimate and necessary response”.

Though Beijing did not give a deadline for when the US must close the Chengdu consulate, the state-run Global Times noted that the consulate was also given 72 hours to close its operations, in a tit-for-tat countermeasure. Calling its measure “unprecedented” and “outrageous”, Beijing accused the US diplomats of “infiltration and interference activities”. This has taken bilateral ties to a new low. Defining diplomacy as about reciprocity, the mission in Chengdu was singled out because “some personnel were engaged in activities inconsistent with their status that interfered with China’s internal affairs and security interests”. Interestingly, the Chengdu mission is relatively small compared with other seven diplomatic missions that the US operates in China in Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Wuhan, Shenyang, and Hong Kong and Macau. It is possible that Beijing resisted from raising the level of escalation high and therefore preferred to keep within manageable level.

This does not mean to suggest that the mission in Chengdu is seen to be less important. This mission oversees the Tibetan autonomous region where Chinese authorities have overseen a harsh crackdown on the Tibetan minority and banned diplomats and foreign journalists from entering the area. The US mission used to serve as key listening post for Tibet developments and ousting  the US diplomats from the capital of Sichuan province – a region with a population rivaling Germany –  could have a bigger impact than shutting  the US consulate in Wuhan, but less closing US missions in the key financial centres in Hong Kong and Shanghai. 

The closures of missions in Houston and Chengdu illustrate the alarming degree to which relations between the US and China have worsened in recent times, as China assumes a more assertive posture on the world stage and the US seeks to check its rise. Raising the temperature ahead of the presidential elections in November, Trump wants to consolidate his domestic constituency by deciding to pursue a robust response to Beijing’s brazen expansionist policies in many sectors – on Taiwan, South China Sea, and Hong Kong, with Japan over Senkaku islands and with India on border issue. The objective is to check the Chinese menace that has become a threat to not only the established global order but has challenged the institutional norms – regional and global – with a view to rewrite the rules on its own terms.

In short, China is being perceived as a new global bully that derives its new-found confidence from its accumulation of enormous economic strength and military muscle. That makes the world shaky and the US is the only power with the capability to address this new challenge. Trump and his aides, particularly Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have stepped up attacks on China and accused Beijing of spying, cyber theft and causing the coronavirus pandemic. When former President Richard Nixon decided to establish diplomatic relations with China in 1979, he had hoped to induce China into a democratic fold but instead, as it has transpired now, created a “Frankenstein monster” he had once feared.

Other members of the party too saw the activities of the Houston consulate suspiciously. Senator Marco Rubio saw the consulate as the “central node of the Communist Party’s vast network of spies and influence operations in the United States”. China rejected the allegations as “malicious slander”.

Going further, Pompeo in a provocative speech urged the Chinese citizens to work with the US to change the direction of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Though he avoided mentioning regime change, he reminded the Chinese people that the Chinese leadership is authoritarian at home and aggressive in its hostility to freedom everywhere else. Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman retaliated by comparing Pompeo’s remarks with an ant trying to shake a tree, similar to the words exchanged between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un not long ago that lacked civility and any semblance of diplomatic niceties.   

Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin described Pompeo’s speech in which he highlighted the Chinese leadership of attempting to “tyrannize inside and outside China forever” in pursuit of global hegemony as a “malicious” and “groundless attack” on the Communist party and its domestic and foreign policies and that those were full of “ideological prejudice and a cold war mindset”.

For record, a total of roughly 700 diplomats are assigned to the US embassy and five consulates in China. The Chengdu mission opened in 1985 and covers Chongqing, Guizhou, Yunnan, as well as Sichuan, besides overseeing developments in Tibet, where Beijing is trying to impose restrictions. Cutting off the US in Chengdu also means shutting down America’s links to Tibet and therefore a political blow to Washington. 

This furious week of cold war-style diplomacy is going to do more harm to the world economy and geopolitical landscape than to US-China ties. The consulate closure issue is not the only one to be seen in isolation. There was a plethora of issues, including China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the efforts to squash a democracy movement in Hong Kong by announcing the new national security law. Both sides are unlikely to change their respective hard-line stances until at least the November elections. In the process, bilateral ties are likely to worsen further rather than inching towards any resolution. 

Though it is not difficult to decipher what triggered this unprecedented move by either side, the first time in their 41 years of diplomatic ties, it clearly amounted to a downgrading of the relationship that could cause lasting damage. It was also rumoured that the decision to order closure of the Houston consulate was linked to the dispute over the delay in American diplomats being allowed to return to their embassies and consulates in China as a result of the travel restrictions and quarantine rules introduced by Beijing to contain the spread of Covid-19.

There is also an opinion that Beijing did not honour the principle of reciprocity since it declined the US request to open a consulate in western China, which the US saw as a violation of the terms and conditions at the time of establishing diplomatic relations in 1979. The US lawmakers were keen to establish a consular in Lhasa (the Tibetan capital) and made a prerequisite for granting China’s request to open new missions in Atlanta and Boston. Here, interpretation on the issue of reciprocity comes as another bottleneck. While China sees reciprocity as both sides having the same number of diplomatic representations in each other’s country, for the US it means both numbers and locations. Since there seems to have been no prior communication on the closure issue, the logical conclusion one can deduce that ties were downgraded.

But things are not so simplistic. Bilateral ties have nosedived over a host of issues, ranging from the origins of Covid-19, China’s perceived influence over the WHO, human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, Taiwan, South China Sea, expulsion of journalists from each others’ countries, etc. and therefore the consulate closure issue was an explosion of these accumulation of differences and may not be read in isolation as a single event. Be that as it may, given that both sides have so many stakes economically and otherwise, bilateral ties may not be expected to head towards comprehensive collapse.   What is driving both sides seems to be both legal and political compulsions, which will be tested over time. There could be sudden turnaround should Trump loses the elections in November and yield space to Joe Biden. 

Like other wolf warriors, Chinese ambassador in the US Cui Tiankai remarked that it is up to Washington to decide if it is ready to accept China’s rise and if the two strategic rivals can live together having their own independent space.

While the downward spiral in Sino-US relations is bad news for the entire world, it is no longer only about differences over trade and technology issues but now has snowballed into a larger geopolitical contest between the two powers. Though one might find flaws in some of Trump’s impetuous decisions on global issues, his taking China head-on for defending established global order that has come under assault by China’s unilateral actions could have merit. The Hindu very objectively observed in an editorial thus: “This is a cyclical trap — measures and countermeasures keep taking ties to new lows with no possibility of an exit. If this deterioration is not arrested immediately, the U.S. and China risk a total breakdown in diplomatic relations. That is bad news for the whole world.” The world needs to wait for the outcome how far Sino-Us ties swing from Ping Pong diplomacy to Tit-for-Tat diplomacy. 

Professor (Dr.) Rajaram Panda, former Senior Fellow at IDSA and ICCR India Chair Professor at Reitaku University, Japan is currently Lok Sabha Research Fellow, Parliament of India, and Member of Governing Council, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.

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Indictment of Trump associate threatens UAE lobbying success

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This month’s indictment of a billionaire, one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the United Arab Emirates highlights the successes and pitfalls of a high-stakes Emirati effort to influence US policy.

The indictment of businessman Thomas  J. Barrack, who maintained close ties to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed while serving as an influential advisor in 2016 to then-presidential candidate Trump and chair of Mr. Trump’s inauguration committee once he won the 2016 election, puts at risk the UAE’s relationship with the Biden administration.

It also threatens to reduce the UAE’s return on a massive investment in lobbying and public relations that made it a darling in Washington during the last four years.

A 2019 study concluded that Emirati clients hired 20 US lobbying firms to do their bidding at a cost of US$20 million, including US$600,000 in election campaign contributions — one of the largest, if not the largest expenditure by a single state on Washington lobbying and influence peddling.

The indictment further raises the question of why the Biden administration was willing to allow legal proceedings to put at risk its relationship with one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East, one that last year opened the door to recognition of Israel by Arab and Muslim-majority states.

The UAE lobbying effort sought to position the Emirates, and at its behest, Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed’s counterpart, Mohammed bin Salman, at the heart of US policy, ensure that Emirati and Saudi interests were protected, and shield the two autocrats from criticism of various of their policies and abuse of human rights.

Interestingly, UAE lobbying in the United States, in contrast to France and Austria, failed to persuade the Trump administration to embrace one of the Emirates’ core policy objectives: a US crackdown on political Islam with a focus on the Muslim Brotherhood. UAE Crown Prince Mohammed views political Islam and the Brotherhood that embraces the principle of elections as an existential threat to the survival of his regime.

In one instance cited in the indictment, Mr. Barrack’s two co-defendants, a UAE national resident in the United States, Rashid Al-Malik, and Matthew Grimes, a Barrack employee, discussed days after Mr. Trump’s inauguration the possibility of persuading the new administration to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a designated foreign terrorist organization. “This will be a huge win. If we can list them. And they deserved to be,” Mr. Al-Malik texted Mr. Grimes on 23 January 2017.

The unsuccessful push for designating the Brotherhood came three months after Mr. Barrack identified the two Prince Mohammeds in an op-ed in Fortune magazine as members of a new generation of “brilliant young leaders.” The billionaire argued that “American foreign policy must persuade these bold visionaries to lean West rather than East… By supporting their anti-terrorism platforms abroad, America enhances its anti-terrorism policies at home.”

Mr. Barrack further sought to persuade America’s new policymakers, in line with Emirati thinking, that the threat posed by political Islam emanated not only from Iran’s clerical regime and its asymmetric defence and security policies but also from the Brotherhood and Tukey’s Islamist government. He echoed Emirati promotion of Saudi Arabia after the rise of Mohammed bin Salman as the most effective bulwark against political Islam.

“It is impossible for the US to move against any hostile Islamic group anywhere in the world without Saudi support…. The confused notion that Saudi Arabia is synonymous with radical Islam is falsely based on the Western notion that ‘one size fits all,’ Mr. Barrack asserted.

The Trump administration’s refusal to exempt the Brotherhood from its embrace of Emirati policy was the likely result of differences within both the US government and the Muslim world. Analysts suggest that some in the administration feared that designating the Brotherhood would empower the more rabidly Islamophobic elements in Mr. Trump’s support base.

Administration officials also recognized that the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt constituted a minority, albeit a powerful minority, in the Muslim world that was on the warpath against the Brotherhood.

Elsewhere, Brotherhood affiliates were part of the political structure by either participating in government or constituting part of the legal opposition in countries like Kuwait, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, and Indonesia.

The affiliates have at times supported US policies or worked closely with US allies like in the case of Yemen’s Al Islah that is aligned with Saudi-backed forces.

In contrast to UAE efforts to ensure that the Brotherhood is crushed at the risk of fueling Islamophobia, Nahdlatul Ulama, one of, if not the world’s largest Muslim organization which shares the Emirates’ rejection of political Islam and the Brotherhood, has opted to fight the Brotherhood’s local Indonesian affiliate politically within a democratic framework rather than by resorting to coercive tactics.

Nahdlatul Ulama prides itself on having significantly diminished the prospects of Indonesia’s Brotherhood affiliate, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), since the 2009 presidential election. The group at the time successfully drove a wedge between then-President Susilo Yudhoyono, and the PKS, his coalition partner since the 2004 election that brought him to power. In doing so, it persuaded Mr. Yudhoyono to reject a PKS candidate as vice president in the second term of his presidency.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s manoeuvring included the publication of a book asserting that the PKS had not shed its links to militancy. The party has since failed to win even half of its peak 38 seats in parliament garnered in the 2004 election.

“Publication of ‘The Illusion of an Islamic State: The Expansion of Transnational Islamist Movements to Indonesia’ had a considerable impact on domestic policy. It primarily contributed to neutralizing one candidate’s bid for vice president in the 2009 national election campaign, who had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood,” said militancy expert Magnus Ranstorp.

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Biden Revises US Sanctions Policy

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

In the United States, a revision of the sanctions policy is in full swing. Joe Biden’s administration strives to make sanctions instruments more effective in achieving his political goals and, at the same time, reducing political and economic costs. The coordination of restrictive measures with allies is also seen as an important task. Biden is cautiously but consistently abandoning the sanctions paradigm that emerged during Donald Trump’s presidency.

The US sanctions policy under Trump was characterised by several elements. First, Washington applied them quite harshly. In all key areas (China, Iran, Russia, Venezuela, etc.), the United States used economic and financial restrictions without hesitation, and sometimes in unprecedented volumes. Of course, the Trump administration acted rationally and rigidity was not an end in itself. In a number of episodes, the American authorities acted prudently (for example, regarding sanctions on Russian sovereign debt in 2019). The Trump-led executives stifled excess Congressional enthusiasm for “draconian sanctions” against Russia and even some initiatives against China. However, the harshness of other measures sometimes shocked allies and opponents alike. These include the 6 April 2014 sanctions against a group of Russian businessmen and their assets, or bans on some Chinese telecommunications services in the United States, or sanctions blocking the International Criminal Court.

Second, Trump clearly ignored the views of US allies. The unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 forced European businesses to leave Iran, resulting in losses. Even some of the nation’s closest allies were annoyed. Another irritant was the tenacity with which Trump (with Congressional backing) threw a wrench in the wheels of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. Despite the complicated relations between Moscow and the European Union, the latter defended the right to independently determine what was in its interests and what was not.

Third, concerns about sanctions have emerged among American business as well. Fears have grown in financial circles that the excessive use of sanctions will provoke the unnecessary politicisation of the global financial system. In the short term, a radical decline in the global role of the dollar is hardly possible. But political risks are forcing many governments to seriously consider it. Both rivals (Moscow and Beijing) and allies (Brussels) have begun to implement corresponding plans. Trade sanctions against China have affected a number of US companies in the telecommunications and high-tech sectors.

Finally, on some issues, the Trump administration has been inconsistent or simply made mistakes. For example, Trump enthusiastically criticised China for human rights violations, supporting relevant legislative initiatives. But at the same time, it almost closed its eyes to the events in Belarus in 2020. Congress was also extremely unhappy with the delay in the reaction on the “Navalny case” in Russia. As for mistakes, the past administration missed the moment for humanitarian exemptions for sanctions regimes in connection with the COVID-19 epidemic. Even cosmetic indulgences could have won points for US “soft power”. Instead, the US Treasury has published a list of pre-existing exceptions.

The preconditions for a revision of the sanctions policy arose even before Joe Biden came to power. First of all, a lot of analytical work was done by American think tanks—nongovernmental research centers. They provided a completely sober and unbiased analysis of bothха! achievements and mistakes. In addition, the US Government Accountability Office has done serious work; in 2019 it prepared two reports for Congress on the institutions of the American sanctions policy. However, Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election significantly accelerated the revision of the sanctions instruments. Both the ideological preferences of the Democrats (for example, the emphasis on human rights) and the political experience of Biden himself played a role.

The new guidelines for the US sanctions policy can be summarised as follows. First, the development of targeted sanctions and a more serious analysis of their economic costs for American business, as well as business from allied and partner countries. Second, closer coordination with allies. Here, Biden has already sent a number of encouraging signals by introducing temporary sanctions exemptions on Nord Stream 2. Although a number of Russian organisations and ships were included in the US sanctions lists, Nord Stream 2 itself and its leadership were not affected. Third, we are talking about closer attention to the subject of human rights. Biden has already reacted with sanctions both to the “Navalny case” and to the situation in Belarus. Human rights will be an irritant in relations with China. Fourth, the administration is working towards overturning Trump’s most controversial decisions. The 2020 decrees on Chinese telecoms were cancelled, the decree on sanctions against the International Criminal Court was cancelled, the decree on Chinese military-industrial companies was modified; negotiations are also underway with Iran.

The US Treasury, one of the key US sanctions agencies, will also undergo personnel updates. Elisabeth Rosenberg, a prominent sanctions expert who previously worked at the Center for a New American Security, may take the post of Assistant Treasury Secretary. She will oversee the subject of sanctions. Thus, the principle of “revolving doors”, which is familiar to Americans, is being implemented, when the civil service is replenished with personnel from the expert community and business, and then “returns” them back.

At the same time, the revision of the sanctions policy by the new administration cannot be called a revolution. The institutional arrangement will remain unchanged. It is a combination of the functions of various departments—the Treasury, the Department of Trade, the Department of Justice, the State Department, etc. The experience of their interagency coordination has accumulated over the years. The system worked flawlessly both under Trump and under his predecessors. Rather, it will be about changing the political directives.

For Russia, the revision is unlikely to bring radical changes. A withdrawal from the carpet bombing of Russian business, such as the incident on 6 April 2018 hint that good news can be considered a possibility. However, the legal mechanisms of sanctions against Russia will continue to operate. The emphasis on human rights will lead to an increase in sanctions against government structures. Against this background, regular political crises are possible in relations between the two countries.

From our partner RIAC

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Sea Breeze 2021: U.S. is worryingly heading closer to conflict with Russia in the Black Sea

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On July 10th, the 2021 iteration of the joint military exercise, Sea Breeze, concluded in the Black Sea. This exercise, which began on June 28th was co-hosted by the Ukrainian Navy and the United States Navy’s Sixth Fleet. According to the U.S. Navy, the annual Exercise Sea Breeze consists of joint naval, land, and air trainings and operations centered around building increased shared capabilities in the Black Sea.

This year’s Sea Breeze included participation from 32 countries, including NATO members and other countries that border the Black Sea, making it the largest Sea Breeze exercise since its inception in 1997. All other countries bordering the Black Sea were included in participating in the joint drills, except Russia.

Russia’s exclusion from these exercises is not unsurprising, due to its current tensions with Ukraine and its historical relationship with NATO. However, it signals to Moscow and the rest of the world that the NATO views Russia as an opponent in a future conflict. At the opening ceremony of Sea Breeze 2021 in Odessa, it was made clear that the intention of the exercise was to prepare for future conflict in the region when the Defense Minister of Ukraine, reported that the drills “contain a powerful message – support of stability and peace in our region.”

These exercises and provocations do anything but bring peace and stability to the region. In fact, they draw the United States and NATO dangerously close to the brink of conflict with Russia.

Even though Sea Breeze 2021 has only recently concluded, it has already had a marked impact on tensions between NATO countries and Moscow. U.S. Navy Commander Daniel Marzluff recently explained that the Sea Breeze drills in the Black Sea are essential deterrents to Russian assertions in region. However, these drills have consisted of increasingly provocative maneuvers that ultimately provoke conflict in the region.

These drills have done anything but act as a deterrent for conflict in the Black Sea. In response to the Sea Breeze drills, Russia conducted its own drills in the Black Sea, including the simulation of firing advanced missile systems against enemy aircraft. As the Black Sea is of utmost importance to Russia’s trade and military stature, it follows that Russia would signal its displacement if it perceives its claims are being threatened.   

Sea Breeze followed another rise in tensions in the Black Sea, when just a week prior to the beginning of the exercise, a clash occurred between Russia and Britain. In response to the British destroyer ship, the HMS Defender, patrolling inside Crimean territorial waters, Russia claimed it fired warning shots and ordered two bombers to drop bombs in the path of the ship. When asked about the HMS Defender, Russian President Vladimir Putin described the ship’s actions as a “provocation” that was a “blatant violation” of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Putin also went on to claim that Moscow believes U.S. reconnaissance aircraft were a part of the operation as well. Despite this, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded with a denial of any wrongdoing.

Russia’s actions to provocations by the United States-led Sea Breeze and interaction with the HMS Defender in the Black Sea signal its resolve to retaliate if it feels as its sovereignty and its territorial claim on Crimea is being impeded on. Despite Russia signaling its commitment to defending its territorial claims in the Black Sea, the United States still willingly took actions during Sea Breeze that would bring the United States closer to a clash with Russia.  

Provoking conflict in the Black Sea does not align with the national security interests of the United States. In fact, it only puts the United States in the position to be involved in a costly clash that only would harm its diplomatic relationships.  

As Russia has signaled its commitment to its resolve and scope of its military response in a possible conflict, any potential conflict in the Black Sea would be costly for the United States. Over the past few years, Russia has increased the size and capabilities of its fleet in the Black Sea. Two of these improvements would especially pose a challenging threat to the U.S. and NATO – Russia’s drastically improved anti-access/area-denial capabilities and its new Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile. This would mean any conflict in the Black Sea would not be a quick and decisive victory for U.S. and NATO forces, and would instead likely become costly and extensive.  

A conflict with Russia in the Black Sea would not only be costly for the U.S. and its allies in the region, but could irreparably damage its fragile, but strategically valuable relationship with Russia. If the United States continues to escalate tensions in the Black Sea, it risks closing the limited window for bilateral cooperation with Russia that was opened through increased willingness to collaborate on areas of common interests, as evidenced by the recent summit that took place in Geneva. After a period of the highest levels of tension between the U.S. and Russia since the Cold War, this progress made towards improving bilateral relations must not be taken for granted. Even if the U.S. and NATO’s maneuvers in the Black Sea do not ultimately materialize into a full-scale conflict with Russia, they will most likely damage not just recent diplomatic momentum, but future opportunities for a relationship between the two powers.

In such a critical time for the relationship between the United States and Russia, it is counterproductive for the United States to take actions that it can predict will drive Russia even further away. Entering into a conflict with Russia in the Black Sea would not only engage the U.S. in a costly conflict but would damage its security and diplomatic interests.  

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