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23 December 2016

Don’t worry about Donald Trump starting a nuclear arms race. Do worry about him starting a trade war with China

The President-Elect's latest tweet has people worried. But there's a bigger fear elsewhere. 

By Stephen Bush

In a pattern that may become increasingly familiar, the world has received a jolt in the shape of a tweet from Donald Trump.

“The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” the President-Elect tweeted, “until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

Coupled with Vladimir Putin’s comments the same day that Russia must “strengthen the military potential” of its nuclear arsenal, it adds to the worry that we may not look back on 2016 as a year of convulsions – in fact, we may not look back on it at all. 

But – strange as it may seem when the words “Trump” and “nuclear weapons” appear so closely together in a news story – on this occasion, the worries are somewhat overstated.

Both the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia are suffering from outdated equipment, guidance systems and other maintenance issues. Overhauling those problems makes an accidental exchange of nuclear fire less likely and a second strike less likely, too.

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The way that Trump described the launch, civil servants believe, is part and parcel of how generals talk about their spending requests in order to expedite favourable decisions from civilian governments. That speaks to one of the other worries about Trump: that he is, for all his bombast, a man with a tendency to take on the opinions of the last person he spoke to and one desperately concerned with saving face and being taken seriously.  That he is still tweeting about Hillary Clinton’s popular vote lead and the celebrity entertainers who are giving his inauguration a wide berth speaks to his fragility.

But there’s a risk that the nuclear issue is obscuring a bigger worry about Trump’s presidency: that of increased hostility towards China. The Sino-US relations have not been in great shape for years but Trump’s actions as president-elect have placed the relationship under greater pressure.

The subject of worry and irritation in Beijing today: the appointment of Peter Navarro to head the new White House National Trade Council. Navarro is the China hawk’s China hawk – the Guardian has collected some of his strongest anti-China remarks – and it has analysts nervousthat Trump’s presidency will see a trade war erupt between  the United States and China.

Although both countries would suffer damage, it is the US that has more to lose than China. That brings you back to the problem with Trump – that is he is both impressionable and hates to be seen as a loser. What he does if he starts a fight he can’t finish with the world’s other superpower is likely to be the question that dominates all others in 2017.