Iran, China’s Rise, and American Strategy


Leverett observes the Iranian nuclear issue is likely to turn out to be, on many levels, a major turning point for America’s relative standing as a great power, in the Middle East and globally.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 



Earlier this week, Hillary Leverett went on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story to talk about the United States’ “strategic pivot” (as the Obama Administration describes it) toward Asia, from the Middle East, seehere or click on video above.  The other panelists are Barry Pavel, a former National Security Council defense policy staffer for both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, and Gordon Chang, a political analyst who focuses on China.

The program is revealing about the cultural drivers that, ultimately, contribute so heavily to the formulation and conduct of American foreign policy.  It also provides a prism for considering some interesting developments in Chinese thinking about the United States that have potentially significant implications for Beijing’s policy on the Iranian nuclear issue and other Iran-related controversies involving the United States.

Barry Pavel begins the discussion by explaining some of the historical context for the current effort to “rebalance” American forces in the Middle East and Asia.  He claims that the United States was headed in this direction more than a decade ago, before 9/11, but was compelled by the 9/11 attacks to devote more military resources and strategic energy to the Middle East than would otherwise have been the case.  While holding that the logic for a pivot toward Asia is sound, after “the long 10 years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Pavel predicts that it is likely to turn out to be largely “rhetorical”—it is “not going to happen,” he says, because developments in the Middle East will continue to draw substantial commitments of American military power.

Hillary responds by noting that many strategic elites in Beijing would agree with Pavel that the United States was beginning to concentrate its strategic attention and military resources on Asia in the late 1990s and beginning of the 2000s, for the purpose of preventing China’s rise as a regional and even prospectively global power.  After 9/11, Chinese elites calculated that they might have as much as 20 years to focus on their country’s domestic growth and political development, while the United States was preoccupied in the Middle East.  Now they see this window being cut short by Washington’s pivot away from a failed effort to consolidate its hegemony over the Middle East to trying instead to reinstate a more clearly hegemonic posture for the United States in Asia.

Furthermore, Hillary notes, China sees the Obama Administration retreating from important parts of the “core bargain” that Beijing and Washington struck in the early 1970s, when President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, worked with the first-generation leadership of the People’s Republic to realign Sino-American relations.  Among other things, this bargain posited that the United States was no longer going to pursue outright hegemony in Asia (an approach that had ensnared it in the tragedy/strategic stupidity of the Vietnam War).  Instead, it would, in effect, share strategic leadership with China, recognizing the People’s Republic as a legitimate political entity with legitimate national interests.  Now, from a Chinese vantage, the United States looks to be getting back into the hegemony business in Asia.  (On this point, consider Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s article America’s Pacific Century in Foreign Policy in November 2011, see here.)

Gordon Chang, who has long been a sharp critic of the People’s Republic of China on multiple fronts (he published a book in 2001 anticipating its collapse), argues that the pivot is a perfectly reasonable reaction to “conduct that is unacceptable” by the Chinese.  Aside from being the People’s Republic, this conduct, according to Chang, consists of asserting territorial claims in the South China Seas with which other regional states disagree and continuing to insist that Taiwan is part of China.  In light of this behavior, other Asian countries have been compelled to ask the United States to build up its military presence in the region.

Hillary observes that this is the same sort of explanation offered by Washington to justify expanded U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf:  American allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia feel threatened by the growing influence of a rising regional power—the Islamic Republic of Iran—committed to protecting and enhancing its strategic independence. 

–From this perspective, Washington never takes into consideration how these allies’ policies have themselves contributed to regional insecurity. 

–It also never takes into consideration how rising regional powers committed to defending their strategic independence—whether the People’s Republic of China in Asia or the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Middle East—interpret the historical record of America’s involvement in their regional neighborhoods and how that affects their perception of current U.S. policy.

Additionally, Hillary notes that there is a difference between aspiring regional powers, like China and the Islamic Republic, that act in ways they judge necessary to protect their core interests and enhance their regional and international standing, and an expansionist power like the United States which believes that its own security ultimately requires it to transform as much of the rest of the world as possible to look like itself.  In this regard, it appears that China is reaching a turning point in its perception of America’s strategic intentions, not just in Asia but also in the Middle East, which is increasingly important to the People’s Republic in a number of the same ways it has long been important to the United States.

A powerful account of this shift is provided by a new monograph published earlier this week, Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust, see here, co-authored by Wang Jisi, Dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University and one of China’s most eminent strategic thinkers and academic specialists on the United States.  Prof. Wang’s portion of the monograph has already drawn considerable attention, including an article inThe New York Times.  We highlight some of its many important points below:

Prof. Wang notes that, in the post-Cold War world. China’s approach to the United States “was premised on the fact—and the assessment—that China’s power and international status were far weaker than those of America, and that the global balance at that moment tiled toward Western political systems, values, and capitalism.”  Since 2008, however, “several developments have reshaped China’s views of the international structure and global trends, and therefore of its attitude toward the United States.”  Prof. Wang then elucidates several of these developments:

“First, many Chinese officials believe that their nation has ascended to be a first-class power in the world and should be treated as such.  China has successfully weathered not only the 1997-98 global financial crisis; the latter, in Chinese eyes, was caused by deep deficiencies in the U.S. economy and politics.  China has surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy and seems to be the number two in world politics, as well…Chinese leaders do not credit these successes to the United States or to the U.S.-led world order.

Second, the United States is seen in China generally as a declining power over the long run.  America’s financial disorder, alarming deficit and unemployment rate, slow economic recovery, and domestic political polarization are viewed as but a few indications that the United States is headed for decline…It is now a question of how many years, rather than how many decades, before China replaces the United States as the largest economy in the world.

Third, from the perspective of China’s leaders, the shifting power balance between China and the United States is part of an emerging new structure in today’s world.  While the Western world at large is faced with economic setbacks, emerging powers like India, Brazil, Russia, and South Africa join China in challenging Western dominance…

Fourth, it is a popular notion among Chinese political elites, including some national leaders, that China’s development model provides an alternative to Western democracy and experiences for other developing countries to learn from, while many developing countries that have introduced Western values and political systems are experiencing disorder and chaos.”

These shifting views of the international structure overlap with longstanding Chinese concerns about the American posture toward the People’s Republic:

“It is strongly believed in China that the ultimate goal of the United States in world affairs is to maintain its hegemony and dominance and, as a result, Washington will attempt to prevent the emerging powers, in particular China, from achieving their goals and enhancing their stature.”

All of this, in Prof. Wang’s reading, affects Chinese views of American positions on a host of security and economic issues.  On top of that, “the perceived changing power balance between China and the United States has prompted many Chinese to expect, and aspire to, a more ‘can-do’ PRC foreign policy, and the Chinese leadership clearly recognizes these sentiments.”  Focusing on the Middle East more particularly, Prof. Wang notes that Beijing’s policy toward Iran is

“facing a dilemma.  On the one hand, China supports the principle of nonproliferation together with the United States and its European allies.  On the other hand, the Chinese are concerned that Washington’s high-handed position toward Tehran is driven more by an American desire to change the political structure of Iran and the geopolitical picture in the Middle East than by its declared goal of keeping the Iranians from obtaining nuclear weapons…

Although the turbulence in the Arab world since early 2011 is not viewed in Beijing as necessarily stirred up by, and beneficial to, the U.S., the Chinese government was perturbed by the forceful intervention of the Western world in Libya in 2011.  Further advance of U.S. schemes in the region, now being unfolded in Syria, would be seen as detrimental to regional stability at the expense of China.”

We have already witnessed Beijing taking a more “can-do” approach to the region, coordinating with Russia to veto a U.S.-backed Security Council resolution on Syria and making clear it will not facilitate Libya-style intervention in Syria or endorse any political process there stipulating upfront that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must leave office.  Now, according to Prof. Wang, “China is not ready to support more U.S. sanctions against Iran by cutting off its own trade relations with Tehran.”

For its part, of course, the Obama Administration has committed itself to a policy under which it will be under enormous pressure to sanction important Chinese companies and financial institutions of the People’s Republic does not cut off—or at least radically reduce—its trade relations with the Islamic Republic.  Does the administration really believe that, by threatening such sanctions, it can compel Beijing to do serious damage to Chinese interests—and surrender its strategic independence, to boot—by cooperating with unilaterally asserted U.S. and European sanctions, which are already driving up the price of oil?  The Iranian nuclear issue is likely to turn out to be, on many levels, a major turning point for America’s relative standing as a great power, in the Middle East and globally.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 

Source: The Race For Iran

Editing: Debbie Menon

Related Opinions:

2,500 marines in Australia ‘new battlefront for US’?



Is catastrophe ahead for US-China relations?



Related articles:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *