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Does the Trump White House make China the force for good in the Middle East?


Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 6 February 2020 00:00


When President Trump unilaterally decided on the assassination order, additional economic sanctions, and the withdrawal of the Iran nuclear accord, it now presented China and Russia comparative advantages to gradually remove the US footprints in the region with the support of Iran and Iraq. China has a greater geo-economic lead over the US while Russia continues to exert closer military links with Iran and Iraq

By Dr. Patrick Mendis

When the US assassinated Iranian General Qassem Suleimani in Iraq, Teheran leaders ordered a series of missile attacks on the American military bases in Iraq in response. For fear of escalating asymmetric warfare, President Donald Trump threatened to target 52 Iranian assets – including the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) sites in the Islamic Republic. The number refers to 52 American hostages held in Iran during the 1979 revolution.

In his phone call to Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi condemned the “military adventurist act by the US,” adding that it “goes against basic norms governing international relations and will aggravate tensions and turbulence in the region.” Tehran then stated that Beijing could “play an important role in preventing escalation of regional tensions” and would supplant the increasingly unreliable and erratic United States.  

When the Iraqi parliament voted to expel all American military forces, Trump threatened the Iraqi leaders with economic sanctions. The consequences of such action would force both Iran and Iraq to more closely align with Russia and China. Beyond isolating the US, their collective political agenda is to make Washington less influential in global geopolitics and increasingly irrelevant in geo-economic power and military posture in the region.

America alone

When President Trump unilaterally decided on the assassination order, additional economic sanctions, and the withdrawal of the Iran nuclear accord, it now presented China and Russia comparative advantages to gradually remove the US footprints in the region with the support of Iran and Iraq. China has a greater geo-economic lead over the US while Russia continues to exert closer military links with Iran and Iraq. 

This is not to minimise the fact that China has supplied arms to Iran – including small arms, tactical ballistic, and anti-ship cruise missiles like the Silkworm. Foreign Minister Wang Yi in early January 2020 told his Iranian counterpart that the two countries should jointly oppose America’s “unilateralism and bullying.”

Similar to Sino-Iranian relationship built on trade, weapons and oil, China has now emerged as the strongest collaborator of Iraq. A partner of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the total trade between the two countries had exceeded $ 30 billion in 2018. China is the largest trading partner of Iraq and the second biggest exporter of Iraq’s oil to China.  

To many of these world leaders, the United States is largely isolated diplomatically and bankrupt morally. For them, the killing of the Iranian general was a carefully choreographed “action of choice” than an “action of necessity” to rally Trump’s evangelical and conservative base to influence the Senate impeachment trial and to exonerate the impeached president. The timing of his assassination order without credible evidence to support “imminent danger” has also raised legal issues within domestic laws and international conventions

During his visit to Beijing in September 2019, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said that China will be “a quantum leap” in Sino-Iraqi relations after the two countries signed eight comprehensive agreements on culture, defence, diplomacy, education, finance, reconstruction, security, and trade. Unlike the Russia-Syria-Iran-Iraq coalition with reactions to US unpredictable actions, China’s inroads into Iraq had deliberately been planned and engaged bilaterally through the BRI framework. 

With the latest US-Iran escalation, China certainly foresees greater opportunities to expand its influence in the region. For many – including former CIA director Michael Hayden – Trump is either a ‘Russian asset’ or a ‘useful idiot’ as the consequences of the president’s decisions in Iraq have now become a welcome news for Bagdad and Teheran to make Washington less relevant to the regional stakeholders. 

Converging powers

After imposing crippling sanctions on Iran, China and Russia have continued barter-like arrangements for Iranian oil to avoid the dollar system. More importantly, however, the increasing convergence of trilateral joint naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman is a direct challenge to American influence and military posture in the Middle East. “The most important achievement of these drills … is this message that the Islamic republic of Iran cannot be isolated,” said Iranian Vice Admiral Gholamreza Tahani in December 2019. The naval commander then added, “These exercises show that relations between Iran, Russia and China have reached a new high level while this trend will continue in the coming years.”

In June 2019, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met with Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Kyrgyzstan. The joint naval exercises and commercial diplomacy have served them well in their win-win trilateral strategy: 

1.Russia validates itself as the primary geopolitical actor in the region with Putin’s recent success in Syria and Turkey; 

2.China demonstrates itself as the key geo-economic and global naval power with having its first military base in nearby Djibouti; and 

3.Iran acting as the regional power in the Middle East to counterbalance the American-led coalition with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Their commercial and diplomatic links with China and Russia have, indeed, become stronger since the Trump administration.

Australia and the United Kingdom have agreed to send their warships to safeguard the oil shipments in international waterways and to preserve the freedom of navigation. However, other frustrated European allies – over Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of the nuclear pact and the climate change accord – are closely working with Chinese and Russian leaders.

American vision

To many of these world leaders, the United States is largely isolated diplomatically and bankrupt morally. For them, the killing of the Iranian general was a carefully choreographed “action of choice” than an “action of necessity” to rally Trump’s evangelical and conservative base to influence the Senate impeachment trial and to exonerate the impeached president. The timing of his assassination order without credible evidence to support “imminent danger” has also raised legal issues within domestic laws and international conventions. 

In light of President Trump’s actions, it is worth remembering to reflect on the American vision and its founding role in the world. The inspiring wisdom comes from the American statesman John Quincy Adams – a Minister, Secretary of State, President, and Congressman. As the top diplomat, Secretary of State Adams in 1821 said that the United States “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.” That kind of American authenticity and goodness must first be needed for the US to return to its roots and to become the force for good.



(The writer is a Taiwan fellow of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of China and a distinguished visiting professor of global affairs at the National Chengchi University in Taipei. Previously, he served as a distinguished visiting professor of Sino-American relations at the Yenching Academy of Peking University, a commissioner of the US National Commission for UNESCO at the US Department of State, and the secretariat director of the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the vice chairman of the Secretary’s Open Forum. The views expressed in this article are his own; they do not represent the institutions of his past or present affiliations. The Courtesy of China US Focus.)


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