Since the ascendancy of Xi Jinping as Chinese leader, it has increasingly asserted its role as a global rival of the US. In particular, during the Trump presidency China asserted its nationalist claims to territories in the South China Sea disputed by neighboring states. China, the US and our allies have disputed these claims and have by sailed our ships through the disputed waters. The former also increased military spending and signed deals with countries throughout Africa and South Asia to build railroads and ports as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. China and the US entered a damaging trade war as well, which saw escalating tariffs and damage to US farmers. China’s gradual strangling of Hong Kong’s special status along with the rights it guaranteed have also heightened tension with the US.
It was no surprise when then-Iranian Pres. Rouhani signed a massive $400-billion deal with China involving infrastructure, communications, and technology development, along with weapons systems upgrades. Decades of sanctions have caused the deterioration of Iran’s oil-extraction infrastructure and its transportation network, among others. Chinese engineering expertise could massively upgrade these critical elements of the Iranian economy. Presumably, these imports from China would be paid for with Iranian oil. Though this is complicated by western sanctions, which China has endorsed in theory.
Iran’s new leader has tacitly rejected the engagement with the west which his predecessor had embraced. Though Pres. Raisi has claimed to support a return to the JCPOA nuclear deal, he clearly is in no hurry to resume negotiations, let alone sign an agreement. Contrary to Rouhani, the current leader sees the entire process as a losing proposition for Iran. He would prefer to continue to pursue the country’s nuclear program without restraints (excepting full nuclearization, so as not to provoke the US and allies).
Abandoning JCPOA means that western sanctions will remain in place along with the severe damage they’ve caused to the Iranian economy. For that reason, Raisi has placed added emphasis on the Chinese connection. The pivot toward Asia, he hopes, will replace whatever Iran is lacking due to sanctions. But it’s unclear whether China is willing, or even able to fully substitute for the goods and services Iran had gotten from the west. This will depend in large part whether China determines it is in its interest to do so, and whether it is willing to accept the increasing tension this will cause with the US and its European allies.
The Taliban Turns East
This week, as the Taliban consolidated their rule of Afghanistan, it too began to contemplate how to administer an entire country, something it hadn’t done for more than two decades. Clearly, western nations, whose troops had until recently been propping up a hated regime, would be unlikely partners for the Islamists. So a Taliban leader declared this week that it would be turning its sights east toward China. The very first foreign envoy to meet with the new national Taliban leadership was China’s. The latter would be only too happy to step into a role most recently vacated by the US. An added bonus would be the substantial mineral wealth lying unspoiled within the mountains of Afghanistan. These are natural resources critical to fueling China’s economic engine.
A major role for China in Iran and Afghanistan strengthens its footprint in south Asia, where it is becoming an increasingly important strategic partner for countries from Sri Lanka to Pakistan. The Indian Ocean is also becoming a major focal point for projecting Chinese influence. As the US withdraws from Afghanistan and Pres. Biden boasts about ending US “forever wars,” China sees an opportunity to replace us as a regional power player.
But China is not alone. India is one of its major rivals with which it shares an uneasy 2,100-mile long border. They have gone to war once and there have been ongoing border skirmishes as recently as two years ago. Seeing China’s presence in Pakistan, Iran and even Afghanistan (which also shares a border with Iran), India will likely not sit idly by. It has already made overtures to the Taliban, though whether they will be translated into concrete trade or other commercial dealings remains to be seen.
A particular irony of the Iranian-Taliban pivot to China is the latter’s mistreatment of its Uighur minority. NGO reports indicate that as many as 1-million of these Muslim residents of northwestern China may be incarcerated in prison camps. One of the key elements of their “re-education” is suppressing their Muslim culture and traditions. It’s difficult to see how two countries steeped in Islamism, and whose governance is informed by Muslim principles, could overlook this in their own relations with China. That being said, countries pursue their own self-interest, often at the expense of moral or religious principles.
There is a lesson here for the US. Until now, our relations with the Muslim world have been largely based on projecting our military power. We haven’t offered them anything they need. As we retrench, and pull our troops out of these far-flung locales, we will have to recalibrate what it is we have to offer.
China represents one model we could emulate. Though its relations with these countries seems entirely transactional and devoid of any sense of solidarity or shared values. The US has an opportunity to develop a hybrid model in which we project both a material and values-based approach. We represent democracy, populism and the rule of law; as well as being a global player whose power is rooted in our wealth and a powerful economic engine. That should offer a pointed rebuttal and alternative to China if we go about this in a measured way. We have never been known for our humility in our relations with the Third World. It would behoove us to start now.
We are losing out in Iran. Some of this may be due to the ascendancy of hardliners in Iran who have a visceral hatred of all we represent. But we have also destroyed a number of opportunities offered us on a silver platter. The latest one was the failed attempt to restore the JCPOA agreement. Torn between a desire to reconcile with Iran and a fear of Republican hawks seeking a cudgel with which to beat Biden, he presented impossible demands which even the moderate Iranian regime then in power could not accede to. We may never have another such opportunity. But if the tables turn and one does present itself, we must learn from our mistakes. If we treat Iran as our enemy, it will become one. It we treat Iran as a prospective partner, it could very well become one.