The Middle East is undergoing a historic transformation. Parts of the region are up in flames, and Asia’s primary powers either have no role or a destructive one. Pakistan, Indonesia and other Asian Muslim countries, as well as India, with the world’s second-largest Muslim population, are largely uninvolved, as if events in the region have no bearing on them. Japan is preoccupied with its own domestic difficulties. Russia and China consistently support the “bad guys” and in the process are both undermining regional developments and harming their own long-term interests in the region.
In Syria, a heinous dictatorship, one of the world’s worst, desperately fighting for its survival, is killing tens of thousands of its own citizens. While the Western reaction has been fainthearted, Russia and China have been outright obstructionist, blocking any effective measures in the Security Council or elsewhere.
Indeed, Russia, as in many other cases, such as the international intervention in Libya, appears far more intent on pursuing its own misguided crusade to stymie American influence around the world, than in resolving the issue. Russia is interested in preserving its one remaining foreign naval port, in Tartus, Syria, and Damascus remains one of the few remaining clients for Russian arms. Russia’s support for the regime, however, along with Iran and Hezbollah, places it among Syria’s few remaining friends, hardly a prestigious club, and has already likely begun turning Arab opinion against it. With the Syrian regime’s demise most probably simply a matter of time, and an Arab world in which citizens are increasingly empowered and determined to settle accounts with their malefactors, Russia’s standing in the region will likely be undermined considerably. Signs are already apparent.
China, as part of its traditional reluctance to intervene in the internal affairs of foreign countries, has been less directly involved, but it, too, will be remembered poorly by the people in the region for its negative role in the Security Council. There is a point at which non-interference becomes complicity in mass murder.
On Iran, both Russia and China have blocked effective action in the Security Council, leading to the adoption of punishing extra-UN sanctions by the U.S. and EU, which were recently strengthened. By refusing to act responsibly, both nations have forced the West to act independently, the opposite of what they intended. They now risk creating a situation, following the American elections, in which the new president may seek to pursue direct negotiations with the Iranians, no longer as a part of the P5+1, of which Russia and China were members (along with the U.S., France, Britain and Germany), which has served in recent years as the coordinating forum for action on Iran. Should sanctions and these potential talks fail, Russian and Chinese obstructionism will have increased the prospects of military action against Iran.
Both Russia and China profess publicly, and one can presume this to be sincerely, if superficially true, that they oppose a nuclear-armed Iran, but neither has been willing to back up this declaratory policy with concrete action. Russia has once again given precedence to its policy of thwarting the U.S. wherever possible, over the dire dangers of protecting regional and international security from the threat of a nuclear Iran. Apparently motivated by the feeling that a nuclear Iran, although an unwelcome development, would not actually pose a direct threat to any vital Russian interests, Moscow seeks to ensure that Iran remains a primary market for Russian arms sales and additional nuclear reactors, as well as a focus of its challenge to U.S. preeminence.
China, for its part, continues to pursue an entirely mercantilist approach to foreign policy, certainly in the Middle East, which is based on three elements: selling everything it possibly can to anyone willing to buy, buying and investing in energy sources wherever possible, especially the Middle East, and asking no questions regarding its trading partners. For China, this is a long-standing policy and one which also reflects its reluctance to get involved in the domestic affairs of other countries, horrific though their practices may be. China is thus buying prodigious quantities of oil from Saudi Arabia, Iran and others, and investing in various countries throughout the region, without heed to the socio-economic and political trends underway. There is little doubt, however, that the regional population will remember China’s indifference to their plight and that the Sunni regimes, deeply fearful of Iran’s nuclear program, will remember its obstructionist role in the Security Council.
China, a great power in the making, and Russia, a fading but nonetheless aspiring power, have repeatedly positioned themselves on “the wrong side of history” in regard to the Iranian nuclear program, events in Syria, and more. Great power status confers not just prestige and influence, but also a need to share responsibility for international security and the “global good.” With their uncaring pursuit of narrow national interests, neither is demonstrating a predilection to do so. It is time for a change in policy.
Chuck Freilich is a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and the author of Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy.