A few weeks ago I had the great pleasure of discussing Iran-China relations on China Pivots West, an excellent new podcast hosted by Kendrick Kuo about China’s growing presence in Central Asia and the Middle East. The experience was made all the more enjoyable by the fact that the other guest on the podcast was John Garver, a top-notch scholar at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs who is the leading expert on the subject of Sino-Iranian relations.
In line with my recent article on The Diplomat, during the podcast I discussed the possibility of a future clash between Iran and China as a result of Beijing becoming more deeply enmeshed in the Middle East, particularly in the context of America’s declining influence in the region. I noted the possibility that China might in a decade or two activate its String of Pearls strategy and actually establish a military presence in the Persian Gulf. This would be anathema to Iran’s long-standing goal of being the dominant power in the region.
Professor Garver understandably viewed the notion that China will become a military power in the Persian Gulf skeptically. He noted that China’s military reach is limited to the Western Pacific, Central Asia and possibly the South China Sea. Furthermore, Professor Garver contends that China from a military standpoint likely sees the Persian Gulf as pretty far afield given that it would have to transverse the South China Sea, Strait of Malacca, and Indian Ocean just to get to the Persian Gulf. This would put it in the cross hairs of a number of countries who are likely to oppose a Chinese military presence in the Middle East, most notably India.
Professor Garver’s skepticism is well placed. Beyond the complications it will face in trying to establish itself in the Gulf, the People's Republic of China has for nearly its entire history railed against “hegemonism” and “imperialism” or whatever similar term was in fashion in Beijing at the time. It therefore seems hard to imagine it embracing “hegemonism” itself in the Middle East.
Still, I’m not convinced that it won’t end up doing so. This is partly due to China’s policies themselves. As Jim Holmes and others have noted, the “String of Pearls” strategy is not an immediate threat to the U.S. or India, but more of a long term challenge. I find it hard to believe that Beijing has coincidently established these various naval ports along its maritime route to the Persian Gulf without recognizing their potential strategic value. Moreover, China is gradually but most concertedly building up a blue water navy. If China was certain its naval interests would be limited to the Western Pacific indefinitely, deploying multiple carrier strike groups might be a tad excessive.
As I noted on the China Pivots West podcast, I think Chinese leaders, like everyone else, peer twenty five years into the future and see a great deal of uncertainty. And for those that can afford it, the best way to contend with uncertainty is to prepare for the worst. Thus, I think leaders in Beijing are acquiring the capability to deploy military force in the Middle East should the need arise.
But future Chinese leaders are likely to find it difficult to act with restraint when opportunities and challenges present themselves. Part of this will be due to the nature of the Chinese leaders themselves. Even today, thirty five years after Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up, China’s top leaders can still recall a time when Beijing was an extremely weak country. Remember that Xi Jinping and company came of age during the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution. To them, expanding Chinese influence in its immediate neighborhood likely seems like an extraordinary accomplishment, and could be enough to fulfill their ambitions.
But China’s leaders twenty five years from now are unlikely to be so restrained in their ambitions for their country. After all, they’ll have come of age at a time when Beijing was a rising and important power in Asia and increasingly the world. They’ll thus have different expectations from China’s current leaders as to what Beijing’s entitled too.
The fact that China is likely to have substantial military power will also inhibit its future leaders’ ability to exercise restraint in using it. Today the impossibility of deploying a sizeable military force to the Middle East for an extended period of time prevents Chinese leaders from contemplating this option to counter the challenges Beijing faces in the region. They have no choice but to live with creative diplomacy and a high degree of risk.
But when future Chinese leaders do have a military force seemingly capable of helping Beijing confront these challenges, it’s difficult to imagine that they will choose to forgo using it and instead continue to accept the same degree of risk and potentially adverse outcomes that current Chinese leaders are forced to live with. And once they agree to use military force in one crisis a precedent will be set that will make it all the more easy to rely on military force in the Middle East in the future.
None of this would be unique to China itself, of course. Historians and international relations scholars have long noted that a state’s perceived interests expand (and contract) in tandem with its relative power. That is, the more relative power a state acquires the more expansively it defines its national interests.
Perhaps there’s no better precedent for China’s future than the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century. Although it’s difficult to recall today, the U.S. was once viewed in the so-called third world much as China is today. People across the world, including and perhaps especially in the Middle East, viewed the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century as a new kind of great power that was fundamentally different from the much despised European colonial powers. After all, most marveled, the U.S. had once been a British colony itself. Surely, then, it wouldn’t act like one of the arrogant colonial powers, but instead would craft a new model for how great powers behave on the world stage.
For some time there was plenty of evidence (and even more rhetoric from American leaders) that the U.S. was indeed doing just that, at least outside of the Western Hemisphere. Long before WWII, the U.S. tried to empower many colonies and semi-colonies in various ways. For example, when Iran, following the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, sought to break free of Russian and English economic dominance, the Iranian parliament, at the suggestion of the U.S. government, appointed American lawyer and financer William Morgan Shuster as the treasurer general of Iran. Shuster made a great effort on behalf of Iran and its autonomy before being forced out of the country by Imperial Russia’s military forces. Later, President Harry Truman would side with Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh over America’s British allies in the Iranian-British dispute over their oil revenue-sharing agreement (albeit, any goodwill America won from this episode was quickly eliminated by Truman’s successor).
More notably, Woodrow Wilson genuinely sought to weaken the institution of colonialism in WWI. In his famous Fourteen Points proposal, for example, Wilson called for, “A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.” He later made a valiant if ultimately unsuccessful effort to implement some of these principles at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, only to be thwarted by France and England. Wilson’s successors would in many (but certainly not all) cases return to these goals after WWII when the U.S. was in a much stronger position to pressure its European allies to abandon their colonies.
Ultimately, America never emulated Europe’s colonial model precisely. Still, as a great power it has thrown its power around in the world in ways that have led many to perceive America as the foremost “imperial” power of our time. This tendency became more prevalent, especially in the Middle East, as America’s relative power grew in the wake of the Soviet Union’s demise.
Given its insatiable thirst for foreign energy, which is likely to grow in the coming decades, China will have a strong and enduring interest in the Middle East for some time to come. Despite the challenges it faces in establishing a presence in the Middle East, and its ideological antipathy towards former and current great powers, history suggests that China will find it very hard indeed to resist the lure of “hegemonism” in the region. Indeed, if China doesn’t embrace hegemonism in the Middle East, it will be much more likely because it lacks the capability to do so rather than out of choice. In this sense, the success of America’s pivot to Asia in containing China’s ambitions in the Western Pacific will have a profound impact on the future of the Middle East.