Posturing in the Pacific: Iran, China’s Rise, and American Strategy

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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, see here 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.

More here:  http://www.veteranstoday.com/2012/04/07/iran-chinas-rise-and-americ...

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