Issue: 2012: Vol. 11, No. 1

China and a U.S.-Iran War

Article Author(s)

John Garver

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John W. Garver is Professor Emeritus in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is a member of the editorial boards of the journals China Quarterly, Journal of Contemporary China, and the Journal of American-East Asian Relations, and a member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. He is the author of eleven books and over one-hundred articles dealing with China’s foreign relations. His books include: China’s Quest: A History of the ... 
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Negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program moved to a crucial stage in May and June of 2012. Unless Tehran accedes to international demands that it open to international inspections that verify that Iran’s nuclear programs are not designed to produce nuclear weapons, a pre-emptive military strike — perhaps by Israel alone, perhaps with U.S. participation — could well result. In the midst of this escalating tension, prominent voices in the United States are urging that China could play an important role in resolving the Iran nuclear issue and averting a potential clash between Iran and the US. and/or Israel.

I believe these hopes for China are misplaced. Although there are people in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs who believe that such a Chinese effort resulting in an accommodation between the Iran and the U.S.-led international community would serve China’s interests, other voices take a far more jaundiced view of how China should deal with the United States. These bitter and hawkish views are strong in China’s military. It is unlikely that any Chinese leader would want to offend the hawks, because intense maneuvering for succession to paramount power on the Politburo Standing Committee is under way in the lead-up to this fall’s 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) China is unlikely to use its influence to avert a U.S.-Iran clash. If it comes to war between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, Beijing will do little materially to assist Iran. But neither will Beijing help the U.S. prevent, or extricate itself from, another Middle Eastern quagmire.

Dreams of China as a U.S. Partner

Some prominent voices in the U.S. hope China will use its substantial influence with Tehran to persuade it to come to a negotiated, compromise settlement with Washington. A recent monograph by three Fellows (all U.S. military officers) in the National Security Program of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, titled “Reaching a Negotiated Settlement on the Iranian Nuclear Program,” advocates a three-pronged push for a negotiated settlement with Iran. The second prong is an approach to Tehran through China. “After failing to act decisively to stop the bloodshed in Syria,” said the report “China now has an opportunity to demonstrate global leadership to reach an acceptable agreement and prevent a military conflict from affecting energy supplies coming from the Middle East.”1

The authors of the Harvard monograph elaborate the multiple ways in which Chinese mediation would serve China’s own interests. War would be averted that might otherwise disrupt China’s oil imports, make those oil imports expensive and depress foreign markets for China’s exports. Chinese mediation would demonstrate that its growing influence would be used responsibly to uphold peace. China would win Washington’s gratitude for working in tandem with U.S. diplomacy rather than as a peer competitor. Beijing also would win the gratitude of Iran for helping it avert war, further demonstrating to Iran the utility of friendship with China. The Harvard paper also documents via Wikileaks memoranda that China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs served as an intermediary between Washington and Tehran in the first year of the Obama Administration, when the new team in Washington was pushing to reset U.S. ties with both Tehran and Beijing.

These arguments are all solid. Some of them are sourced to this author’s own writings. But ultimately, Beijing is not likely to use its influence to help the United States avoid or extricate itself from war or chronic militarized confrontation with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Weighted against the interests enumerated above, is the global strategic reality that China benefits from having the United States bogged down in chronic conflict with Iran in the Persian Gulf.

Another recent article by two analysts in well-connected think tanks and published in the journal Foreign Policy argues that U.S. movement toward a strike against Iran would “persuade Beijing and Tehran alike that this option [of U.S. attack] is the alternative to full compliance with international sanctions.” It says further, “Establishing a credible military threat to Iran” and a “credible U.S. threat to disarm the Iranian regime,” would compel China’s leaders to drop their support for Iran. 2 Since a U.S.-Iran war would imperil China’s oil supplies from the Gulf, so the argument goes, confronting Beijing with that possibility would force Beijing to use its influence with Tehran to submit to U.S. terms. Again these estimates of China’s calculations seem misplaced. They fly in the face of China’s perception of a vast U.S. conspiracy against China and of what is required to foil U.S. hostile strategy toward China.

Chinese Realpolitik

A recent essay by Wang Jisi lays out the zero-sum worldview increasingly dominating elite Chinese thinking about the United States.3 Wang is dean of Beijing University’s School of International Studies, advisor to the Chinese Communist Party and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and guest professor at the PLA’s National Defense University. The monograph came out under the imprimatur of the Brookings Institute.

Wang Jisi paints a gloomy but dominant Chinese perspective. “It is strongly believed in China,” he writes, “that the ultimate goal of the Untied States in world affairs is to maintain its hegemony and dominance and, as a result, Washington will attempt to prevent the emerging powers, in particular China, from achieving their goal and enhancing their stature.” The perception that the United States “is China’s greatest national security threat,” Wang writes, is “especially widely shared in China’s defense and security establishments and in the Communist Party’s ideological organizations.” Washington is using “sinister designs” involving human rights issues to “sabotage the Communist leadership and turn China into [a] vassal state.” Washington has also “strengthened security ties with a number of China’s neighbors” including two states [India and Vietnam] “that once fought border wars with and still have territorial disputes with China.” A desire to encircle China has inspired the “pivot of U.S. strategic forces to Asia” under President Barack Obama.

U.S. policy toward Iran and the Persian Gulf is seen as a piece of the U.S. drive for global hegemony, Wang continues. U.S. Middle Eastern policy, including the war in Iraq, is seen in China as “driven by desire to control global oil supplies.” Of course, if Washington does that, it will be better able to prevent China’s emergence. U.S. policy toward Iran is seen in China as “driven more by an American desire to change the political structure of Iran and the geopolitical picture of the Middle East than by its declared goal of keeping the Iranians from obtaining nuclear weapons.” Non-proliferation concerns, such as human rights or climate change considerations, are mere ploys serving to prop up U.S. domination. Following the 9/11 attacks, Wang reports, “China foresaw a twenty-year-long strategic opportunity in foreign affairs, during which it could focus on domestic tasks centered on economic growth.” Now, however, with the Obama Administration’s withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, “there has arisen a stronger Chinese suspicion that the Untied States will move its strategic spearhead away from the Greater Middle East and redirect it at China as its greatest security threat.”

From the perspective of this jaundiced view of U.S. policy, why would China help the United States achieve the negotiated, but internationally supervised, abstention from research and development of nuclear weapons? Such aid would constitute a step toward Iranian subordination to American domination in the Gulf. Why would China help the United States avoid another costly war in the Persian Gulf and facilitate Washington’s “pivot to Asia,” targeting China? Even more, an Iran-U.S. war might tie the United States down in West Asia for a number of years, draining U.S. treasure and national will, while giving China several more years to expand its economy. Another American war or confrontation in the Persian Gulf certainly would cause serious economic problems for China. But it would significantly strengthen China’s national security against the United States. Would economic interests trump global strategic calculations? And what Chinese leader would want to position himself as helping the American hegemonists strengthen their anti-China containment schemes?

The near-consensus view of China’s top foreign policy analysts is that the United States has seized the opportunity of the “extremely unbalanced international situation” created by the collapse of the Soviet Union to launch an aggressive drive to bring the oil of the Middle East under full U.S. control. In China’s view, this is the objective behind sanctions, military deployments to the Gulf, threats of attack, actual wars and regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq, and perhaps next, Iran. Washington wants to control the oil of the Persian Gulf, the Chinese narrative continues, in order to be able to turn the spigot on or off to the consumers of that oil — India, Japan, Europe and, of course, China. Iran, a proud, ambitious, and powerful country, is now in Washington’s crosshairs. It seems to be Iran’s turn for U.S-style subordination via regime change — again, in China’s view.

Early in the post-Soviet period, Beijing decided it would not oppose or challenge the United States in the Middle East. Precisely because that region was the focus of Washington’s drive for global domination, opposition or challenge by China would be extremely dangerous. It could have undermined the Sino-American comity upon which China’s extremely successful post-1978 development drive was predicated.

But fortunately for Beijing, Chinese analysts concluded that China did not need to oppose or challenge the United States in the Middle East. The United States drive for hegemony in the Gulf and in the world would be defeated by the resistance of the peoples of various countries, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, and now, perhaps, Iran.

During the 2003-2010 U.S. war in Iraq, the universal refrain in China’s media was that the United States was rapidly exhausting itself in the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan. If the United States, in its reckless arrogance, wants to undertake yet another adventure — so be it. Let it go ahead, although again this sort of judgment cannot be rendered in public. In the event of a U.S.-Iran war, China would not, of course, endanger its vital economic relationship with the United States, but it would stand ideologically foursquare behind Tehran, would garner political capital across the non-Western world by touting its opposition to U.S. warmongering, and would find ways to assist Tehran’s cause, even while continuing friendly cooperative ties with the United States in areas of common interest and agreement.

In the event of a U.S.-Iranian war, China’s propaganda apparatus would stand with Iran. American warmongering would be juxtaposed against China’s peaceful diplomacy and peaceful rise. China’s diplomacy would be neutral but China would find ways to assist Tehran and confound Washington, though both would be done ambiguously. China’s “normal economic relations” with Iran would continue, and Beijing would resist U.S. efforts to narrow those economic ties. China would probably not supply arms to Iran; that work already has been done. But Chinese military observers would probably watch closely how well China-supplied weapons worked in the field against U.S. forces.

To imagine that China would help the U.S. avert another Middle East quagmire is a serious misreading of China’s views and policies. It is an egregious example of script-writing in which one predicts how others will act on the basis of one’s own perceptions and objectives. In the hardheaded realist atmosphere of foreign policy decision-making circles in Beijing, a U.S.-Iranian war would not be antithetical to Chinese interests — although this could never be said openly. Chinese analysts currently view Washington as attempting to extricate itself from Iraq and Afghanistan in order to shift forces and focus to East Asia, to better contain China. If Washington undertakes a new and probably bigger Middle Eastern war, China’s global strategic situation would not be diminished. And who knows, perhaps the Americans will finally exhaust themselves and become much more willing to accommodate China’s rise.

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  1. LTC John Digiambattista, LTC David Horan, LTC Matthew R. Lewis, CDR John Spencer, Reaching a Negotiated Settlement on the Iranian Nuclear Program, John F. Kennedy School of Government, National Security Program, 2012. The other two prongs were 1) U.S. lowering its demands from complete suspension of nuclear enrichment to a limited and fully transparent enrichment program, and 2) U.S. and Israeli preparations for a military strike to make credible the threat of use of force.
  2. Michael Singh, Jacqueline Newmyer Deal, “China’s Iranian Gambit,” Foreign Policy, October 31, 2011. Singh is managing director of the Washington Institute and former director for Middle East Affairs on the National Security Council. Deal is a Senior Fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
  3. Kenneth Lieberthal, Wang Jisi, “Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Mistrust,” John L. Thornton China Center Monograph Series, No. 4, March 2012. Brookings Institution.