Thursday, December 15, 2005

Dragon and Eagle in the Sands of Arabia ...

We had an interesting discussion at The Nixon Center today--"The United States in the Middle East: Dealing with the Challenges of China, India and Iran"--featuring Geoff Kemp and David M. Lampton of the center and Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment.

China and India are both rising powers, that is very true--and their progress has surged forward by leaps and bounds. It is also very true that the United States does not have the power to unilaterally set the agenda in the Middle East, to assume that it is "the only game in town" and that the rising clout of India and China gives Middle Eastern states other options--notably Iran.

But some of the points made in the talks that help us to avoid mindless panic--and thanks also to our managing editor Tom Rickers for his compliation here:

1) Despite their desire to play a greater role on the global stage, for both China and India their single most important bilateral relationship remains with the United States. Neither side is willing to sacrifice its relationship with the United States for any other country, including Iran.

2) Both China and India are trying to compartmentalize their relationship with Iran--to separate the energy relationship from other areas (in other words, to try and hedge--good economic ties with Iran but not to give the Iranians the ability to leverage those ties for other things, such as protecting their nuclear program).

3) The United States is not the sole actor in the Middle East, and China and India do have increasing influence, but for the long-term future, it is the United States which is the guarantor of the security of the Persian Gulf and, more broadly, of the world's shipping and communications lanes.

And China has a catch-22. It depends on the U.S. Navy to secure the sea-lanes that are absolutely vital to transport its energy needs from the Middle East and Africa back to the mainland. China's dependence on the United States for this is irksome; yet, for China to develop the blue-navy capability it would need to patrol the sea-lanes it would not only take a massive investment in resources, but also would scare China's neighbors whose relatively benign response to China is predicated on China's "peaceful rise", not its militarization to project power on a global scale.

But an interesting discussion, and very important since in Washington we tend to ignore China and India as possible players in the Middle East, in our efforts to relegate them to "South Asia" and "East Asia" geographic boxes.

The Chinese are grappling with the issue of whether to "rise" in a global system that is under the direction of the United States and where the United States not only sets the agenda but bears a good deal of the burden of maintenance, or to challenge U.S. leadership at some point down the road. A lot depends on whether the U.S. works to enmesh the Chinese into the current system so that China as it rises has an incentive to burden share with maintaining a system that is beneficial to its own interests.
We have to dispense with the fantasy that says that all possible disputes between the U.S. and China will be solved without difficulty. We need to make hard choices now: either accommodate the rise in China (the way the British accommodated the rise of the United States) or do what the British did vis-a-vis Germany--work to prevent what otherwise will be an inevitable rise of a new hegemonic power.

Trying to contain China with no real investment of resources is the strategy most likely to backfire.
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