Friday, February 05, 2010

Will the US have to choose between Israel and China?

The recent flares in the relationship between China and the United States mostly have seemed to have the United States playing the role of the provocative party. Events include the US State Department's public criticisms of China after Google's charges of spying, the US invitation of the Dalai Lama, the planned sale of military supplies to Taiwan and the recent US public criticisms of Chinese currency policy.

The tension over Iran goes in the other direction. China speaks publicly, for the first time independently of Russia, in calling for delays in imposing sanctions against Iran. China has sent lower level representatives to meetings on sanctions than any of the other participants and has refused to attend meetings, causing their cancellation. I would not describe these actions as provocations, but they do represent China going out of its way to take action contrary to the wishes and expectations of the United States more than China's policy in other areas.

Chinese behavior on the single particular issue of Iran likely represents a widening gap between the interests of China and the interests the United States is effectively pursuing in the Middle East. China has simple interests in the Middle East. China wants the oil producing countries to produce oil and sell it at the market price. That is basically it.

The United States has much more complicated interests in the Middle East. The United States has a sentimental commitment to Israel, and Israel has the bizarre and extreme security requirement that five million Jewish people in Palestine be militarily dominant over the 200 million non-Jewish people of the region.

We see this reflected in the perceptions and calculations of the Chinese and the US or Israelis about Iran's nuclear program. Increased hostility between Iran and the United States not only increases the risk of war which would certainly disrupt regional exports of oil, but long before then adds an uncertainty premium to the price of oil. For Israel, increased oil prices or the disruption of oil supplies are a non-consideration. The single priority is ensuring that Iran does not develop into a country with military potential to rival Israel's. The United States reflects Israel's requirements on this issue.

For China, the non-consideration is the theoretical potential of Iran to rival Israel, or to remove Israel's ability to threaten its neighbors with nuclear attack if necessary. The single priority for China is that oil flows unimpeded. Moves that will increase hostility between the US and Iran threaten oil flows.

Of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, the US and Europe to greater or lesser degrees, especially with their conservative current ruling coalitions, prioritize Israel's need to be the dominant regional power. Russia is an oil exporter. If hostility between Iran and the United States increases oil prices, that is a tremendous benefit to Russia's economy. And if Iran and the United States go to war, this offers the certainty of skyrocketing oil prices, and also the possibility of an historical defeat for the United States that give Russia long lasting advantages in it rivalry with the US. China is alone in the Security Council as a power that is not sentimentally invested in Israel and also vulnerable to high oil prices.

So when Ahmadinejad says the United States has to choose between Israel and Iran, he means that Israel's requirement that it be more powerful than the neighboring nations whose populations do not accept its legitimacy inherently contradicts Iran's requirement that it be allowed to grow in military potential to reflect its population size, industrialization and resource allocation. The United States cannot have both.

But if US policy is going to reflect Israel's preference for hostility with Iran over Iran's non-acceptance of Israel, even to the point where it puts regional exports of oil at risk, then US policy also directly contradicts China's interests.

The United States under Barack Obama has not shown an ability to restrain its pro-Israel impulses. The failure of the US to get Israel to freeze settlement growth, and in fact the revolt of the US foreign policy apparatus against the idea that pressure against Israel could even be attempted shows China that it cannot trust the United States to pursue policy that differs from the desires of the about five million Jewish people in Palestine. If that is the case, then the United States cannot be trusted to take the lead in the discussion of how to proceed with Iran.

China is led by engineers selected in a competitive process from among a huge population. It is very easy for China's leadership to conclude that the US' leadership is not an intelligent group of people. If China is moving towards the conclusion that the US foreign policy process is too incompetent or dysfunctional to credibly commit to prioritize uninterrupted exports of oil from the region at stable prices, then the US response, to throw tantrums in every other area of its relationship with China, only reinforces China's doubts in the capabilities of US leadership.

Israel defied the US on settlements and the United States proved unable to even allow its Egyptian client to supply humanitarian supplies to Gaza. If the United States is willing to make a new package of weapons for Taiwan and to conspicuously meet the leader of a Chinese separatist movement to express its displeasure over China's failure to agree with sanctions on Iran then that is further proof that the US foreign policy apparatus is not able to evaluate the Middle East rationally. Contrary to their intent, these US efforts prove that China is right in not following the US lead on the Iran issue, but in evaluating the situation and determining policy independently.

The US has volunteered to carry a heavy burden in promising that the over 200 million non-Jewish people of Israel's region who do not accept Israel's legitimacy will be kept relatively powerless indefinitely. China pays a price for this in that it has gone along with sanctions against Iran up to now, and lost trade because of it, but the amount China is willing to pay is less than the amount the US would like China to pay. The gap between China and the US over the Middle East is likely to endure and expand now that we've seen solid indications of it in public.


Lysander said...

I wish I had some idea of how China sees itself in the world 20-30 years from now. If they intend to play a more outspoken role in world affairs then building an alliance with Iran now is a very good idea. At minimum it would deflect and absorb negative US attention and resources that might otherwise be directed against China. At best it would allow China a means to project power in the Persian gulf. Not now, but later.

But getting to that point requires some investment right now. It means challenging the US on matters very important to US policy makers. Whether China has decided to make that investment will be made clear in the next few months.

Anonymous said...

I think you had better study some FP stuff, and then understand that not everybody is allowed to write academically-speaking.

Arnold Evans said...

Feel free to indicate anything you think I got wrong.