Washington's Flawed Strategic Calculus in the Middle East Ignores China
President Trump's attempts to placate Turkish strongman Tayyip Recep Erdogan are consistent with the reigning dogma in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, which holds that Turkey is a counterweight to Iran's ambitions in the Levant. The Hudson Institute's Michael Doran articulated this perspective admirably in a recent essay at Mosaic Magazine. He wrote: "America needs to back up its allies (Israel, Saudi Arabia, and potentially Turkey), and isolate its adversaries (Iran, Russia, China, Islamic State). Everything else is secondary....The 'big-time' point is this: an ally is a state that supports the American security system. Two questions should thus decide whether America treats a state as a friend or as a foe. Will the state actively help to defend that system against those—Russia, China, and Iran—who seek to weaken or destroy it? If it won’t take action, will it at least deny its territory and resources to America’s enemies?"
The trouble is that Russia and China already have their claws so deeply into Turkey that the usual sort of concessions to Turkey won't do any good. As I warned a year ago, China will buy Turkey on the cheap. A billion-dollar swap line from China (and additional unpublicized financing) saved the Turkish lira from free fall last June. With $1.3 trillion in net foreign assets, China can afford to prop up the debt-ridden, mismanaged Turkish economy as it takes over logistics, broadband, and other strategic sectors.
President Trump and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin warned last week that they could shut down the Turkish economy. Strictly speaking, that is true: the U.S. could deny Turkish banks access to dollar payments, which would immediately destroy the value of Turkey's $300 billion of external debt. That would push European banks over the edge and probably push the world into recession. I doubt the U.S. will take such an extreme measure. Otherwise, Turkey can survive milder U.S. sanctions with Chinese help.
Notoriously, Turkey has purchased Russia's S-400 air defense system, and has been punished with the suspension of sales of America's F-35 fighter. Washington is largely at fault here. The competitor to the S-400, the American Patriot system, is an antiquated, expensive, and ineffective system by comparison to the S-400, and would have been replaced long ago except for the persuasiveness of the lobbyists of Raytheon, which makes the Patriot. Remarkably, America's secretary of defense is a former Raytheon lobbyist. Turkey doesn't really need a long-range stealth penetrator like the F-35; it can do quite well with Russia's cheaper 4th-generation (non-stealth) fighters.
I have been warning about the emergence of a Chinese sphere of influence in the Middle East -- a "Pax Sinica" -- since 2013. This has been creeping up on us, and Washington ignored it. Now there is a firm Sino-Russian alliance, as Emil Avdaliani wrote recently in a paper for the Begin-Sadat Center at Bar-Ilan University.
The strategic calculus has become far more complex, and the simplistic approach advocated by various of my friends simply will not work. The key lesson in all of this is that the United States should stop thinking like the world's only hyperpower, which we were twenty years ago, before we dumbed it all away. The U.S. should think instead like the underdog, and play a nasty game of maneuver. If we want Turkey to stay in NATO, we have to scare the stuffing out of Erdogan, for example, by helping the Kurds give him a bloody nose.
Cardinal Richelieu explained all of this to me in various ectoplasmic interviews which I have reproduced elsewhere on this page.
For reference, my earlier essays on the emerging "Pax Sinica" in the Middle East are reproduced below.
October 28, 2013English-language media completely ignored a noteworthy statement that led Der Spiegel's German-language website October 12, a call for China to "take on responsibility as a world power" in the Middle East. Penned by Bernhard Zand, the German news organization's Beijing correspondent, it is terse and to the point: now that China imports more oil from the Middle East than any other country in the world, it must answer for the region's security. "America's interest in the Middle East diminishes day by day" as it heads towards energy self-sufficiency, wrote Zand, adding:
China's interest in a peaceful Middle East is enormous, by contrast. Beijing is not only the biggest customer of precisely those oil powers who presently are fanning the flames of conflict in Syria; as a VIP customer, Beijing has growing political influence, which it should use openly. The word of the Chinese foreign minister has just as much weight in Tehran and Riyadh as that of his American counterpart.
China's situation, Zand continues, is rather like Germany's after reunification: a state whose economic power is growing will eventually be asked what it puts on the table politically. He concludes:
The time when American could be counted on to secure Beijing's supply lines soon will come to an end - America's budget deficit will take care of that by itself. Whoever wants to be a world power must take on responsibilities.
I have no idea how China envisions its future role in the Middle East. Americans will learn the intentions of the powers who gradually fill the vacuum left by Washington's withdrawal from the world "well after the fact, if ever", as I wrote on September 16 (See US plays Monopoly, Russia plays chess, Asia Times Online). That is why I have retired from foreign policy analysis. It is helpful, though, to take note of what the rest of the world is saying, particularly when not a single English-language source made reference to it. Der Spiegel's public call for China to assume a leading geopolitical role in the Middle East, though, did not appear out of context.
American commentators have regarded China as a spoiler, the source of Pakistan's nuclear weapons technology, Iran's ballistic missiles, and other alarming instances of proliferation. It is worth considering a radically different view of China's interests in the lands between the Himalayas and the Mediterranean: no world power has more to lose from instability than does China.
Iran's nuclear weapons program poses the greatest risk to the region, and China has been viewed as uncooperative in the extreme by Western diplomats trying to tighten the economic screws on Tehran. Chinese companies, moreover, have helped Iran bypass trade sanctions, but at great cost, and with a complex result. The New York Times on September 30 profiled the problems of Iran's economy under the sanctions, and took note of the country's dependence on China:
One economist, Mohammad Sadegh Jahansefat, said the government had been taken hostage by countries benefiting from the sanctions - particularly China, which he called the worst business partner Iran had ever had."China has monopolized our trade - we are subsidizing their goods, which we are forced to import," he said, adding of its work in the energy industry, "They destroy local production and leave oil and gas projects unfinished so that no one can work with them." 
China's capacity to exert pressure on the Iranian regime is considerable. Apart from its interest in avoiding nuclear proliferation in the Persian Gulf, China has a number of points of conflict with Iran, well summarized in an October 17 survey by Zachary Keck in The Diplomat.  The one that should keep Tehran on its toes is the Islamic Republic's border with Pakistan. Iran announced October 26 that it had hanged 16 alleged Sunni rebels in Baluchistan province on the Pakistani border, the latest in a long series of violent incidents.
"With a population of 170 million, Pakistan has 20 million men of military age, as many as Iran and Turkey combined; by 2035 it will have half again as many," I observed in 2009 (see Hedgehogs and flamingos in Tehran, Asia Times Online, June 16, 2009). It also has nuclear weapons.
Iran sits between two Sunni powers -Turkey and Pakistan - that depend to a great extent on Saudi financing, and that also have excellent relations with China. Turkey's still-disputed agreement to buy a Chinese air defense system represented a revolution in Chinese-Turkish relations, motivated by a Chinese promise to transfer the whole package of relevant technology to Turkey and to help the Turks to manufacture the systems, a more generous offer than ever Ankara got from the West. Turkey is the logical terminus for the "New Silk Road" of road, rail, pipelines and broadband that China has proposed to build in Central Asia.
China, it might be added, also has excellent relations with Israel, whose premier technical university just was offered a US$130 million grant from Hong Kong magnate Li Ka-shing to fund part of the costs of building a branch in China. Chinese provincial and local governments will contribute another $147 million. The seamless interchange of ideas and personnel between Israel's military, universities and tech entrepreneurs is a success story in miniature that China hopes to reproduce in scale. As Singapore-based political scientist Michael Raska reports, China's military modernization envisions the spread of dual-use technologies to private industry.
Without attributing any geopolitical intention to Beijing, the visible facts make clear that China has the capacity to exercise strategic influence in the Middle East, and it has an unambiguous interest in maintaining stability. What China might choose to do, Washington will learn after the fact, if ever. If China wished to influence Iran, for example, it has considerable means to do so, and a great deal else besides.
David P. Goldman is Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research and Associate Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
1. Iran Staggers as Sanctions Hit Economy, New York Times, September 30, 2013.
2. China and Iran: Destined to Clash?, The Diplomat, October 17, 2013.
A Pax Sinica in the Middle East, Redux
Cross-posted from Asia Times.
A “Russian-Chinese axis” will dominate the Middle East with Israel as its western anchor: That scenario was floated June 15 in Russia Insider, a louche propaganda site that often runs the work of fringe conspiracy theorists and the occasional anti-Semite. But the author in this case was the venerable Giancarlo Elia Valori, president of Huawei Technologies’ Italian division, a veteran of past intelligence wars with a resume that reads like a Robert Ludlum novel.
Writes Prof. Valori:
A Russian/Israeli axis could redesign the Middle East. Currently the main powers have neither father nor mother, and the replacement of the great powers by Iran and Saudi Arabia will not last long because they are too small to be able to create far-reaching strategic correlations. Hence the time has come for the Middle East to be anchored to a global power, the Russian-Chinese axis, with Israel acting as a regional counterweight.
I would be tempted to dismiss Valori’s thesis as pulp fiction, except that I also raised the prospect of a “Pax Sinica” in the Middle East, three years ago in Asia Times.
Israeli-Russian relations, to be sure, are quite good. Deft military cooperation avoided problems between Russian forces in Syria and the Israeli army. Israel tolerated the occasional Russian overflight in its territory and Russia tolerated the occasional Israeli raid on Russia’s local allies, Iran and Iran’s cat’s paw Hezbollah. There even has been some speculation by Israeli officials that Russia might use itsUnited Nations Security Council veto against the French-led proposal to impose a Palestinian State.
Tactical cooperation between Russia and Israel, though, is beside the point: Where do Russian (and Chinese) long-range interests coincide with Israeli interests? Prof. Valori writes of a redesign of the Middle East, and that is not as far-fetched as it sounds.
The century-old design of the Middle East, namely the Sykes-Picot agreement, is broken; America broke it by imposing majority (that is, Shia) rule in Iraq in 2007. The Middle East requires a new design. Sykes-Picot, as I explained in this space, set minorities to govern majorities: A Sunni minority in Shia-majority Iraq and a Shia (Alawite) minority in Sunni-majority Syria. That created a natural balance of power: Syrian Christians supported the Alawites and Iraqi Christians supported Saddam Hussein. The oppressed majority knew however nasty the minority regime might be, it could not undertake to kill them all.
The moment that the Americans put the Shia in power in 2007, the Sunnis concluded that they must fight to the death or be exterminated. The United States occupation under Gen. Petraeus tried to co-opt the Sunnis through the “Sunni Awakening,” and succeeded only in arming and funding the Sunnis for the inevitable war to come. This broke out in 2011 and will continue indefinitely. The remnants of the Bush Administration still claim that the 2007-2008 “surge” achieved a military victory that the Obama Administration threw away. In other words, what Bush and his advisors still consider their greatest accomplishment was the cause of today’s devastation.
The artificial nation-states created by the British and French imperialists cannot be restored, and their ruins are a cockpit for perpetual civil as well as global terrorism. There is only one alternative to the Sykes-Picot system of states, and that is the devolution of the Middle East on the model of the former Yugoslavia, into ethnic and confessional enclaves that separate the warring parties. The Yugoslav solution required extensive population exchanges; it was messy and costly but better than the alternative. A similar solution in the Middle East would be even messier, but better than what we have now.
An independent Kurdistan would be the model for all such enclaves: the Kurds have a thirty-year history of de facto self-governance in northern Iraq, reliable ground forces, buoyant demographics, and the political will to emerge as a nation. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of the Middle East pivots on the fortunes of the Kurds, the paragon and exemplar of what a small Muslim people can accomplish in the face of the crumbling state structures around them.
Israel and Russia, coincidentally, are the only two powers now supporting Kurdish independence, Israel explicitly and Russia somewhat more cautiously. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared in a January 2014 speech that Israel “should support the Kurdish aspiration for independence,” praising the Kurds as “a nation of fighters [who] have proved political commitment and are worthy of independence”. Netanyahu’s support for the Kurds has been reiterated since then by other members of his cabinet.
Russia has expressed support for Kurdish independence through lower-level officials, for example its consul in the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. This is by no means straightforward. As Paul Saunders, a former advisor to the George W. Bush State Department, explained in a May commentary in AI-Monitor, Russia has backed Kurdish aspirations when it suited its own interests, and its recent expressions of support for the Kurds followed the crisis in Russian-Turkish relations after Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter plane.
Russia has many reasons to keep the Kurds at arm’s length—the fact that they are fighting Russia’s client Assad in Syria and might come to blows with the Baghdad government—but it has one overarching reason to support them: Syria cannot be stabilized without a division into ethnic and religious enclaves, and Russia wants to stabilize Syria.
Russia has two interests in Syria. The first is to keep Assad in power at least in some portion of Syria. The second is to suppress the Sunni jihadists who dominate the opposition to Assad. Between 2,000 and 5,000 Russian Muslims presently are fighting for al-Qaeda or ISIS in Syria. The spread of jihad cross the Black Sea to the Caucasus is Russia’s greatest fear.
If Israel and Russia stand godfather to an independent Kurdistan, they might indeed reshape the Middle East, as Prof. Valori suggested in his provocative essay. America, by contrast, is paralyzed. A Kurdish state in Syria and Iraq would be joined inevitably by the Kurdish-majority regions of Southeastern Turkey. America cannot condone a threat to the territorial integrity of a NATO member. In practice, of course, Washington could do so. The right way to do it would be to encourage the Turks to conduct a referendum on Kurdish independence on the model of the Saarland Referendum of 1955 (and do the same for the disputed regions of Ukraine as well).
But Turkey never will agree to such a reasonable solution, and Washington never will propose it. The American foreign policy establishment is a football team trying to win a game while the stadium burns down around them. There are 51 diplomats at the State Department who still believe that American can incubate a moderate Sunni opposition in Syria to oppose the Assad regime.
Demographics is not destiny (a banal dictum attributed to the French positivist Auguste Comte). As Heraclitus said, character is destiny, and Turkey’s character is the problem. The Kurds have twice as many children as ethnic Turks, so many that in one generation half of Turkey’s military age men will speak Kurdish as a first language. Turkey today is wrestling with its destiny. Its fate is sealed: it will become a minor Mediterranean power, a sort of second-rate Spain or Italy, with a declining workforce, a weak currency, and a reputation for political turmoil. But it has a choice to make concerning its national character. Turkey could accept and adapt to the mediocrity of its circumstances and live with its neighbors in peace and a modest degree of prosperity, or it could rage against its fate and fail in grand style. Sadly, the choice seems inevitable, and wrong. It will flair and flounder in pursuit of an unattainable national grandeur, and its neighbors will have to sort it out.
Iran remains Israel’s main strategic concern. It failed to dissuade the United States from concluding a nuclear deal with Iran that empowers Iran, in Jerusalem’s view. Russia and China could constrain Iran’s military ambitions, and Israel in the future might look to Moscow and Beijing for help in this regard.
Unlike Russia, China has every reason to avoid direct involvement in the region: It lacks the regional knowledge that Russia gained during three centuries of war with the Turks, it does not have the military capacity for expeditionary forces on the ground, and it lacks the diplomatic and intelligence capabilities to deal with the complexities of local politics. As the dominant economic power on the Eurasian continent, though, China has the means to uplift the economies of the region. As Prof. Valori writes, “Israel, jointly with the Russian Federation, will be able to project globally. In the future, there will be a place for Israel in the Chinese One-Belt, One-Road Initiative in Central Asia, in India, even in Latin America and in some African areas.”
China’s economic vision for the Eurasian continent is a long-range affair and still rather abstract. More pressing are Chinese concerns about the spread of Islamist terrorism into Asia. As Christina Lin reported in Asia Times June 15, the Syrian civil war has become a magnet for South and Southeast Asian Muslims, many of them already radicalized by Saudi-financed religious schools in their region.
China already has its hands full with Uyghur terrorists in its Muslim-majority Western province of Xinjiang. A “southern route” through Thailand and Myanmar channels Uyghur terrorists in Southeast Asia. If the Uyghurs were to link up with home-grown jihadists in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, Chinese security officials fear, the security problem might metastasize.
This confluence of interests makes possible a Pax Sinica in the Middle East. It would not be conceivable if American policy were not so utterly misguided.