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Times collide in Beijing's strategic vision

2014-07-03 14:45Asia Times

The United States has reasons of its own to be both interested in and nervous about solving nuclear proliferation issues in North Korea and Iran, but China's need for peaceful development and growth means it has more at stake. Perceptions of a political situation that no longer applies still seem to be shaping Beijing's thinking about the future. - Francesco Sisci

BEIJING - In the cold winter of year 202#, General Wang Shuqing contemplated his options and shook his head. God had granted China's long-standing wish: the US had moved out of Asia because of a very complex mix of American systemic domestic economic and social troubles, but things for Beijing were now much worse on the continent than a decade before.

To the east, Kim Jong-eun, fast approaching middle age but not wisdom, had just once more blackmailed Beijing by selling its nuclear technology to Asian countries hostile to China and firing a new set of missiles over South Korea.

To the west, Iran threatened a nuclear experiment. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia had separately informed China they were ready to bomb Iranian facilities in that event and demanded Beijing to intervene or face a possible war and oil blockade in the region. The prospect would stifle the Chinese economy, which had grown so dependent on Middle Eastern oil and gas.

On North Korea, ties and patience had grown so thin that the Central Committee seriously considered the option of invading it to be done with it. A small, contained conflict of which most would approve would be better than carrying on with years of harassment and blackmail.

On Iran, the calculations were more complicated. Beijing had no stomach for a fight or any intervention, but two China's crucial partners in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia, were pressing hard for an attack, saying basically, either you do it or we'll do it. It was the position the US had to face a decade before, but in the meantime it had become far more urgent and prickly as the whole region, from North Africa to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was in flames. As a result, Beijing was also considering a bombing, but how?

This is clearly science fiction, there is no general Wang Shuqing and the future is still very open. It is also improbable that the US will  move out of Asia in a decade or even more. But it is not totally impossible and the story serves to illustrate a simple fact often disguised by the daily chronicles: the US for several reasons may be both interested in and nervous about solving the nuclear proliferation  issue in North Korea and Iran, but geographically and in terms of resources the US is far from either.

China conversely is geographically near to both, and partly dependent on energy supplies from Iran. That is, in reality there are far less practical considerations pushing America to solve those issues, and even just addressing them now helps China more than it may care to admit.

It is in fact China, the rising country in Asia, that needs peaceful development in the region to carry on with its growth. And yet, according to the public perception, Beijing is doing too little too late with either country when in fact Beijing has all the objective reasons to be more not less eager than Washington to solve these problems.

It seems that the perception of the past political situation is still shaping Beijing's strategic thinking.

On North Korea, things are very complicated. Ties with the South are better as long gone are the days when China and North Korea were like "lips and teeth". But any direct military intervention with the North could cause Pyongyang to take military action against Seoul. The southern capital, only a few miles from the northern border, is well within the range of the thousands of guns aimed at the city center. A cryptic regime, where even the uncle of the present leader and dozens of his followers were killed without apparent reason, makes it hard to gauge what pressure is too little or too much to bring Kim to reason and back to talks.

Here some Americans may not appreciate the finesse required and complicated nature of the situation - Beijing and Seoul seem more in tune with each other, and Japan may have an interest in prodding America against China, stressing its neighbor's faults. But certainly Beijing could benefit from greater communication and information disclosure with Washington. Moreover, Beijing often takes an almost fatalistic attitude toward North Korea, which may be right and fitting with reality, but plays badly in the international media.

Things in Iran are radically different. In the 1990s, when America relied on fuel imports from the Middle East, the fact that Iran could influence and disrupt those flows of oil was critically important for Washington, so China could think of abetting Iran to pressure Washington into a more relaxed approach with Taiwan, then a very delicate predicament for Beijing.

But now these two elements are no longer there. Taiwan is no longer a problem for Beijing, and the US, with its shale gas, no longer has a vital stake in peace in the Middle East. Conversely, China has grown more dependent on fuel from the Middle East - it may need to build a new railway line from China to the Mediterranean through Iran and has a burgeoning partnership with Israel and Saudi Arabia (who feel Tehran is a threat) - and thus it has a growing stake in solving the Iranian nuclear issue. In other words, there are all the ingredients for China to seek coordination with Washington in trying to solve this crisis.

China may also be in a better position in trying to mediate between all the different actors. Without a real history in the region and with warmer ties with Moscow, whose presence is growing in Tehran, China could start afresh with some creative thinking to try to improve the situation before Israel - perhaps secretly begged by the Saudis - bombs Iranian nuclear facilities.

There may be not too much time left for this coordination on Iran. Iran's nuclear pursuit may have been the main reason for scuttling the agreement between Israel and Palestinians on a new Palestinian government with Fatah and Hamas. Israel is growing more and more skeptical that Tehran is really willing to bring its nuclear program under international control and might decide to act alone; or Russia, trying to create new problems for the US in retribution for Ukraine, might do something funny and inventive with Tehran. All these possibilities may be somewhat irksome for America, but they would blow up in China's face, damaging its fuel flow and the prospect of a southern railroad to the Mediterranean Sea.

This would all be bad enough without contemplating the possibility of America's withdrawal from Asia, something that would drop everything on China's unprepared lap, and turn Wang Shuqing's concerns into reality. 

Francesco Sisci is a Senior Researcher associated with the Center for European Studies at the People's University in Beijing. The opinions expressed are his own and do not represent in any way those of the Center.


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