Remember the pivot to Asia? The big signature move of first-term Obama foreign policy? Some called it a “strategic rebalancing.” We were going to reset our priorities, put the conflicts of the Middle East behind us, and devote big efforts to creating and implementing a strategy to deal with the vital strategic moves America needed to make to account for the rise of the world’s fastest-growing region.
As it happened, and as anyone with eyes could see, after its champions like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon left their jobs in Barack Obama’s administration, the initiative lost steam. Since 2013, there have been little more than assertions that the pivot was still pivoting — even though there was precious little concrete evidence to that effect. (See below for a brief note on one of the few significant Asia-Pacific efforts, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.) The region the administration had so hoped to pivot away from, the Middle East, was still sucking up every bit and bite of excess bandwidth, and top officials in the administration just weren’t able to muster up anything much more than symbolic gestures or relatively small initiatives to demonstrate America’s reprioritization of Asia at the top of its foreign-policy to-do list.
A funny thing happened though. While we went from pivot to pirouette in the Middle East — trying to spin away but being drawn right back around to where we started — the countries in the region, allies and adversaries alike, nonetheless saw an America that was trying to get out, lean back, or lead from behind. When Washington acted, it was in response to a crisis, and even then, mostly what it did was appear to try as hard as possible to do as little as possible. The administration’s one big Middle East initiative, the push for a nuclear deal with Iran, was seen by virtually all of our traditional allies in that neck of the woods as something even worse than the Asia rebalancing that they worried was a sign of American disengagement. To them, from Israel to the Gulf, it was seen as a pivot not out of the region but to an enemy within it.
Unsettled by the spinning, tottering superpower in their midst or perhaps motivated by its apparent dizziness, many of the most important countries of the Middle East decided to do what America apparently would not: They began to execute their own turn to Asia, or in some cases they just accelerated a trend that had already begun. As one regional leader told me recently, “We need a dependable relationship with a major power. If the United States can’t be counted on, then we will have to turn elsewhere.”
The result has been growing, strengthening Chinese (as well as, to a lesser extent, Indian, Japanese, and South Korean) relations with many of the countries of the greater Middle East. While the conflict in Yemen undid recent plans for Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit Saudi Arabia and Egypt, it was only a hiccup in a constant stream of visits of Middle Eastern leaders to China and vice versa. Over the past year, Chinese leaders have been flocking to the Middle East, along with nearby and strategically important neighbors like Pakistan. In fact, Xi’s visit to Islamabad this month is a perfect illustration of the impact of such exchanges. During the trip, the Chinese, who sometimes speak of the Pakistanis as their “iron brothers” and view them as a critical strategic pathway to the resources of the Middle East and a counterbalance to Indian rivals, promised $46 billion in investment in Pakistan — early triple the total foreign direct investment injected into Pakistan since 2008, according to the BBC. Projects included big commitments in energy, transportation, and telecommunications.
China’s special relationship with Israel
Pakistan is not an isolated example, even if it is a striking one. China’s commerce minister was an important player at the recent Sharm el-Sheikh summit focusing on investment in Egypt, and the two countries have also conducted multiple recent high-level meetings to promote ties. Last year, a touted “China week” in Israel featuring a visit of China’s deputy prime minister came with new promises of investment and cooperation, including a joint research project between Tel Aviv University and China’s Tsinghua University. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, who traveled to China the year before, has explicitly prioritized strengthening ties with Beijing, a decision one senior Israeli official told me was “clearly intended to send a message to the United States.” During the China week, Netanyahu celebrated what he called the “huge growth of cooperation and connections between Israel and China.” Earlier this month, the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth ran an article asserting that the “crisis” in U.S.-Israel relations has pushed China and Israel closer.
The ties take other forms as well. One official from the Gulf noted just last week that when they have trouble getting defense technologies from the United States, one of the first places they turn is China. (The Chinese media this week celebrated the fact that it was Chinese-made PLZ-45 self-propelled missiles that Saudi forces used to attack Houthi militants in Yemen.)
Bit by bit, the deals, visits, and connections all add up to something greater. Today, China is, according to the CIA’s World Factbook, both Iran’s No. 1 trading partner (by far) and also the top partner of Iran’s sworn rivals in Saudi Arabia. It is the No. 2 trading partner of Israel and Pakistan (if you count Hong Kong). China’s oil imports from the region are up, with March imports from Iran 15 percent higher than they were a year ago. Beijing and Tehran have discussed ways to cooperate on civilian nuclear power, and ties between the governments are close and getting closer. China and India are seen as likely leading consumers of new Iranian oil that might come to market once sanctions against that country are lifted in a possible nuclear deal. Indeed, their appetite for oil is such that many analysts have rightly noted that if energy trade grows as expected, both countries would become aggressive opponents to the reimposition of sanctions against Tehran should it violate the nuclear deal. In other words, they might well be in a position to take the “snap” out of any “snap back” provisions the United States might seek to insert in the terms of a final arrangement to roll back and hit pause on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Beijing’s strategic clarity
While the countries of the Middle East have turned to China for economic benefits, arms trade, technology, and the strategic value the ties may bring, the Chinese have not just welcomed the arrangement — they have sought it out. As elsewhere — and unlike the United States just about everywhere — they have a very clear strategy to increase their influence. The Middle East has a central role to play in Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy to increase land and sea ties to vital economies in Central Asia, in the Middle East, and onward to Europe. Middle Eastern energy resources are absolutely central to this strategy. And the deftness of the Chinese at being able to maintain and strengthen relations with countries at odds with each other — e.g., Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel — is a sign of the seriousness with which they approach the mission.
A recent milestone in this strategy is the triumphant announcement of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) — a financial institution created by the Chinese to help extend their influence and foster regional growth. The Obama administration fought the establishment of the AIIB (seeking to bully allies into staying out of it) so ineffectively and maladroitly that one Asian diplomat told me this week that the entire case ought to be studied in schools as an example of how not to conduct foreign policy. Washington appeared reactive, disorganized, and impotent. The Chinese used the institution’s rollout to send a message: Not only did America’s allies like Britain, France, and Germany sign up as founding members, but so did Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. And if that wasn’t enough of a slap in the face, the kicker was the announcement of Iranian membership on April 3 — just as the United States was trying to hold firm on applying economic pressure on Iran in order to secure the final steps in negotiations on the nuclear deal.
Although the Middle East’s pivot to Asia is being reciprocated by the Chinese, don’t think for a second that Beijing wants to assume the role once played by the United States or other major world powers that have sought to influence outcomes in the Middle East. That is because they are smart. They actually read history and think about the long arc of time. It is also because they do not work the same way as the intrusive, heavy-handed powers of the West. China’s leadership today insinuates itself into power; it does not covet the limelight; and it is not interested in the great games of empire or nation-building that have proved so costly and ill-fated for the United States, the British, and others.
Harvard University’s wise scholar Joseph Nye may have landed on a crucial insight in his definition of the utility of soft power. But he also did the world a bit of an unintentional disservice in coining and popularizing the term. Soft power is not something less than hard power — even if it sounds that way. It brings with it real influence and in many ways provides a better foundation for effective long-term relationships than does the use or threat of force.
Fortunately, Beijing has largely eschewed the application of hard power thus far in its current era of ascendancy. But it has carefully gained power of the softer variety through its cultivation of economic and political ties, used sparingly but effectively. It may not have seemed like a big deal to the world when China stopped buying Norwegian salmon after the Nobel Peace Prize was given by a Norwegian parliament-appointed committee to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. But it squeezed Oslo so hard it’s taken almost five years for the Norwegian government to undo the damage.
Stepping up to the plate
Should Washington welcome China’s new role in the Middle East? Some in the let-the-rest-of-the-world-clean-up-its-own-messes-for-a-while camp might welcome this. Good luck to the Chinese, they might say, given the costs and frustrations associated with the Middle East. But don’t be too quick to leap to such conclusions. Washington’s loss of influence to China in the still vitally important and volatile region could in the decades ahead prove decisive in a wide variety of potential great-power confrontations or regional crises — and not just to us but to our allies in Europe, India, or Japan.
As China is demonstrating, involvement in the Middle East does not always have to be costly or foolhardy. While Beijing may yet repeat the errors of those that came before in the last hundred years, it is certainly a force to be reckoned with (and not exactly new to the region: Mongol armies reached as far as Gaza in the late 13th century). But China’s growing clout relative to America’s in that part of the world will not be something that is lightly dismissed by anyone with any strategic sensibility at all — anyone who can look beyond today’s headlines and imagine the emerging strategic rivalries and successor conflicts of tomorrow.
As a footnote to the above, it should be noted that the progress the Obama administration has made in the past week toward gaining trade promotion authority, a crucial step toward the ultimate approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, is welcome. This deal does not an Asia pivot make. But it will help integrate the United States more into the region, speed the creation of vital U.S. export-related jobs, and help set standards for the Chinese as they seek to become even more of a global economic leader. The work done by U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman on this deal has been tireless and exemplary, and he, along with Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Export-Import Bank Chairman and President Fred Hochberg, represent one of the Obama administration’s underappreciated secret weapons — a strong, active, talented, and capable international economic team.