China’s rise giveth and China’s rise taketh away

By Daniel Drezner, Professor of International Politics, The Fletcher School

One of the things I forgot to mention in my column on Politico’s oral history of the U.S. response on Ukraine was this interesting section in which U.S officials acknowledge the limits of American influence in the world:

DEREK CHOLLET: It’s just another reminder that the U.S. can’t dictate events. We have more influence than anyone else, but ultimately, we can’t control others if they choose to do incredibly stupid things.

MATTHEW MILLER: There is sometimes this unrealistic sense that America can wave a magic wand and control the world. That’s just not true. We don’t have magic wands.

Miller’s point is both true and deeply unsettling to many inside the Beltway. I am old enough to remember 2004, when Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry got into hot water by suggesting during the campaign that U.S. hegemony might not last forever. Nearly 20 years later, not much has changed. Part of the reason some American elites are freaking out about China is because they are really freaking out about the relative standing of the United States.

I bring this up because today was a big day in people freaking out about world politics events in which the United States was a bystander.

For example, Saudi Arabia and Iran appear to have patched things up, and the actor that brokered this end of active hostility was not the U.S. — it was China. According to the New York Times’ Vivian Nereim:

After years of open hostility and proxy conflicts across the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Iran have agreed to re-establish diplomatic ties, they announced on Friday, in a significant pivot for the two regional rivals that was facilitated by China.

China hosted the talks that led to the breakthrough, highlighting Beijing’s growing role as a global economic and political power, and counterbalance to Washington — particularly in the Middle East, a region that was long shaped by the military and diplomatic involvement of the United States.

Now on the one hand, reducing tensions between two states with pretty large militaries in the Middle East would seem to be an intrinsically good thing. On the other hand, if you want the United States to maintain a functional veto over everything everywhere all at once, it’s a bit disorienting. Hence the panic in Mark Dubowitz’s quote to Nereim:

Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based research institute, described the renewed Iran-Saudi ties resulting from Chinese mediation as “a lose, lose, lose for American interests.”

He added: “It demonstrates that the Saudis don’t trust Washington to have their back, that Iran sees an opportunity to peel away American allies to end its international isolation and that China is becoming the major-domo of Middle Eastern power politics.”

To be fair to Dubowitz, there are ways in which an axis between Saudi Arabia and Iran could be deleterious for U.S. interests in the region. This cannot be welcome news in Israel, for example, although that might be hard to detect given the plethora of policy own-goals that Bibi Netanyahu’s new government is managing to execute. Still, the Sunni-Shi’a divide in the Middle East has also been extremely destabilizing. Reducing that tension might be a net positive. I suspect Dubowitz’s primary frustration is that this represents yet another failure of his preferred “maximum pressure” approach towards Iran.

A secondary frustration is that it seems the U.S. was a bystander to this policy, which implies a decline in U.S. influence. Dubowitz et al understandably believe that if the U.S. does not play a central role, bad things will always happen.

What if, however, China’s rise also triggers behavior that works in America’s favor without the United States having much in the way to do with it?

Consider this week’s other big rapprochement, between South Korea and Japan. South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol took significant steps “toward resolving a long-festering, historical dispute with Japan.” In essence, South Korea’s government agreed to compensate Korean laborers forced to work for Japanese companies during the occupation, potentially lancing a bilateral boil that had triggered a low-key trade war between the two countries.

This announcement triggered some backlash within a highly polarized South Korean electorate. So why did Yoon take the risk? According to the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin, it’s because Yoon has bigger fish to fry:

South Korea and Japan have been estranged neighbors for decades, but now they’re moving to establish a new partnership — and not because the United States told them to. Both countries are rethinking their security posture because they realize the need to counter China’s increasingly aggressive regional expansion….

The reality… is that the new moves toward cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo are not the result of what people in Washington are thinking or saying. In fact, the U.S. government wasn’t significantly involved in this diplomatic achievement, although President Biden did praise it after the fact.

Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida each took a significant political risk by opening a new chapter in their countries’ relations. But they did it because they believe that the global strategic environment is changing fast and that China’s expansion poses a challenge neither can deal with alone.

Rogin closes his column by urging for more U.S. engagement in the Pacific Rim. Given the current state of Beltway thinking on this topic, that is bound to happen. My point, however, is that while China’s rise will occasionally lead to diplomatic surprises that might worry the United States, it will also lead to surprises that might be more pleasant in nature.

This piece is republished from Drezner’s World.

Leave a Reply