Fifty years ago, in a moment of reflection, Richard Nixon said he feared that he had created “a Frankenstein by opening the world to the Chinese Communist Party.” Recent developments in the Middle East show that Nixon’s concerns were not only justified, but may even have been understated.
Although China and Iran are very different countries, they have certain problems in common: both have been hit very hard by the virus, are experiencing severe economic problems, and are desperately seeking solutions to them. And there is one more thing they share: a desire to undermine America’s influence in the Middle East.
In late July, both nations agreed to a deal that greatly expands their economic and military ties. By some estimates the deal could ultimately be worth $400 billion or more.
Both nations benefit. China, the world’s biggest importer of oil, gets a much-needed supply of energy at heavily discounted prices for the next 25 years. It will also gain access to many more areas of Iran’s economy and to the region as a whole. Iran’s economy, in tatters because of US-imposed sanctions, will get desperately needed revenues.
The deal goes far in undermining those sanctions. “Iran and China both view this deal as a strategic partnership in not just expanding their own interests but confronting the U.S.,” said Ali Gholizadeh, an Iranian energy researcher at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei.
But according to The New York Times, the most worrisome aspect of the deal is the growing military cooperation between these countries. The deal calls for joint military training and exercises, research and weapons development, and intelligence sharing. It also allows China’s navy use of Kish Island, a strategic Iranian island in the Persian Gulf.
“The investment and security pact would vastly extend China’s influence in the Middle East, throwing Iran an economic lifeline and creating new flash points with the United States,” said The Times.
By aligning itself with one of America’s most vocal enemies, China is openly defying US interests. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that China is also making the world’s waterways much less secure for worldwide commerce. Moreover, the deal increases tensions between Iran on the one hand and both the Saudis and Israel on the other.
Of particular concern is China’s growing nuclear cooperation with Iran. This is not a new development. The Globalist reports that as far back as 1991, China secretly exported “natural uranium” to Iran which was used in experiments to test parts of the uranium conversion process. And it also provided a uranium conversion facility (UCF) to the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran, as well as documents for conversion processes and engineering designs.
Iran also acquired small research reactors and laser enrichment equipment from China. In 1992, Iran purchased light water reactors and a large research reactor capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons.
China subsequently yielded to pressure from the US and severed its nuclear ties with Iran. However, Iran was able to continue its nuclear program with the Chinese UCF it already owned. Over the last several years, China has agreed to build at least five nuclear plants in Iran, although US pressure has either slowed or stopped that from happening.
Not Just Any Old Port
Another concern about the new China-Iran deal is proposed ports in Iran. One of those is just outside the Straits of Hormuz. The Straits are strategic because much of the world’s oil flows through it. Some western and Japanese oil tankers passing through have already come under attack from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The Straits are also important because the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, headquartered in Bahrain, pass through them.
Working Both Sides Of The Street At Once
Although China has seemingly allied itself with Iran, to show its impartiality it is also doing a very brisk military business with Iran’s nemesis: Saudi Arabia.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the Saudis, with Chinese help, have built a plant to process uranium ore. The plant will produce “yellowcake,” a form of uranium that is necessary for both nuclear power reactors and atomic bombs.
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who actually runs the country, told news program “60 Minutes” that “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire a nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran develops one we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
The Saudis have also updated their Chinese-built long-range missiles that are believed capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Last year, China was discovered to be building a nuclear missile factory in the Saudi desert.
What have all of these developments led to? The Saudis have to contend with a more powerful Iran; Iran has to contend with a more powerful Saudi Arabia; and the US is concerned about rising nuclear tensions in the region. But China is raking in many billions, and extending its presence and influence in the region while improving its relations with these countries.
Incidentally, these are not the only nuclear-related developments in the region. In 2015, China and Jordan agreed to strengthen their nuclear cooperation. China is also cooperating with Turkey for construction of nuclear power plants in that country. Russia is deeply involved in this trade and, to a lesser extent, so is South Korea.
According to The Globalist, “It is clear that Beijing would grab every opportunity it can to expand its nuclear energy market in the Middle East. China’s early assistance with Iran’s controversial and often-covert nuclear program ended up encouraging a regional push toward nuclear programs – with China at the ready to supply.”
China’s growing military trade in the region could lead to a repeat of these problems, only now on a much grander scale.
About 2,500 years ago, a Chinese general, military strategist, and thinker named Sun Tzu wrote a small book called The Art of War, which is considered the definitive text about warfare and strategy. The book is analyzed at military academies around the world as well as corporate boardrooms and universities. It is even studied by sports coaches and armchair philosophers.
Back in 2014, Forbes summarized some of the strategies in that book: “Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting… Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win. The supreme art of war is to subdue your enemy without fighting.”
Is China using Sun Tzu’s strategies to compete more effectively with America and to expand its influence further in the Middle East? Is China effectively winning this war? I wonder how Richard Nixon would answer these questions.