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Part Two: The Strategic Challenge – Adversarial Regional Powers

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By William Tucker

The U.S. is preparing to draw down forces in Afghanistan so that it can deal with three nations that have become increasingly aggressive in the last decade. These nations – Russia, China, and Iran – have made great strides in their national designs, and for the most part, have done so with limited opposition. For its part, Russia is pursuing a goal that complicates the U.S. relationship with Europe, but it does not necessarily constitute an immediate threat. For this article we’ll spend most of our time on China and Iran. Keep in mind that these nations are regional powers and are unlikely to rise above that description. The U.S. simply doesn’t have a peer competitor on the global stage. This doesn’t mean that U.S. interests cannot be challenged, however.

China

China, like most other nations, is struggling through the global financial crisis. Despite having an economy growing at rate of nearly ten percent annually, China is spending money as fast as it is pouring in. This is a problem for China as it makes the nation more vulnerable to economic downturns in Western nations that indulge in China’s cheap exports. This predicament is not lost on the powers that be in Beijing. Over the past decade China has sought to expand militarily and push out into disputed areas without concern of an aggressive U.S. response. Although the U.S. and China are bound together economically, this will increase the animosity between the two nations rather than diminish it.

China’s goal is to spread its influence throughout the waters off its borders and claim whatever disputed areas it can. What has prevented China from doing so in the past is the presence of Japan and other strong nations in the region backed by the naval power of the U.S. In the midst of the War on Terror the U.S. put increased pressure its East Asian allies to keep China in check while Washington attended to matters elsewhere. China responded in a predictable way by using levers such as North Korea to keep its regional rivals off balance.

What has been a useful tool for China has become more of a burden, however. In May of this year the UN stated that North Korea had a very limited amount of food and was likely to run out in a few weeks time. According to several reports yesterday, this has already happened. North Korea has become increasingly reliant on China for food and fuel, a situation that Pyongyang absolutely hates, and the lack of support from Beijing is curious. China views North Korea not only as a useful nuisance, but also as a military buffer. If the Korean peninsula were united under a Western friendly government, China, in the event of hostilities, could find its capital cutoff by a naval blockade at the southern reaches of the Yellow Sea. In the event that China loses its access to the sea its economy will grind to a halt.

The U.S. has long understood this predicament of the Chinese. It’s for this reason that Washington has felt comfortable enough to engage Beijing as far back as Nixon’s famous visit. With the U.S. trying to emerge from its South Asian entanglements and the disastrous situation in North Korea, China is running out of time. But there is one lever that remains for China – bogging the U.S. down in the Middle East. To do this it will turn to another rising power that has been a thorn in the side of the U.S. since 1979.

Iran

The relationship between China and Iran is rather practical. China needs oil while Iran needs technology and military assistance. Of course this view is rather simplistic, but it suits the needs of this discussion. This cooperation is not one born from any real ideological sympathies, rather Iran, China, and to a lesser extent, Russia all have a vested interest in keeping the U.S. busy. Iran can live with a small contingent of U.S. forces in the region as long as they are spread out and not countering Iranian influence. If Iran needs anything in the short term it is the withdrawal, or at least the marginalization, of the U.S. presence in Iraq. Recently, Teheran hosted an anti-terrorism summit with many of its neighbors in attendance. The summit had less to do with terrorism and was geared more toward Iran demonstrating its newly acquired status.

Iran doesn’t want to challenge the U.S. conventionally, but it has no problem using proxies to wage a protracted guerilla campaign against Washington’s interests. This has been seen in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and to a limited extent, in Yemen. For Tehran this is a low risk/high reward gambit. It can spread its influence and destabilize its Sunni neighbors without spending the blood and treasure of a conventional deployment. Iran doesn’t have an expeditionary military anyway, so the limited engagement approach works just fine for the regime.

Like China, Iran’s room to maneuver is facing some problems – most notably in Syria. As a long standing ally of Iran, Syria was a natural target for nations, such as Saudi Arabia, to stir the pot in the midst of the unrest throughout the Arab world. Syria is vital to Iranian designs since it allows for access to Lebanon, and by extension, Hezbollah. Without a meaningful U.S. troop presence in Iraq, Iran has the capability of bending the governments of Iraq and Syria to its will. Doing so will grant Tehran the ability to play puppet master through the heart of the Middle East and into the Levant.

Tehran has gone so far as to threaten both Saudi Arabia and Turkey, two regional powers, with reprisal if they meddle in Syrian affairs. Because of the Kurdish issue, Turkey doesn’t have a choice but to pursue an end to the uprising in Syria – even if it means supporting the replacement of the al-Assad regime (something that is still unlikely at this point). Saudi Arabia on the other hand, has a large Shia population in the east and is physically too close to Iran to refrain from undermining Tehran’s interest.

Although these two regional powers have come a long way in the last decade they will face a United States committed to reversing these trends of the last few years. Tomorrow we’ll look at Washington’s long held strategy of pinning down potential rivals to the Eurasian landmass and the tools the U.S. will use to accomplish this goal.

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