While Western powers including the United States harshly criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin's muscular military intervention in the civil war-torn country of Syria, the visit to nearby Iran by China's top admiral, Sun Jianguo, only adds to all this international confusion and anxiety. If anything, China's renewed interest in the Islamic republic so readily vilified by American politicians confirms Washington's ambiguous foreign policy and the obvious decline of U.S. leadership in the region.
Make no mistake: A high-level visit to Iran from the emerging global power portends significant changes to the geopolitical landscape -- and not only in the Middle East. Admiral Jianguo's overtures stamp China's stated desire to deepen its ties with Iran. The question the United States should now be pondering: What does China's increase footprint in the Middle East imply? Is China's move to increase ties with Iran merely an extension of its economic pre-eminence -- or is it one that heralds an inevitable expansion of its military power well beyond Iran?
The answer is yes -- and yes again.
Before I expand on this vital issue, let's delve deeper into why China's decision to forge ties with Iran matters.
Economically, China considers Iran its largest petroleum supplier. Given its huge appetite for energy, required to support its vast economic machine, it makes sense for China to tighten relations with Iran. This comes on the heels of Iran's breakthrough with the West over its nuclear aspirations and the subsequent lifting of economic sanctions.
While U.S. lawmakers dicker over the deal, Europe has already begun laying groundwork for removal of economic sanctions. For instance, the Swiss Federal Council has requested that its economics ministry explore "new perspectives for cooperation with Iran." China's role behind the scenes in helping craft Iran's nuclear deal with the West is paying off, dividing at least some political elements in the United States from their allies in Europe.
Militarily, deputy chief of staff of the People's Liberation Army, Jianguo has expressed his nation's desire to also strengthen military ties with Iran. Following last year's naval exercises in the region -- during which Chinese warships docked at Iran's Bandar Abbas port and an Iranian admiral was given a tour of a Chinese submarine -- Jianguo's comments highlight China's desire to expand not only its diplomatic outreach but flex some muscle.
And consider the significance of Iranian defense minister Hossein Dehghan's statement of its Chinese relations: "Developing military relations between both countries will reinforce stability and security on either ends of the Asian continent." This suggests military rapprochement between Tehran and Beijing reflects a shared vision with different objectives.
Strategically, don't be surprised if and when Iran and China enter into a treaty in which Tehran allows Beijing to establish a military presence either on Iranian territory (a geostrategic location of tremendous significance) or near the Strait of Hormuz (a major international waterway for global oil shipments). The United States has long played a role in ensuring the strait is clear of any conflict.
These dynamics compel, I hope, Washington to return to the drawing board and reconsider its foreign policy options. Indeed, tensions are already running high. The Pentagon ordered deployment of U.S. warships, including the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen, near the 12-mile radius of China's so-called "artificial islands" in the South China Sea -- formerly underwater reefs ingeniously built up into islands by the Chinese and now envisioned as bolstering territorial claims in neighboring waters.
Beijing has issued a stern warning to Washington and summoned the U.S. ambassador to China for a formal accounting. China's reaction -- at least initially -- is nonetheless one of cool restraint. However, it is my belief that if and when China fires the first warning shots, it'll signal a readiness to challenge the United States militarily. The fact Beijing has developed an anti-ship missile called the Dong Feng-21 (CSS-5) that could cause catastrophic damage to U.S. vessels supports its grand show of force.
The irony in all this? While the United States' massive military presence in Asia played a major role in maintaining stability and prosperity in the region -- consider Japan and South Korea, for example -- China has arguably proven the greatest beneficiary of all. China's declaration of its sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea underscores the dramatic shift in power in the fast-changing Asia-Pacific realm.
Could Beijing's strategic calculations to forge a partnership with Iran further undermine U.S. leadership abroad? Absolutely. After all, it neatly invites the United States to take its focus off the Pacific. And China won't easily give ground in any contest. Doing so would damage its global image, status, and prestige. However, those who suggest tensions between China and the United States will escalate into any real military conflict and trigger World War III are very likely mistaken. Both nations have too much to lose.
Meanwhile, time is of the essence: U.S. policymakers involving leadership from both political parties must look past simplified rhetoric vilifying China. Whether we want to admit it or not, China is fast acquiring the political clout that goes hand in hand with its economic pre-eminence and military rise. China's wooing Iran is but one chapter in this long saga. As the sun rises over the horizon in a troubled region, the sleeping giant awakens and the Middle East will soon be saying good morning.