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Foreign Policy

Sino-American and Russian Relations: President Trump’s Unilateral Actions in the Middle East Helped China to Replace the US as the Force for Good

Feb 02, 2020
  • Patrick Mendis

    Visiting Professor of Global Affairs, National Chengchi University


When the US assassinated Iranian General Qassem Suleimani in Iraq, Teheran leaders ordered a series of missile attacks on the American military bases in Iraq in response. Fear of escalating asymmetric warfare, President Donald Trump threatened to target 52 Iranian assets, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) sites in the Islamic Republic. The number refers to 52 American hostages held in Iran during the 1979 revolution.

In his phone call to Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi condemned the “military adventurist act by the US,” adding that it “goes against basic norms governing international relations and will aggravate tensions and turbulence in the region.” Tehran then stated that Beijing could “play an important role in preventing escalation of regional tensions” and would supplant the increasingly unreliable and erratic United States.

When the Iraqi parliament voted to expel all American military forces, Trump threatened Iraqi leaders with economic sanctions. The consequences of such action would force both Iran and Iraq to more closely align with Russia and China. Beyond isolating the US, their collective political agenda is to make Washington less influential in global geopolitics and increasingly irrelevant in geo-economic power and military posture in the region.

America Alone

When President Trump unilaterally decided on the assassination order, additional economic sanctions, and the American withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord, China and Russia were then presented with new opportunities to gradually remove US footprints in the region with the support of Iran and Iraq. China has a greater geo-economic lead over the US, while Russia continues to create closer military and diplomatic links with Iran, Iraq, and other countries.

This is not to minimize the fact that China has supplied arms to Iran, including small arms, tactical ballistic, and anti-ship cruise missiles like the Silkworm. In early January 2020, Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Iranian counterpart that the two countries should jointly oppose America’s “unilateralism and bullying.”

Similar to the Sino-Iranian relationship built on trade, weapons, and oil, China has now emerged as the strongest collaborator with Iraq. A partner of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Iraq’s total trade with China exceeded $30 billion in 2018. China is the largest trading partner of Iraq and the second biggest importer of Iraq’s oil.

During his visit to Beijing in September 2019, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said that China will be “a quantum leap” in Sino-Iraqi relations after the two countries signed eight comprehensive agreements on culture, defense, diplomacy, education, finance, reconstruction, security, and trade. Unlike the Russia–Syria–Iran–Iraq coalition with reactions to the White House’s unpredictable actions, China’s inroads into Iraq had deliberately been planned and engaged in bilateral diplomacy through the BRI framework.

With the latest US-Iran escalation, China certainly foresees greater opportunities to expand its influence in the region. For many – including former CIA director Michael Hayden –  Trump is either a “Russian asset” or a “useful idiot,” as the consequences of the president’s decisions in Iraq have now become welcome news for Bagdad and Teheran to make Washington less important to the regional stakeholders, except for Israel.

Converging Powers

After the imposition of crippling sanctions on Iran, China and Russia have continued barter-like arrangements for Iranian oil to avoid the dollar system. More significantly, however, the increasing convergence of trilateral joint naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman is a direct challenge to American influence and military posture in the Middle East. “The most important achievement of these drills . . . is this message that the Islamic republic of Iran cannot be isolated,” said Iranian Vice Admiral Gholamreza Tahani in December 2019. The naval commander then added, “These exercises show that relations between Iran, Russia, and China have reached a new high level, while this trend will continue in the coming years.”

In June 2019, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met with Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Kyrgyzstan. The joint naval exercises and commercial diplomacy have served them well in their win-win trilateral strategy:

1. Russia validates itself as the primary geopolitical actor in the region with Putin’s recent success in Syria and Turkey;

2. China demonstrates itself as the key geo-economic and global naval power with having its first military base in nearby Djibouti; and

3. Iran acting as the regional power in the Middle East to counterbalance the American-led coalition with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Their commercial and diplomatic links with China and Russia have, indeed, become stronger since the Trump administration.

Australia and the United Kingdom have agreed to send their warships to safeguard the oil shipments in international waterways and to preserve the freedom of navigation. However, other European allies, frustrated by Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of the nuclear pact and the climate change accord, are closely working with Chinese and Russian leaders. When Trump became the first American president to explicitly reject “American exceptionalism,” his unilateral actions and these trends have begun to demonstrate that Russia is the “indispensable nation” in the Middle East and elsewhere. 

American Vision

To many of these world leaders, the United States is largely isolated diplomatically and bankrupt morally. For them, the killing of the Iranian general was a carefully choreographed “action of choice,” as opposed to than an “action of necessity,” intended to rally Trump’s evangelical and conservative base to influence the Senate impeachment trial and to exonerate the impeached president. The timing of his assassination order without credible evidence to support “imminent danger” has also raised legal issues within American laws and international conventions.

In light of President Trump’s actions, it is worth reflecting on the American vision and its founding role in the world. The inspiring wisdom comes from the American statesman John Quincy Adams – a Minister, Secretary of State, President, and Congressman. As the top diplomat, Secretary of State Adams said in 1821 that the United States “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.” That kind of American mission, authenticity, and goodness in human relations must first be employed in order for the US to find its roots and to become the force for good in world affairs.

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