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Lessons from General Soleimani’s Death

Feb 03, 2020
  • Zhou Bo

    Senior Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

soleimani funeral iran.jpg

Few people outside Iran, including me, knows much about the Achaemenid or Sassanian or Safavid dynasties, the prime time of the Persian Empire. But when President Trump warned that 52 Iranian cultural sites would be “hit very fast and hard” if Tehran retaliated for the killing of General Qasem Soleimani, I felt as if he was threatening to bombard the sites in the Arabian Nights, the bedside stories we grew up with.

Such a threat by an American president is almost as appalling as the killing of General Soleimani itself, especially if it indicates how a superpower might behave without regard for international law in the days to come.

The Taliban deliberately bombarded the Bamiyan Buddha in Afghanistan in 2001, a group affiliated with al-Qaida destroyed ancient religious monuments in Timbuktu, Mali, in 2012 (which the International Criminal Court took on as a unique criminal case), and ISIS fighters destroyed significant parts of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra in 2015.

Has America’s moral high ground fallen to appear only at the end of Hollywood blockbusters?

A couple of years ago, I heard two questions that I thought were most interesting at an international conference: If China’s ascent and America’s decline are inevitable, could China create an international order that the Chinese are happy with but foreigners could also live in? And if the abuse of force by the United States has brought on world catastrophes, how can China make a difference?

China today looks like a magician wearing three hats at the same time — a socialist country with the Chinese characteristics, a developing country with GDP per capita of $10,000 and the second-largest economy in the world. This could be confusing, understandably.

The first hat is easiest to explain. If miracles have color, it must be red. No country has benefited more from globalization than China in the last 40 years since it decided to reform and open up to the world. This explains why, as a socialist country, Beijing has vowed to safeguard the current international order, which to a great extent was designed by the West after World War II. Further, China has become a champion of multilateralism. It has demonstrated potential for leadership on issues of global concern ranging from multi-polarity to climate change and the development of artificial intelligence.

The confusion is increased when the second and third hats are put together. How to balance the seemingly contradictory roles of a developing country and the second-largest economy in the world? China has said that it would make contributions to the world in line with its actual national strength. This is usually taken to mean that China’s contributions will be limited to that of a developing country, but this is the wrong conclusion. Since China’s national strength is bound to grow, it can certainly contribute more to the world, especially because it is widely assumed that in 10 to 15 years China will surpass the United States to become the largest economy in the world.

If China’s ascent and America’s decline are indeed inevitable, China should resist the temptation to fill in the “vacuums” left by America. These vacuums could easily turn out to be traps, particularly in the Middle East. Nowhere else on Earth has seen so many conflicts, proxy wars and major power rivalries. China’s non-interference may not be what the warring parties or nations there need the most, but its impartiality is trusted by all parties in the Middle East precisely because they believe China is not allied with any one of them.

So far, China’s operations overseas, such as peacekeeping, counter-piracy and disaster relief, have been mainly humanitarian in nature. This is not a coincidence. For Beijing, the aim is helping rather than policing the world. It is hard to imagine in any circumstance in which the PLA would use its drones to assassinate a foreign leader, let alone in a third country.

Beijing’s contribution to global security is not necessarily what it has done but equally what it surely won’t do to the world. This is not just because non-intervention in the affairs of other nations is enshrined in the UN charter. It is underlined in China’s foreign policy.

If the world were a jungle of trees, perhaps it would be better to let a devastated region recover naturally, as with Mother Nature, given that external interference is often a force of destruction rather than construction. For example, the United States has been fighting in Afghanistan for 18 years. More than 2,300 of its troops have died and more than 20,000 wounded in the longest war in American history. Yet, Afghanistan is no safer than it was 18 years ago, and there is no foreseeable peace in sight. By comparison, since 1990 the Chinese PLA has sent around 40,000 peacekeepers on 24 UN peacekeeping missions around the world, but only 13 of them have died.

What does an ideal world order look like to the Chinese? Unlike Pax Britannia in the 19th century and Pax Americana in the 20th century, the 21st century will not be shrouded in Pax Sinica, as some people have assumed. Despite the awesome buildup of the PLA, the Chinese military won’t catch up with the Americans until at least midcentury, if it’s possible at all. Nowadays, amid accelerating globalization and persuasive technological advances, no single civilization can dominate the world. Every culture is a hybrid. Yes, the world will have more Chinese elements, but China will be equally colored with more international hues.

Some scholars in China talk about an ancient Chinese vision of world order — “humane authority,” or wangdao. This is fine if the word represents China as an enlightened and benevolent power willing to fulfill other countries’ security and economic needs, but it is wrong if it suggests that China does all this as a hegemon in exchange for deference.

What might be closest to humane authority is the authority of the UN. Despite problems such as bureaucracy and low efficiency, which are criticized from time to time, the largest intergovernmental organization in the world represents the international community better than any other organizations and therefore should be strengthened rather than weakened. In this regard, China has rightly increased its financial contribution to the UN and the number of standby peacekeepers.

Thank goodness Trump’s threat has proved hollow, but the price Washington paid for General Soleimani’s death will be more than Tehran’s retaliatory missile attacks at American bases in Iraq. The genie is out of the bottle.

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