All Eyes on China: U.S. Loses Interest in Mideast as Trump Completes Strategic Shift

A technological race is the name of the game

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Trump shakes hands with Xi Jinping during a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019.
Trump shakes hands with Xi Jinping during a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019.Credit: Susan Walsh/AP

Neither the prolonged tension with Iran in the Persian Gulf, nor the ups and downs in the Arab world, nor, certainly, the election race in Israel is the primary concern of the people in charge of American foreign policy, nor of the numerous experts whose livelihood is analyzing the purposes behind it and their implications. As viewed from Washington, the Middle East is merely a point of middling magnitude on the world map, whose main feature is economic and technological competition with one major world power – China. 

America’s attention shifted quite a while ago to central Asia and the negative trade balance with China. The Middle East is interesting, but moderately so. And some of the interest in it derives from the question of whether this arena, too, will succumb to the world-embracing moves Beijing is leading, as has happened in other regions.

When the headlines in the American television news broadcasts and printed press this week looked away from the lengthy political party wrangling for a moment, they mentioned two main issues: the mass demonstrations in Hong Kong (and the American administration’s limp response to the strong-arm treatment of the demonstrators by Chinese authorities) and the incidents du jour in Russia, from the violent suppression of opposition demonstrations in Moscow to the odd explosion at a nuclear test site.

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A sojourn of several weeks in the United States, as a research fellow at the RAND Corporation, may help one to identify the American foreign policy agenda. Here are some initial insights, in brief:

  • Technological competition is the name of the game. Even more than Washington is worried about the balance of trade with Beijing, it is bothered by the Chinese declaration of intent to achieve world dominance in the next decade in a number of technological fields, among them artificial intelligence, robotics, big data systems and fifth-generation cellular networks. The Americans are defining the Chinese moves in these fields, which rely in part on industrial espionage and systematic stealing, as a national security challenge for them. The cellular giant Huawei, in particular, is described as a real and present danger, with the realization that the moment a country grants it a foothold in its infrastructure could mean the subsequent leaving open of “back doors,” breaches that will serve the Chinese in gathering useful information in the future.

    Hence the appeal to four close partners of the United States – Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand-- known together, with the U.S., as “the five eyes” – to avoid cellular deals with China. This is a demand that has been expanded recently to include Israel.
  • China is more disturbing than Russia. The competition with China is making Beijing the top priority on the security agenda. The defense establishment in Washington does not see a future war with China as inevitable. Far from it. However, it is a scenario of the first degree for which they are prepping and training. The American air force identified this long ago, at a time when the ground forces were concentrating on the Russian threat.

    Since a branch strategy also touches upon the struggle for budgetary allocations, the army, encouraged by the political echelon, is increasing its attention to Beijing. In the background, there is an additional consideration here: The concern about China is an issue on which there is an unusual bipartisan consensus in Washington, as also the Democrats are for the most part partners to President Donald Trump’s hawkish line. Dealing with Moscow is far more fraught politically, largely because of the disagreement over the extent of the Russians’ involvement in the efforts to tilt the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor (and above all, the question of what the president’s people knew).
  • The Russian economy, as compared to China’s, is limping and nearly marginal – and the balance of power between the United States and Russia tilts markedly in favor of the Americans. President Vladimir Putin’s power is in his ability to spoil – initiated military friction at carefully chosen sites, from cyber attacks to disruptions in the smooth running of elections in democratic countries. This toolbox, which is mainly psychological warfare, enables Russia to radiate international power without risking military conflict with the Americans, which it would lose. In the long term, internal troubles might weaken the regime and the demonstrations of military strength might not suffice.
  • The Middle East is of dwindling interest to the administration and accordingly – also to the army. The American strategic redeployment, which began in President Barack Obama’s time, has been completed during Trump’s time. The focus has moved to the Far East, at the expense of the Near East. This is connected to the American revulsion with the region after the two long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and is also connected to the decreasing dependence on Arab oil as a major source of energy. The final conclusions as to the success of the American effort to renew the pressure of sanctions on Iran have not yet been formulated. The economic levers that were put into operation are strengthening the realization in Tehran that there will be no way of avoiding a return to the table for negotiations on a revised version of the nuclear agreement. However, until that happens Iran has been hoarding bargaining chips (marginal violations of the agreement, creating provocations in the Gulf) about which it will be possible to talk with the Americans later.

In the meantime, Iran is not rushing into negotiations, despite the administration’s demonstrative satisfaction with its own moves. The temporizing is likely to drag well into the election year in the United States. From a different angle, Trump’s decision to reduce the deployment of American forces in Syria (and now apparently also in Afghanistan) is arousing stiff controversy among the experts. There are commentators who see dangerous concessions in these moves, which are damaging the image of American might in Asia.

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