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Middle East Deals Show China Trapped in America's Web

Despite all the turbulence and chaos in the world, every now and then some signs emerge that America’s grand strategy is actually working.  In particular, what I’ve called “sticky power,” the fatal attraction the global economy exerts on rising powers that tends to lock them into long term collaboration with America’s big plans for the world, is stronger than ever.

China is becoming ever more entangled in the web. A recent state visit from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and some creative economic diplomacy with Iran show how China’s thirst for oil entangles it in the American design.  To grow and to become powerful, China must have more resources and above all more oil.

That dependency has costs.  The US remains the only country with the power either to guarantee or cut off the flow of oil from the Middle East.  And China’s deepening integration into world financial markets makes decisions like observing sanctions against Iran necessary despite their inconvenience and cost.  China remains dependent upon the international order that has facilitated its rise.

For now, China has no real options.  If it tried to build a global force that could challenge America in the Middle East and the oceans around it, India and the other Asian powers would work with the US to limit China’s rise.

China might be an emerging power, but it is not a revolutionary one.  It is still stuck in America’s world-wide web and for now at least every step in China’s growth is a step into a deeper dependence on America’s global military power.

Whether China accepts that dependency in the years and decades ahead, what strategies it might try to end it, and whether America remains willing and able to maintain its military position are three of the big questions whose answers will shape our lives.

Stay tuned.

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  • Luke Lea

    ” The US remains the only country with the power either to guarantee or cut off the flow of oil from the Middle East.” Doubtful on both counts, but especially the second. Seeing as a cut off would plunge the world economy into chaos and depression, why would we do it?

  • http://davidscommonplacebook.wordpress.com/ David Hoffman

    But what happens if the indispensable power can no longer guarantee the safety of the sea lanes?

  • Jim.

    “And China’s deepening integration into world financial markets makes decisions like observing sanctions against Iran necessary despite their inconvenience and cost.”

    Could you expand on this thought?

  • RAZ

    The Financial Times reports that China and India are seeking to circumvent the US sanctions on Iran by exploring barter arrangements that do not involve cash payments. This obviously may have some advantages — I am not sure how much use Chinese toys are to the Iranian regime; hopefully, the goods that these nations might send to Iran to cover thier debt will NOT include goods that have a military application — but still indicates that the need of these nations for natural resources outweighs their willingness to play by the US’s playbook!

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @RAZ: finding legal ways to circumvent sanctions (as opposed to just ignoring them) means that the Chinese would rather work within the system that outside it. I agree, the sanctions are of limited use — that is almost always the case. But unlike, say, Italy and Japan in the 1930s, China does not want to openly flout the ‘rules’ of the road.

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