Monday 20 July 2020 4:40 am

In allying with Iran, China signals the start of Cold War II

Dr John C. Hulsman is senior columnist at City A.M., a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and president of John C. Hulsman Enterprises. He can be reached for corporate speaking and private briefings at www.chartwellspeakers.com.

To read the lion’s share of today’s headlines, you would think the western world is in its final days, a Rome tottering on the edge of the abyss.  

And yet geopolitically, for all our leaders’ unheroic bungling of the coronavirus pandemic, our primary strategic rival China has had a far worse innings. 

Read more: Europe is no longer America’s sidekick when it comes to China

Overconfident President Xi Jinping, throwing away his mask of quiet reasonableness, has instead donned the visage of Mao. Entirely doing away with former Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping’s astute “softly, softly” approach to foreign policy as China rose through the great power ranks, Xi has instead vastly miscalculated, succeeding only in uniting much of the rest of the world against China. 

Beijing has bullied Australia, imposing economic sanctions on Canberra for having the temerity to call for an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus (that would inevitably involve looking into China’s culpability for its spread). 

And Beijing’s abrogation of the “One Country, Two systems” basis for the transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule — made manifest by the draconian new national security law expressly designed to extinguish freedom there — has at last seen the scales over the nature of China fall from the Johnson government’s heretofore overly-credulous eyes. 

Well, better late than never. 

Likewise, America is no longer asleep. In a toxic US, one of the precious few areas left of common agreement is that China is America’s primary foe, that it is dangerous, and that it must be countered. 

The main reason for this startling bipartisan consensus lies in the US elite and public’s clear view that China’s actions regarding the pandemic were tantamount to manslaughter. The sense is that China ruthlessly decided that, once the virus was devastating its own country, the rest of the world should suffer as well if Beijing’s geostrategic position were ever to be maintained, whatever the cost. 

As the Pew Research Center survey of 29 March illustrates, a full two thirds of Americans polled now have an unfavourable view of China, up an arresting 19 points since Donald Trump took office in January 2017. China is now clearly seen as America’s top enemy.

Even rival rising power India has been needlessly antagonised by an arrogant Beijing, whose troops have come over the border in the high Himalayas, taking territory from Delhi on the roof of the world. In stupidly doing so, all China has done is continue the process of throwing geostrategically pivotal India directly into waiting American arms. 

And that is China’s basic strategic problem. While America has the Anglosphere firmly behind it, along with India, Japan, and a plethora of lesser powers in Asia and Europe, China has almost no firm allies to speak of. As we have written here, Russia is loath to play Robin to China’s Batman, which limits their overhyped ties

In essence, Beijing finds itself alone in taking on the rest of the world; its brutishness isn’t helping its cause. 

Belatedly awakening to this geostrategic danger, this is the political risk context in which Beijing has just acted, astonishingly agreeing to a formal alliance with Iran.

An 11 July leaked draft of the final agreement, obtained by the New York Times, makes the surprising depth of the accord clear. First, Iran agrees to provide Beijing with oil at a discounted price. Second, China will become a major developer of Tehran’s oil, gas, and petrochemical facilities. Third, China will make putative investments in the banking, agricultural, infrastructure, and telecoms markets. And fourth, the two will have greatly enhanced military ties. 

It is not too much to say that all this amounts to a formal alliance between the two powers — a first of its kind for them both. 

The big picture takeaway from this stunning move is clear. At last, Beijing has had the wit to see that it cannot take on the world alone; that the only way to prevail in Cold War II is to painstakingly construct a rival alliance system (starting with Tehran) to take on the old western alliance itself. 

To win Cold War II, the US must return (and immediately) to the lost, subtle art of alliance management in both Europe and Asia. Nato must be resurrected, just as the Quad in Asia (comprised of the US, Japan, Australia, and India) must be expanded. 

Presently, America still retains a decided edge, helped by recent Chinese overconfident bullying. But a few more years of the US callously disregarding alliances will see Beijing catch up and overtake Washington. 

It is up to us in the west to see the stakes of Cold War II, as China now surely does, and come together to defend a better world than they would create.

Read more: UK looks at ditching Hong Kong extradition treaty

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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