- - Thursday, May 14, 2015

Though on a very small scale, Russian and Chinese navies have engaged in their first joint exercises in the Mediterranean. On the one hand, it shows a level of cooperation and the expanding horizons of Chinese maritime interests in the Middle East. On the other hand, Russian and Chinese interests in the region are divergent.

Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has been eager to restore its naval presence in the Mediterranean. Russia retains a foothold in the Syrian port of Tartus, albeit the future of Russian interests is tied to the future of President Bashar Assad.

China has, until recently, been uninvolved in the Middle East, delegating responsibility for the maintenance of regional stability to the United States. With the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the continued Chinese reliance on Middle East oil, the military equation has shifted with the Chinese keen on securing shipping lanes for trade. As a consequence, the Chinese have been caught up in the region’s upheavals, picking up several hundred Chinese workers from Yemen and Libya who were in perilous positions.

The joint exercise not only provides a timely opportunity for Moscow to develop its Sino-Russian defense relationship, it is an exhibition of strategic theater as Russia flexes its muscle in the Ukraine and the eastern Mediterranean simultaneously. Clearly this show of force is aimed at the United States and NATO.

While the joint maneuvers suggest cooperation, it is also obvious that the Chinese plan for a “new Silk Road initiative,” which would lead to control of the “heartland,” is incompatible with Russian interests. Russia envisions area instability, which increases the price of oil and keeps pressure on the United States and its putative allies such as Saudi Arabia. If a crude oil tanker’s passage through the Straits of Hormuz is disrupted, China would be the big loser with Russian interests advanced.

By contrast, the Chinese government has major “futures” contracts with Saudi Arabia and wants regional stability. While not as outspoken as Russia at the P5+1 meetings, it does oppose an Iranian nuclear-armed power that can threaten the eastern Shia region of Saudi Arabia where most of the oil fields are located.

At the moment, this likely tension has been submerged. However, it is only a matter of time before it surfaces. It would seem that U.S. interests and Chinese desires are consistent, but here, too, Chinese dreams of controlling the heartland, as Alfred Thayer Mahan once argued, will force the United States into a decidedly ancillary role in international affairs, one that U.S. allies in Japan, Israel, India and other nations would find quite destabilizing.

Moreover, the U.S. tilt toward Iran on nuclear weapons threatens Chinese oil transports in both the Red Sea and the Gulf of Hormuz. An Iran with nuclear weapons is likely to be far more aggressive in controlling tanker traffic than it is at the moment, thereby threatening Chinese economic interests.

If there is a foreign policy emanating from the Obama administration, it is comprised of “less foreign policy.” The opt-out position adopted by the president has created a vacuum that Chinese and Russian strategists are salivating over. U.S. withdrawal offers opportunities for enemies and potential enemies in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The mutual defense pact the Chinese and Russians have established challenges U.S. interests directly and indirectly: directly through military assertiveness and indirectly through a loss of confidence among our allies. However, the natural competition between these superpowers will lead inevitably to tension and perhaps conflict. President Obama may believe a U.S. retreat from world affairs makes the globe a safer place than it was previously, but this misguided analysis is harvesting rotten fruit in the Middle East and beyond. History has a way of asserting itself even if you choose to ignore it.

Herbert London is president of the London Center for Policy Research.

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