Sino-American Competition, Global Strategy, and the Place of the Middle East

Sino-American Competition, Global Strategy, and the Place of the Middle East

A return to the maximum pressure strategy against Iran is necessary to impair China’s regional influence.

While the secure existence of Israel as a state is not now in doubt, the price of complacency and the frustrating nature of asymmetrical warfare was evident with Hamas’ massacre of October 7. The threat of Middle East-generated terrorism striking America is much diminished. However, the United States should still maintain intelligence and security partnerships across the globe and a tailored, persistent physical presence to contain this threat to the stateless areas of the Islamic world. U.S. statecraft should develop a doctrine aligned with a new, two-level reality that it faces: global competition with China and prioritizing, tackling, or deflecting regional challenges to American interests. 

China’s rising activity in the region is malign. However, casting the situation in merely oppositional terms will not win fans in the region. Nor will pursuing the failed or counterproductive diplomatic strategies of the past, as failures can only offer openings for Beijing. At the same time, an American regional approach that ignores unfinished political and humanitarian problems, such as the dilemmas facing Israel and the Palestinians, ensures advantages for Iran. Turning the geo-strategic table on Tehran will require high levels of persistent pressure on it and its allies while offering realistic opportunities for regional moderates to show the political, economic, and humanitarian benefits of their path. It is also a course to keep China at bay.

The Asia pivot will strengthen America so long as it is not executed in a way that produces a vacuum in the Middle East to be exploited by China, Russia, and Iran. American policy shortcomings, not Chinese strengths, explain the hedging strategies in the region that benefit Beijing. Talking about China’s false promises will take us only so far; helping partners deal with their problems will remove some roads China uses to promote itself. It does not require a return to large-scale military activity or detract from the pivot; it does demand statecraft, engagement, and flexibility.

Ambassador David Hale is a member of the Advisory Board at The Marathon Initiative and a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center. He was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from August 2018 to May 2021 and was in the U.S. Foreign Service for thirty-eight years, holding the lifetime rank of a Career Ambassador. His book, “American Diplomacy toward Lebanon: Lessons in Middle East Foreign Policy,” will be published by Bloomsbury/I.B. Tauris in February 2024 as part of a Middle East Institute policy series.