The oldest hotspot and the danger of contagion towards the East
During the past 60 years the Middle East has been the theatre of unending conflicts and wars (Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and now Syria). Until recently East Asia and South-East Asia were never heavily involved in these conflicts. But more and more the rivalries between the biggest Asian powers and the antagonism between the USA and China can also be felt in the different conflicts in the Middle East.
Pakistan is courted by both the USA and China. The USA needs Pakistan to counter the different brands of terrorism which operate in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. Yet, not all factions of the ruling cliques in Pakistan want to submit to the USA. Pakistan's involvement in America's wars is destabilising the country still further (for example the recent air strikes in Pakistan reveal the new strategy to “hit and kill”, targeting “terrorists” but spread the flames to even larger areas within Pakistan), but this works in many ways against China, which wants a strong Pakistan against India.
Concerning Afghanistan, India has been participating at the side of American-led forces in the construction of the “security apparatus” in Afghanistan, while China eyes this with great suspicion. Beijing too has signed major economic contracts with Kabul.
The sharpening of the conflict around Iran has major ramifications for the rivalries in Asia. While Iran until 1978/79 was an important outpost for the US-led bloc against Russia, once the Shah's regime imploded and the Mullahs took over, a strong anti-Americanism developed. The more US hegemony weakened, the more Iran could claim regional power. The Iranian challenge to the USA inevitably had to receive Chinese backing. On an economic level, China has benefited from the space left vacant by sanctions imposed against Iran; China is now Iran’s largest trading partner. While Beijing’s economic engagement with Iran is growing, India’s presence is shrinking. Since 12% of India’s oil is imported from Iran (its second largest supplier after Saudi Arabia), India fears being marginalised in Iran and losing out to China.
Despite Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi-Arabia being fierce enemies, and despite China's support for the Tehran regime, China has signed a civilian nuclear energy cooperation pact with Saudi Arabia, a country which provides China with almost one fifth of its oil. China must avoid antagonising important oil suppliers. This reflects the versatile Chinese diplomatic practice in the region, having an egg in every basket, no matter how much the different sides may oppose each other. And China’s approach to maintain a balance in its ties with Iran and the Arab Gulf States, reduces India's economic and military options, because the Saudis have also developed special links with Pakistan, whose nuclear programme they funded and fostered for years. It is plausible that Pakistan might covertly transfer nuclear technology to Saudi-Arabia – which must be seen as a big threat to Iran and India. However, other additional factors make the constellation more complicated and more contradictory.1
Iran faces many enemies in the region. For example heavily armed Saudi-Arabia (which is planning to buy 600-800 German built tanks and which recently signed a gigantic contract for another 130 modern fighter planes with the USA),2 and Iraq, with whom it waged an 8 year war in the 1980s. Israel feels vulnerable to an Iranian (nuclear?) missile attack and has been pressing the USA hard to strike militarily against alleged Iranian nuclear sites. Thus any escalation around Iran is likely to create great upheavals amongst Iran's rivals and their respective defenders.
Last but not least any conflict in the Middle East draws the former bloc leader Russia onto the stage. Ganging up with China Russia fiercely opposes any military intervention against Iran and does everything it can to undermine US strategy. Both China and Russia must protect Iran against US pressure, because if the regime in Tehran fell, this would strengthen the US position in the Middle East and not only threaten Chinese oil supplies but weaken the Russian and Chinese strategic standing in the region altogether.
The stalemate of the imperialist situation in Syria during the summer of 2012 cannot be understood without the covert and overt weight of China, Russia and Iran in the conflict. Without the support of these three powers, the Western countries – despite their differences and other factors making them hesitate – might be tempted to intervene militarily much faster.
The chaotic and contradictory nexus of imperialist rivalries in the Middle East, where conflicts between the regional power Iran (backed by China and Russia) and the USA (backed by Israel, India, Saudi-Arabia) and increased tensions between local rivals would have unpredictable consequences not only for the rivalries between India and China, but for the whole planet.
While the tensions in the Middle East have been centre-stage in imperialist rivalries for several decades, the tensions in the Far East and in South Asia are rapidly gaining momentum. Although an immediate escalation of the rivalries into an open war in the Far East may not be likely now, because we are only at the beginning of this race, the permanent, irreversible military build-up already forebodes a new level of destruction .