Will China replace the US as regional hegemon?

It appears that there is an increasing consensus among Middle East watchers that the United States is yesterday’s news. So who will step in to fill the vacuum by America’s retreat into isolationism? A recent JPost article, China’s power plays in the Middle East observes that, “OPEC is about to collapse… The new rules of the game will be set by the coordination of the economic interests of the US and China, and Israel should start getting ready for that.” While I am unconvinced that the future of the region will be between the PRC and USA, I fully endorse the warning that Israel be prepared for the retreat of the United States. 

The popular understanding of the US-Israel “special relationship” is that the two countries share an bond based on common ideals. Strategic interests are the basis of military alliance, not shared values. Before the Second World War the US neglected its “special relationship” with England threatened by Germany despite a common emotional and historical bond spanning centuries; after Hitler declared war on the US Roosevelt joined with Stalin in common cause against Germany. For decades the US and Iran were allies until, by whatever standard the US understood its interests at the time (understanding how the US understands its interests anytime is problematic) the Shah outlived his usefulness. Ditto Mubarak (another case of “Does the US have a clear understanding of its own “national interests”?), and supporting Islamism over its traditional ally, the military. 

Israel was an American strategic asset during the Cold War in countering the Soviet challenge to America’s oil interests, the Suez Canal. That military hardware and financial assistance the US provide its erstwhile Israeli ally was not a gift out of mutual sympathies, but an investment reducing America’s military footprint in the region. 

I agree that China is an up-and-comer in the region and the world, and that they have been in a quiet turf war with the US, particularly in Afgepak and Africa. But China is not able today to pose a similar challenge to American hegemony as was Russia during the Cold War. As I understand things Russia, on the other hand, outside of the US, is the most powerful military force in the world today. 

Russia, evicted from Egypt following the peace treaty with Israel, fell back on the other partner to the failed United Arab Republic,Syria. And once the US abandoned Iran to the ayatollahs,Russia has waited patiently to take its place also in that country. Today, of course,Russia’s challenge to the US is Iran and Syria, and has backed that challenge with a significant naval presence in the Mediterranean offshore Syria. Countering the Russian challenge, and to send a stern warning to Assad President Obama ordered the Iwo Jima with its 2000 Marines backed by the aircraft carrier Eisenhower task force to back them up to Syria. Two weeks later that threat was ordered home to Virginia. Is this just another instance of confusion regarding America’s regional interests, or is it a signal of something else? 

The implication seems clear: the US is withdrawing from the region, in retreat following two regional failures of arms: Iraq and Afghanistan. Not exactly a rout. The US is abdicating the region (gradually, to be sure, but still doing so) to Russia three decades after defeating the Soviets in the region. And abandoning also Europe to Russia since without US control of the Mediterranean Europe is surrounded north and south by Russia, and dependent as well on Russia for natural gas (which heats homes, energizes industry). So, while it is likely that China will in the not distant future have the military to become a global superpower, for the present I do not see a PRC open challenge to the United States. 

Which leaves the Russians. Russia has “boots on the ground” in Syria, technicians, at least in Iran. Russia has an armada stationed off the coast of Syria, and the US recalled its own fleet back to port in Virginia. Russia may not have the economy to match America, but if the US is abandoning the region anyway, who needs treasure to challenge the withdrawing superpower? 

The region has always been unstable, more so in the era of the Islamist “Arab Spring” than during the “nationalist” days.Israel’s role was to serve the United States as “stabilizer,” to counter “radical” forces threatening American interests. Russia has its own homegrown Islamist problems in Chechnya and the outlying Islamic states of the days of the Soviet Empire. Israel represents a natural ally to Russia, and could serve the same “stabilizer” function for a Russian as American hegemon.

About the Author
David made aliya in 1960 and has been active in Jewish issues since. He was a regional director for JNF in New York, created JUDAC, Jews United to Defend the Auschwitz Cemetery during that controversy; at the request of Jonathan Pollard created and led Justice for the Pollards in 1989.