Camillo Benso was one of 19th century Europe’s finest statesmen. As the Count of Cavour and Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Sardinia, he persuaded French Emperor Napoleon III to functionally lend his army and treasury to the cause of a greater Sardinia in 1858 at Plombières-les-Bains.
In exchange for throwing the Austrians out of Venice and Lombardy, Napoleon wanted the Sardinian provinces of Savoy and Nice, and to ensure that French candidates would get preference to govern the central Italian provinces gained in a future war.
The war’s result proved mixed for Cavour — Austria was defeated, but retained Venice — but costlier for Napoleon. Not only did the French Emperor not achieve his military aim of completely ousting Austria from northern Italy, but Cavour proceeded to dilute French influence in central Italy.
Worse strategically for France, Cavour founded a new and independent Kingdom of Italy — a future great power which would, a decade later and ironically due to Napoleon’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, go on to rule the entire Italian Peninsula. Cavour had started a process which could not be undone and outflanked arguably Continental Europe’s strongest military power of the day.
One hundred and sixty years later — on the heels of another U.S.-led airstrike on Assad regime targets in Syria — the ghost of Plombières hovers over America in the Middle East. The paralyzing and costly zigzags of American policy over the last couple of decades have opened doors for rivals to benefit at its expense. Chief among these is China — gaining massively in regional trade, geopolitical influence, and strategic investment with the indirect aid of American debt, lives, and firepower. Unlike Napoleon, the U.S. did not agree to become China’s icebreaker, but that counts for little if the net outcome is the same.
China — without firing a shot, committing troops to active military intervention in the Middle East’s myriad proxy conflicts, and doing little more in international diplomacy than raising their hands against the occasional contentious resolution at the United Nations Security Council — became the world’s largest investor in the Arab Middle East two years ago, with commitments of almost $30 billion and a close to 32 percent share of all foreign direct investment. Beijing seeks to integrate the Middle East’s largest economies into its One Belt One Road development initiative while avoiding imperial overstretch, recognizing the crucial role of economic development, human capital, and strategic investment to future global power.
In line with its cynically independent foreign policy — which seeks little to no input from secondary powers about its interests — China has methodically reaped the rewards of America’s mistakes.
The U.S. spent anywhere from $1.7 to $2.2 trillion, and suffered almost 4,500 dead and over 32,000 wounded, to remove Saddam Hussein and his Ba’athist regime from power in Iraq, run a provisional government, fight a Shia and Sunni insurgency, and try to impose western institutions and norms on a country simmering with tribal and sectarian conflicts.
China stood to the side, pocketed the American expenditures and elimination of the sanctions imposed prior to the 2003 invasion, and emerged as Iraq’s biggest import partner. For context, petroleum products account for anywhere between 93 and 99 percent of Iraq’s exports. China has committed billions to Iraqi infrastructure development and reconstruction, pledged to build an oil refinery near the Gulf port of Fao, and in recent years poured over $2 billion and hundreds of workers annually to develop Iraqi oil deposits.
These dynamics led former U.S. Defense Department official Michael Makovsky to note, “The Chinese had nothing to do with the war, but from an economic standpoint they are benefiting from it, and our Fifth Fleet and air forces are helping to assure their [oil] supply.”
To put a further damper on American assumptions that China’s commercial gains in Iraq will wet its appetite for inheriting the country’s security and political problems, look at Chinese foreign policy since the Korean War — it shows the opposite. China will let whoever is in power in Iraq do what they need to do and partner with whomever they need to partner with to ensure political and economic stability.
Across the border in Iran — empowered by America’s removal of an obstacle to its regional influence in the form of Saddam Hussein, and a close partner of the Iraqi government that the U.S. spent years building and propping up — it is the same story.
With European banks put off by America’s unpredictable sanctions policy in recent years and unwilling to finance deals without sovereign guarantees, China’s CITIC Group and Development Bank stepped in with offers of $10 and $15 billion credit lines. A panicked Ferial Mostofi, head of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, remarked that “[Western firms] had better come quickly to Iran otherwise China will take over.” China’s National Machinery Industry Corp just signed an $845 million contract to construct a 410km railway in western Iran connecting Tehran, Hamedan and Sanandaj, and there is a chance that China will replace India in developing the strategic Iranian port of Chabahar on the Arabian Sea.
Recent weakness of the Iranian Rial, political protests, mounting costs of Tehran’s adventurism in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria, and hostility from Washington will not put the Chinese off. On the contrary, these will push Iran further into China’s embrace and strengthen Beijing’s leverage.
And in Syria, where the U.S., Turkey, and the Gulf Arab states spent considerable diplomatic, military, and economic capital to support anti-Assad forces, and made reconstruction assistance conditional on a political process with a transition backed by a majority of Syrians (i.e., Assad’s departure), China — again without spending a penny or losing anyone — could commit $2 billion to what may become a mammoth, $250 billion Syrian reconstruction effort with no demands on Assad.
You would think that China’s close relationship with Iran and looking the other way on Assad would jeopardize its ties with Saudi Arabia and Israel. And you would be wrong. China — with $16.5 billion committed in 2016 — is poised to overtake the U.S. as Israel’s largest investor, with a focus on hi-tech. China and Saudi Arabia are moving ahead with plans to establish a joint $20 billion investment fund to develop the latter’s infrastructure, energy, and mining sectors.
As the U.S. operates a disjointed regional paradigm and spends considerably in search of elusive gains — limiting who it can do business with and sometimes attaching conditions removed from the Middle East’s realities — the Chinese begin and end their regional policy with what is in China’s narrow national interest. This has allowed them to deal with everyone without making political commitments, assurances, or promises. As American policy unwittingly upends the Middle East’s balance of power, China adjusts to the situation, recalibrates, and fills the vacuum to generate geopolitical and/or economic returns.
Returning to Plombières, if things continue as they are, America may emerge as a bigger sucker than Napoleon. At least he got Sardinian troops to fight alongside the French. China, by contrast, may outflank America in the Middle East on the cheap.