Coming To Terms With The Threat Of Iran And China

Nov 13th, 2021 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

With the end of the Cold War, many assumed the world would enter a period of stability and relative peace.  With the growth of Islamic terrorism and the rise of China as a formidable economic and military power these assumptions died.  The US remains a world power and is the only power that has the ability to check both the growth of Iran and China.  Both are genuine threats to the US and to the world.  Permit me an overview of these two alarming powers threating the stability and peace of the world.

  • First is Iran: During President Obama’s administration, the Western world, along with China and Russia, negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which curbed, but did not dismantle, Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons.  Ideally, JCPOA was to give the world some breathing room with the hope that Iran would be convinced to completely dismantle its nuclear program.  Arguably, JCPOA was at best idealistic; at worst, self-defeating.  Israel vehemently objected to this initiative.  Former President Trump withdrew America from JCPOA and instituted “maximum pressure,” via a variety of sanctions, which have nearly crippled the Iranian economy.  The goal of these sanctions was to force Iran to accept more stringent terms for its nuclear program.  This policy of President Trump did not compel Iran to accept more stringent terms; did not halt Iran’s development of ballistic missiles; and did not end Iran’s support for client terrorist groups in the Middle East.  Furthermore, this policy did not end Iran’s nuclear program; it actually enhanced it.  For example, Iran is now spinning up a growing stock of 60% enriched uranium, which means it is very close to achieving bomb-grade nuclear material.  Its centrifuges are more sophisticated and able to purify the fissile material.  It is also, according to The Economist, converting enriched uranium hexafluoride gas into uranium metal—for which the most likely use is in bombs.  Finally, Iran is hampering the inspection work of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency.  And Iran will not speak directly to American officials about reinstituting a form of JCPOA.  The result of all this is that Iran’s “breakout time”—the time it would need to make a bombs worth of highly enriched uranium—has shrunk to about a month.  For this reason the government of Israel has made clear its “tolerance level” is also changing:  Israel will not accept a nuclear Iran.


Finally, Iran’s allies are changing.  China has become the biggest buyer of Iran’s oil and is incorporating Iran into its Belt and Road infrastructure vision.  Russia is also talking of integrating Iran into a Eurasian trade group.  As The Economist reports, “Regionally, too, Iran has become more powerful.  It has helped Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and defeated its friends in Iraq from the jihadists of the Islamic state.  To the south, its Houthi allies in Yemen have forced a Saudi-led military coalition to seek a way out of war.  In Afghanistan, the Americans have been chased away by the Taliban.  Even America’s allies in the Gulf have started trying to patch up relations with the theocracy.”  Obama’s JCPOA did not halt Iran’s threat nor did Trump’s “maximum pressure” efforts.  Iran poses an existential threat to the nation of Israel and other parts of the Middle East—and, so far, nothing the US has done has diminished that threat.


  • Second is China.  The threat of China as both a military and an economic threat to the US and the nations of Asia is real and growing.  When the US supported the admission of China into the World Trade Organization (WTO) during the Clinton administration in 2001, the assumption was that China would moderate its economic policies and join the world community.  It has not done so.  Grep Ip of the Wall Street Journal poignantly summarizes the dilemma of China: “When the US won cases at the World Trade Association, China didn’t change its underlying policies . . . Former President Trump’s tariffs led to a limited trade deal that ‘did not meaningfully address the fundamental concerns’ [argues US Trade Representative Katherine Tai].  China has ‘doubled down on its state-centric model.’  It is increasingly clear that China’s plans do not include meaningful reforms.’”  Ip also argues that “Engagement was always doomed to fail, because China never believed in the global order the US and other market-oriented democracies stand for.” IP also cites a new book by Rush Doshi, who serves on Biden’s National Security Council, who maintains that “since 1989, China has seen the US as hostile to its own rise and pursued a grand strategy of first blunting US influence then eventually displacing it as the world’s leading military and economic power.  China joined the WTO and other multilateral forums not to conform to the existing global order, but to constrain the US’s leverage over China.  The 2008-09 financial crisis and COVID-19 pandemic have convinced China of the superiority of its own model and the US’s irreversible decline.”  For all of these reasons, the US must rebuild its own economic strength by investing in infrastructure, research and development; it must manufacture more of its products at home; and it must work with its allies on new trading arrangements.

Militarily, the recent US agreement with Australia and the United Kingdom (called AUKUS) highlights America’s long term commitment to the Indo-Pacific region, thereby checking the growth of China’s influence there.  As Stephen Walt of Harvard University claims, “it is a move designed to discourage and thwart any future Chinese bid for regional hegemony.”  AUKUS provides Australia with a fleet of at least eight Australian nuclear submarines based on either America’s Virginia class or Britain’s Astute class, built with the technology from some combination of the two countries’ defense contractors.  Further, AUKUS envisages a wide range of diplomatic and technological collaboration, from cyber-security to artificial intelligence.  Understandably, Taiwan heartily endorsed AUKUS because it faces near constant bullying from China.  In addition, ASEAN, a ten-member organization that includes all the countries with coasts on the South China Sea other than China and Taiwan, endorsed AUKUS.  Walter Russell Mead of the Wall Street Journal concludes that AUKUS “is a better model for pacts with Indo-Pacific powers that the alliances that fought the Cold War.  Indo-Pacific countries are less interested in pooling sovereignty and creating rule-driven, bureaucratic structures than many European states are . . . A bloc that shares technology and coordinates defense policies that includes Japan, India, Taiwan and the AUKUS countries would be a formidable force.”  The Indo-Pacific region is the most important theater of strategic competition between the US and China.  The US and its allies in this region must be creative, flexible and bold as they confront China’s state-centric economic model and its increasingly aggressive policies.

See The Economist (16 October 2021), pp. 41-42; Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh in the Wall Street Journal (20 October 2021); Greg Ip in the Wall Street Journal (7 October 2021); Walter Russell Mead in the Wall Street Journal (20 September 2021); The Economist (25 September 2021), pp. 17-20.

Leave a Comment