This article was written by Axel Dessein, a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Grand Strategy in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. A recipient of the Leverhulme Trust Scholarship on Interrogating Post-Western Visions of World Order, his research takes a conceptual approach to ‘China’s rise’ and the modernisation of socialism visible therein. He holds a BA and MA in Oriental Languages and Cultures: China from Ghent University, Belgium and furthered his Mandarin-Chinese language skills at Liaoning University in China and the National Chengchi University in Taiwan. You can follow him on Twitter @AxelDessein.
The new decade began inauspiciously with the tragic 2 January crash of a UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter carrying the Taiwanese Chief of Staff General Shen Yi-ming, among others. A day later, an American drone strike killed the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. General Shen was responsible for Taiwan’s efforts to strengthen its air power in the face of China’s rise; Soleimani led the Quds Force, a clandestine unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps which specialises in unconventional warfare and sponsors terrorism as part of its operations.
The drone strike on Soleimani’s convoy came several days after protestors attacked the American embassy in Baghdad, Iraq. The two-day stand-off saw people demonstrating jointly under the flag of Iraq and the banner of the Kata’ib Hezbollah – an organisation sponsored by Soleimani’s Quds Force. The most direct cause of the protest was an American airstrike on 29 December. The strike killed twenty-five Iran-backed militiamen, but many Iraqis saw it as a violation of their sovereignty. Longer-term tensions also contributed as protestors rallied against the American presence in Iraq.
The thousands of mourning Iranians that joined Soleimani’s funeral parade in Tehran and the Iraqi Parliament’s subsequent angry vote to expel US forces from the country are testament to the conflicted legacy of the ‘shadow commander’, whose proxies include Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, the Popular Mobilisation Forces of Iraq, Hamas in Palestine and the Houthis in Yemen.
Many commentators questioned the morality of the strike on Soleimani and feared it could escalate tensions between Iran and the US. Yet much of this concern, which focused primarily on America’s response, ignored that Iran had already been engaged in low-intensity warfare in the region through its support for proxies in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and by seizing oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. Many lauded Soleimani as a battle-tested warrior leading the fight against Daesh from the frontlines, and he certainly contributed – but Soleimani’s shadow war was far more complex. His career epitomised the complicated situation in the Middle East, where long-term geopolitical rivals clash against the backdrop of the War on Terror.
The missiles that killed Soleimani also eliminated another key figure: Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah. It was al-Muhandis that Soleimani instructed to step up attacks against US forces in Iraq in a bid to divert attention from the anti-Iran protests there. Donald Trump should be praised for not taking the bait: instead of targeting the Iraqi protestors, who were mere pawns in Soleimani’s game, he took out the problem at its source.
Many attack Trump for upsetting the existing world order. But that post-1945 system was getting rusty long before his election. Donald Trump has heralded in a new, unorthodox era for American foreign policy where earlier administrations failed to reinforce their lines in the sand. The disruptive character of Trumpian foreign policy was institutionalised in the 2018 National Security Strategy of the United States, which identified great-power competition as the country’s new strategic focus. Trump does not make decisions at random, as his opponents would have us believe: he has merely chosen an unconventional path. Trump may not be a strategic genius, but, as Niall Ferguson has argued, he does have a strategy.
During the Obama administration, China was seen as a new threat; the Middle East, by contrast, was often seen as a quagmire that has drained American resources at least since 2001. Even the Chinese subscribed to this opinion: in 2002, the Chinese leadership announced the beginning of a twenty-year ‘period of strategic opportunity’ for the country to enjoy. The present situation is different, as American attention is firmly centred on China. With China’s objectives now again under closer scrutiny, the coming decades will be crucial for China’s future.
In this theatre, General Shen played an important role. He was responsible for bolstering the national defence of Taiwan against the Chinese military threat, as China’s calculus for territorial unification changed. President Xi Jinping has declared a new ‘period of historic opportunity’ starting between 2022 and 2049 during which China under Xi has set the country’s future course towards, among other things, ‘peaceful’ (re)unification with Taiwan. Taiwan, which has charted an increasingly independent course under the recently re-elected President Tsai Ing-wen, is diametrically opposed to any such reunification – inspiring efforts like those of the late General Shen to bolster its military.
The Trump Administration in 2017 also outlined a shift towards a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific,’ where China is the main competitor. Supporters of the policy argue that Soleimani’s killing will drag the United States back into the Middle Eastern quagmire; they think it illogical to bomb ‘regional spoilers’ such as Syria, Iraq and Iran when the US is supposed to be shifting its attention to China. But great power competition in the 2020s will not be a conventional clash of titans. Instead, as John Vrolyk puts it, future conflict will likely ‘consist of fighting proxy wars and insurgencies around the globe where American and Chinese interests clash.’
This is not to say the United States should ignore the Asia-Pacific. Instead, Americans must be prepared to face a variety of global threats: the coming great-power competition will not be decided in a single sphere. Just as the fight against Daesh did not negate the threat from Iran, neither does the American shift towards the Asia-Pacific mean regional threats in the Middle East are lessened.
By reengaging with Iran’s aggression, the Trump administration seems to have embraced this reality. Its identification of China as a competing great power to be challenged across the world – not merely in the Pacific – is a more accurate portrayal of conflict in the 2020s and a more viable strategy than the pivot to Asia. Time will tell whether future administrations continue to acknowledge this reality. While Trump’s shift can be welcomed as a much-needed departure from the ‘forever wars’ that characterised the global war on terrorism of the decades following 9/11, Trump’s strategy is but a first step in the right direction. If the United States is to checkmate its great-power competitors, it must remember that the Pacific is a mere corner of a global chessboard.