Illustration: Craig Stephens
by Ann Lee
by Ann Lee

The real target of the US assassination of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani – China

  • The US has been trying to provoke China into a military conflict since 2013 through the South China Sea, Taiwan, North Korea, Xinjiang and recently Hong Kong
  • China will not be able to avoid being dragged into a war over Soleimani’s assassination
The assassination of Iranian major-general Qassem Soleimani by the United States may be explained by US President Donald Trump’s administration as a retaliation against and deterrence of Iranian aggression but, in reality, it may actually be a strategic provocation against China. To understand why this is the case and see how this particular action is merely one piece of a larger puzzle, one must take into account all of America’s foreign policy actions.
Since the end of World War II, US foreign policy has been obsessed with how to maintain the nation’s superpower status. It maintains strong alliances like Nato and a military presence in virtually all corners of the planet as part of that strategy.

Over the years, influential policymakers such as Zbigniew Brzezinski have argued that the US must go further to ensure supremacy. For some, this includes designating Iran, Russia and China as enemies because the US doesn’t have total control over these countries, and stirring up Islamic extremism because all three of these countries have large Muslim populations that can be turned into terrorists against their own countries.

By creating Islamic extremism in these territories, the home-grown Muslim terrorists could then battle these foreign governments on behalf of the US, thus reducing the need to sacrifice American soldiers.

As a result, such proxy wars have become a permanent fixture on the world stage. The invasion of Iraq, the civil war in Syria, the bombing of Libya and many other actions have created extremist groups such as Islamic State that are direct threats to Iran, Russia and even China.
A US Marine watches as a statue of Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad on April 9, 2003. The US invasion of Iraq set off a series of events that plunged the region into conflict and can be tied to the rise of extremist groups such as Islamic State. Photo: Reuters
In the case of China, Uygur groups from the Muslim minority in China’s northwest, were armed with military weapons by outside forces. Uygur separatists proceeded to terrorise parts of Western China with bombings, stabbings and other violent means which have been widely reported by Western news agencies such as the BBC.
The Chinese government has responded with an internment camp for 1 million Uygurs to try to stem the violence and to prevent a civil war like in Syria from breaking out. But such moves have been met predictably with threats and hostility from the US, which would much rather see conflict in China.
The US has made it publicly clear that it regards China as a “ strategic competitor”, which is a polite label for enemy. The US has been actively trying to provoke China into a military confrontation since 2013 under the Obama administration by suddenly turning the South China and East China seas into hotspots after decades of peace in the region.

US-China ‘clash of civilisations’ is a plain old power struggle

Since Chinese President Xi Jinping has not taken the bait on that front, the Trump administration has tried to bait China by stirring up more trouble using Taiwan, North Korea and Xinjiang. US actions related to Hong Kong are consistent with this strategy.
Finally, the US-China trade deal notwithstanding, the US has been openly discriminating against Chinese across its economy. From blocking Chinese investments in US companies and restricting American hi-tech suppliers from doing business with Chinese companies such as Huawei, to accusing Chinese students and scientists of being spies, the US has made it no secret that China is its top target.
How does Soleimani fit into this picture? China has been a major importer of Iranian oil. China is also part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which makes it a close partner of Russia.
Since the US has not had great success in provoking China into a military confrontation in the other theatres, it is very likely that it intends to drag China into a war through another country in the same way that Germany was drawn into World War I after the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian empire’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

It was no coincidence that Google searches for “Franz Ferdinand” spiked minutes after Soleimani’s assassination, and the vast majority of those searches came from Washington.

This April 4, 2014, photo shows a reproduction of a London newspaper front page from 1914, which writes about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on display at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City in the US. Photo: AP
Naturally, China has been urging calm because if Iran escalates things with military retaliation, it could then drag Russia into a conflagration that China would be unable to avoid. China has no interest in being dragged into a war because it knows that when there is chaos and instability in the world, economic growth is the casualty.

China’s economic growth relies on a stable global environment. The US, on the other hand, would prefer chaos in the world because this allows it to remain the sole superpower.

While the US has been openly hostile towards Iran and Russia, China is America’s real prize since neither Iran nor Russia could displace the US as a superpower in the foreseeable future. All the war games in the Pentagon have been against China, not Iran or Russia.

As the US wakes up to China’s ambition, expect an epic arms race

Without designating China as a “peer competitor”, the US military couldn’t justify its ever-increasing military budgets. After all, if China is not a “threat”, the military-industrial complex would be severely downsized.

China is the only country that could soon displace the US as the largest economic power, which often means that political power will follow. Seen from this framework, Trump’s move is a carefully calculated provocation of China, one that brings us closer to breaking the camel’s back.

Ann Lee is an internationally recognised leading authority on China’s economic relations and author of What the US Can Learn from China, and Will China’s Economy Collapse? She is also a former visiting professor at Peking University and an adjunct professor at New York University and Pace University, where she taught macroeconomics and financial derivatives

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