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Here’s what Matt Acocella doesn’t get: China and India will help us in Mideast!

Here’s what Matt Acocella doesn’t get: China and India will help us in Mideast!

Here is a response to yesterday’s column by my CNAS colleague Matt Acocella. Your mileage may vary, but it is an interesting argument that hadn’t occurred to me.

By Daniel R. DePetris
Best Defense guest respondent

We have all heard about China’s rapid rise as a world power. Economically, China is projected to pass the United States as the world’s largest economy by 2040; politically, China is projecting itself to be the most influential state on the Asian continent … or at least in its immediate neighborhood.

India, too, is experiencing a similar trend, coupled with another baby-boom generation.  According to the Indian Government’s Census Commissioner, the Indian population is expected to increase by 36 percent in the next twenty-five years, with more people entering into the types of jobs that actually make a decent living (like doctors, lawyers, computer engineers, and professors).  The Indian GDP — currently a hefty $3.56 trillion — will likely pile up as the Indian economy diversifies into different areas, particularly in the technology sector already extremely popular among educated Indians. The CIA World Factbook confirms that the Indian economy grew by over 6 percent in 2009, which is an astounding rate given how many industrialized economies were damaged as a result of the two-year global recession.   

It seems like the future for China and India is all roses. Unfortunately, it’s going to take a lot of energy to keep both countries competitive in the global market.  

What happens when energy demand starts to outweigh Beijing and New Delhi’s supply?  India is already ranked 6th in oil consumption as of 2009, and China’s place on the consumption scale is even higher (they are in 3rd place, behind the European Union and the good old U.S.A.).  Given future trends in population, oil imports will have to substantially climb if both countries want to maintain their economic success.

China and India could get on Russia’s good side in order to fulfill its energy needs, but dealing with those pesky Kremlinites is a tricky business (they love to spy, and they have some interests that conflict with China in particular, like control of Central Asia). So once again, the Middle East — with all of its oil glory — is not going to go away. In fact, if you like to bet, place your wager on the Middle East being the most important region for at least the next ten or twenty years.

It’s going to be interesting to see how China and India — who have thus far been able to distance themselves from the turbulent politics of the Middle East- maneuver with governments in the Islamic world. Are they going to assert themselves, much like the United States has in the last three decades? Or will they take a more passive approach by building economic ties while keeping a distance from the region’s messy politics?

The second option is by the far the most desired. If there is anything that can be taken away from America’s involvement in the Middle East, it is the fact that the region’s politics is a terribly frustrating and spurious thing to deal with. The problem is that the same energy demands that drew the U.S. to the Persian Gulf could eventually drag China and India into a similar predicament.

Middle Eastern politics is full of cataclysmic situations where violence always seems to be one step away. Political turmoil between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq, the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program, and the continued frustration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may eventually threaten the oil market.  How would Beijing or New Delhi react in this circumstance?

If the oil market is volatile, or if regional tensions somehow stop the oil from flowing at a relatively low cost, China or India may need to get involved in a much more aggressive fashion. One of the reasons why the United States decided to establish military bases across the Middle East (despite preserving a balance of power among the Middle Eastern states) was to protect oil interests and ensure that a conflict doesn’t get out of control. China and India (and perhaps Japan) may need to act in much the same way.

The U.S. need not worry about increased Chinese and Indian influence.  Rather, the U.S. would be wise to celebrate China and India’s ascendance into the region, because the future energy needs of both could actually lift some of the burden from America’s strained shoulders.

Most Americans are sick and tired of acting as the world’s policemen, and some simply want to withdraw all together. Being the world’s primary guardian requires lots of manpower and lots of taxpayer money, and after three decades of filling that role, Americans want to cut their losses and stop spending money on what many deem to be hopeless ventures.

A resurgent China and India in perhaps just the excuse Americans are looking for to finally cut back their forces and disengage militarily from the region. The United States will no longer feel the pressure of going it alone on some of the world’s most important security issues.

Whether this is what Washington is thinking is a whole other story. Lawmakers probably view a strong China as a threat to U.S. interests, and they may be right in some areas. But they should also remember that the U.S. has the strongest and most technologically advanced military in the world…not to mention the ability to influence countries indirectly through billions in economic assistance. A few Chinese soldiers won’t change that.

Daniel R. DePetris is a graduate student at Syracuse University focusing on international security issues.  He blogs at http://www.depetris.wordpress.com