By Peter Lee
The signature event in United States-Chinese relations last week was not the anti-climactic release of the US Defense Strategic Review, which re-emphasized the Barack Obama administration's widely touted ambitions to perform a strategic pirouette from the Middle East to East Asia. It was the murder of another Iranian nuclear scientist in Tehran.
The assassination of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan by forces unknown serves as a message that the Obama administration will find it difficult to reinvent itself as the savior of Asian peace and prosperity; instead, the United States will find itself reprising its dreary and detested role in the Middle East soap opera as defender of the pro-Israel/anti-Iranian status quo.
In some respects, the 2012 campaign against Iran is a rerun of the drama of 2010 (which itself was a re-run of the George W Bush sanctions push of 2008, which in turn was a reprise of the sanctions push begun in 2006), with the US badgering China to jump on the anti-Iran bandwagon, and Washington brandishing the stick of sanctions against the Chinese banking system while simultaneously dangling the carrot of sweet, sweet Saudi crude before Beijing.
But there's a big difference as well.
In 2010, Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama could hold out the hope that hope that coercing Iran on its alleged nuclear ambitions would be balanced by an integration of Israel into the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime and a nice, geo-friendly win-win outcome for the Middle East (including Iran) and the world.
In 2012, pressure by the Israeli government and its US allies, enablers, and opportunistic supporters; Saudi Arabia's post-Arab Spring anxiety and aggressiveness; and the demands of the upcoming presidential campaign have combined to compel Obama to abandon his dreams of Middle East denuclearization, peace, and rapprochement with Iran.
Instead, Obama joins the dismal, unbroken series of recent US presidents whose only option is to demand Iran's head on a plate as part of a zero-sum win for Israel's Likud and the House of Saud ... and unambiguous loss for the People's Republic of China (PRC). Certainly, Obama has done his best to escape his Middle East conundrum, if not solve it.
Recent statements of the White House, State Department, and, with the announcement of the Defense Strategic Review, the Pentagon have been filled with the Obama administration's palpable yearning to refocus the United States as the indispensable counterweight to rising China, the welcomed champion of militarily weak East Asian free market democracies (plus handy ally communist Vietnam, of course), and deserving piggy at the trough of runaway Asian economic growth.
Indeed, there is a decent fit between the Asian ambitions of the United States and the needs of China's smaller and put-upon interlocutors in Asia.
The idea of a nuanced dance between the American eagle and Chinese dragon, not driven by ideology or security anxieties, but a realist tango of interest orchestrated by the intellectual brilliance of Beltway international relations wonks has understandably engaged the fancy ... of Beltway international relations wonks.
United States foreign policy insider Steve Clemons reported the official line at his blog The Washington Note, together with the welcome news that Vice President Joe Biden, an affable and indefatigable schmoozer, will serve as the human face of America in dealing with the Chinese leadership - a role I suspect that the cool, tense, and intensely cerebral Obama has little inclination or ability to fill, especially since his mission in Asia is now to administer self-righteous public scoldings to China for its perceived transgressions:
China Vice President Xi Jingping, widely estimated to be the successor later this year to Hu Jintao as China's next generation President, will visit Washington, DC in February - and the message, communicated by new China handler-in-chief Joe Biden, will be constructive but hard-headed, interest-driven mutual US-China engagement in which the US will communicate that it's legs in the region aren't weakening with China's rise - but rather getting stronger and providing an ongoing platform for the peace and stability that have benefited much of the region including, as one senior White House national security official told me, CHINA. 
In support of the effort, in January Obama paid a visit to the Pentagon to roll out the Defense Strategic Guidance intended to put the military aspects of the vaunted "strategic pivot" to Asia in place…and sound a combined warning klaxon/dinner bell to American defense contractors.
The Washington Post made the inadvertently unnerving point that Obama's election year strategy was to give the uniformed services what they wanted, so that partisan-minded Republican critics would be confronted by a solid phalanx of top brass:
By enlisting the military's help in defining its strategic priorities, Obama has sought to ensure that he has the military's support when his defense budget goes before congress, including the committees led by some of his toughest Republican critics. Military leaders, in turn, now have reason to believe that Obama will not agree to more cuts. 
US economic and security interests are inextricably linked to developments in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia, creating a mix of evolving challenges and opportunities. Accordingly, while the US military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region. [italics in original] 
Even when US forces are committed to a large-scale operation in one region, they will be capable of denying the objectives of - or imposing unacceptable costs on - an opportunistic aggressor in a second region.[italics in original]
That's certainly the conclusion that the "Center for a New American Security" (CNAS) - a left-leaning think tank founded by current State Department China honcho Kurt Campbell - drew.
CNAS jumped in to flesh out the US policy with commendable (or suspicious) alacrity, issuing a 115-page report on the Asia-Pacific theater titled "Cooperation From Strength" backed by an interactive website designed to publicize and sell the menace.....
The United States should strengthen its naval presence over the long term by building toward a 346-ship fleet rather than retreating to the 250-ship mark that the United States faces due to budget cuts and the decommissioning of aging warships in the next decade. Diplomatic and economic engagement with China and others will work better when backed by a credible military posture.The conclusion: We come in peace!
The United States will need to get its China policy right. This will require active diplomatic and economic engagement backed by a strong US military and a growing economy. A realistic policy begins by shoring up American power and then actively supports rules-based cooperation; it avoids military conflict but not diplomatic confrontation. The call for an expanded navy is a canny but perhaps inevitable move.
With cutbacks looming for the US defense budget, somebody has to come out a winner or the Pentagon will be united in resistance to the White House. Might as well be the navy this time after the Army/Marine funding feast over the last 10 years. Also, dangling the prospect of a sizable defense build up linked to Asia-Pacific policy builds momentum for the policy itself.
For China, these recent statements of US intent are not surprises.
The US had already telegraphed the "strategic pivot" in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's article on "America's Pacific Century" in Foreign Policy magazine in October, and President Obama's "walks and quacks like economic and military containment of China" Return to Asia tour after the APEC meeting in November. 
In January, the People's Republic of China government has been remaining cautiously distant, hoping the US effort will fizzle due to budgetary and geopolitical realities without requiring Beijing to step up and antagonize Washington and its Asian neighbors directly with overt opposition.
Hannah Beech reported on the mild Chinese response to the announcement of the Defense Strategic Guidance in Time:
When US President Barack Obama announced earlier this month that the US military would be re-orienting itself toward the Asia-Pacific - a move that many perceive as an attempt to counter China's rising power - China's state-run news agency, Xinhua, responded quickly. But instead of the usual blustery anti-Americanism, the piece was titled "Constructive US role in Asia-Pacific welcome." Parts of the story were certainly less sunny than the headline, warning that America's "possible militarism will cause a lot of ill will and meet with strong opposition in the world's most dynamic region." Still, the headline's positive spin - and the absence of pages more of aggrieved Chinese commentary in the following days - was telling. Here's more from the Xinhua piece: "The US role, if fulfilled with a positive attitude and free from a Cold War-style zero-sum mentality, will not only be conducive to regional stability and prosperity, but be good for China, which needs a peaceful environment to continue its economic development." But every time Obama tries to position the US as the guarantor of peace and prosperity in Asia, something or somebody yanks his chain back to the Middle East, war, and the prospect of global economic ruin.
The murder of Ahmadi Roshan came on the one-year anniversary of the murder of two other Iranian nuclear scientists by similar methods (motorcyclist + bomb + car). It also came at a time of heightened tensions (anyway, tensions higher than the usual heightened tensions), inviting the inference that somebody, probably somebody in the region, wants to goad the Iranian government into a response that could start the military action ball rolling.
It is a safe bet that Obama, disengaging from two futile, polarizing, and massively expensive land wars, does not want war with Iran. It is also plausible that Saudi Arabia does not relish the opportunity to prove that it really does have the excess capacity to replace Iranian energy shipments to China, Japan, and South Korea.
And it is certain that Obama does not want the corpse of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan to serve as the poster child for US foreign policy, or that he wishes to ingratiate himself to America's East Asian friends and allies by bearing the gift of $200/barrel oil (while Beijing exploits its relationship with Iran to buy energy at a discount).
And he certainly doesn't want Asian importers (or for that matter Swiss bankers offended by the aggressive US push on disclosure) to start thinking about sanctions-busting alternatives to US financial coercion - like a shadow bank network for Iran transactions, as Asia Times Online's Pepe Escobar has suggested, or the ultimate horror: a drift away from the dollar to some International Monetary Fund special drawing rights, euro, barter, or yuan settlement system that removes the US dollar from the absolute center of the world financial equation. 
But Iran won't go away: Israel, Saudi Arabia, and their US supporters in both parties won't let it.
Because these powerful stakeholders want to make sure that plans to widen the US diplomatic and military footprint in East Asia don't come at the expense of their perceived existential interests in the Middle East.
So Obama has to drag his Middle Eastern baggage to Asia and make the case that Asia-Pacific should help America work through its Iran obsession.
Instead of exporting American solutions to Asia, the US seems to be exporting American problems.
It does not appear that the Obama administration has figured out how to make lemonade from this sackful of citrus.
One can imagine that the Obama message to Asia is "Believe the policy, not the politics", ie, the United States knows where its interests and future lie, and is not going to drive the world off a cliff because election year politics demand appeasement of the anti-Iran cranks.
However, Asia has zero votes in US politics. On the other hand, the people who are caught up in the rhetoric of war with Iran do have the votes, interest, and money to make their influence felt in US politics.
And the growth of that influence is undeniable, not only in the Republican Party.
Within the Democratic Party, the chant that "something must be done about Iran" is a mantra that draws strength from political strategy as well as private conviction of the burgeoning and influential neo-liberal wing that essentially went into hiding after the interventionist debacle of the Iraq War but has now re-emerged.
Several commentators have also noted the "If you build it they will come" argument ie if one talks enough about war with Iran, the regime is sufficiently demonized and delegitimized, war with Iran looks less like an undesirable option and more like a justified imperative.
It is also true that Obama has also nibbled cautiously yet happily at the apple of (undeclared, unilateral) warfare in the Libyan conflict; and a crowd-pleasing limited conflict with Iran that manages to discommode China at the same time might be just what the electoral campaign doctor ordered for a frustrated and constrained American chief executive.
But, as Agence France-Presse reported, "China Says War Over Iran Will Bring Disaster" and quoted a PRC diplomat, Wang Xiaodong, as saying:
Everyone knows that 40 percent of the oil shipped daily to every part of the world goes through the Strait of Hormuz, so once war starts in this region not only will the relevant nations be affected and attacked, it would also ... bring disaster to a world economy deep in crisis. That's a message that Obama would do well to heed ... even if he dislikes the messenger.
1. Obama's Team Could Learn from Rumsfeld on Defense Department Shifts, The Washington Note, Jan 9, 2012.
2. In creating new defense strategy, Obama attempts to outflank Congress, Washington Post, Jan 8, 2012.
3. Substituting USGlobal Leadership, US Department of Defense, January 2012.
4. Cooperation from Strength, Center for a New American Security, January, 2012.
5. America: The new sick man of Asia?, Asia Times Online, Nov 19, 2011.
6. The US Military Eyes the Asia-Pacific. China's Response? So Far, A Shrug, The Global Spin, Jan 9, 2012.
7. The US-Iran economic war, Asia Times Online, Jan 7, 2012.
8. China says war over Iran will bring disaster, Yahoo News, Jan 10, 2012.