While the American public and our political leaders are not surprisingly focused primarily on the strategic implications of the Biden administrations rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan, two other events have recently taken place that could also have profound long-term implications for US National Security. They are a five-day Russian Chinese joint military exercise in China and a conference on Middle East challenges that was held in Baghdad, Iraq.
While exercises between the two countries have been going on for more than 15 years, this was one of the largest and the first one held in China. They aim to improve the military capabilities of both countries, and most importantly enhance interoperability between their militaries and institutionalize and deepen bilateral defense ties even though there is no formal alliance. These exercises benefit both sides. They are especially useful for the PLA, which has not engaged in large combat operations since its 1979 invasion of Vietnam, to learn from the Russians who have and continue to conduct military operations in Europe Asia and the Middle East. The Russians also benefit because the Chinese currently produce more sophisticated weapons than they do. The Russian troops used Chinese equipment during every stage of the exercise and fell under Chinese command.
Despite the fact that these two major powers staged these military exercises, a full blown NATO-type alliance between the two powers currently seems unlikely. However, since both are opposed to a U.S. backed international order, they could join forces if they perceived the U.S. taking action that could impact both countries.
About two weeks after the Russian-Chinese exercise concluded, on Aug. 28, Iraq hosted a regional conference aimed at easing tensions in the Middle East while simultaneously emphasizing its new role as a moderator. The conference, which was called the Iraqi Neighboring Countries Conference was organized by Iraq and France and was attended by 10 countries. It included the heads of state from Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Iraq and France. Kuwait and the UAE were represented by their Heads of Government and Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia by their foreign ministers.
The attendees discussed a number of major issues including the potentially devastating water crisis, the ongoing war in Yemen, the severe economic and political situation in Lebanon, the possible resurgence of ISIS-K, and the disruption to global oil supplies caused by the pandemic.
While organizers of the Baghdad summit did not expect, nor did they get, any major diplomatic breakthroughs, getting these 10 nations with diverse interests in the region to come together around the table could be the beginning of a process that will help to bring more stability to the region by easing tensions among the nations, especially between Iran and most of the Arab countries. That could allow the U.S. to focus more on other areas of the world, particularly the Pacific, if it so chooses.
As the US moves past its 20-year war in Afghanistan and formulates a new national security strategy, it should take these two developments into account to make that strategy more realistic.
Lawrence Korb is a senior fellow at American Progress and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. He previously served as U.S. assistant secretary of defense for manpower, reserve affairs, installations and logistics.
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