Monday, May 1, 2017

China's Role In The Middle East

For more than a decade, the Middle East and North Africa region has experienced a level of violence and instability that is unprecedented in its modern history -- a turbulence that shows no sign of abating. During this period, the long-term sustainability of the U.S. role as security guarantor has increasingly been called into question, both in the United States and within the region. Meanwhile, China’s investments in the Middle East have grown, as has its economic, diplomatic, and security footprint.

Within this context, are there any indications that the United States and China already are, or inevitably will become, strategic rivals in the Middle East?

China’s role in the Mideast has grown diplomatically, economically, and militarily, however this increased involvement is not necessarily indicative of an incipient strategic competition between China and the United States.

First, it is essential to point out that American and Chinese interests in the Middle East are not directly in conflict with each other. On the contrary, the United States and China have a common interest in the uninterrupted flow of oil from the Middle East and in countering violent extremism in the region.

Second, China has exhibited few signs that it wishes to challenge U.S. military predominance in the region -- and for good reason. China benefits from the U.S. role as security guarantor, and without having to bear the fiscal or potential political costs itself. Furthermore, maintaining a large military presence in the Gulf and surrounding region to some degree diverts U.S. attention and resources away from East Asia, the area of highest geostrategic priority to China.   
Third, the calls from Beijing’s Mideast friends and allies for a greater Chinese role in the region do not represent a desire on their part to substitute Chinese for American hegemony. America’s traditional Arab allies -- however much they object to Washington’s policies or have grown uncertain about the resoluteness and sustainability of its commitments -- nonetheless continue to regard the United States as a necessary security partner.

Their outreach to China represents an effort to diversify their security cooperation, and not to downgrade or sever security ties with the United States.

As for Iran, the United States’ chief regional adversary, its project to consolidate its regional position and ultimately repel the United States from the Middle East is a vision not necessarily shared by the Chinese.

Indeed, U.S. partners and adversaries alike have sought in recent years to utilize their ties with Beijing in order to gain the upper hand in internecine conflicts or political disputes. In this respect, the objectives and priorities of the various Mideast states and those of China -- which are geared toward balancing regional relationships and avoiding a confrontation with the United States -- are misaligned.

Thus, the prospects for intensifying strategic competition in the Middle East between China and the United States are rather more remote than they appear to be, particularly in the short term. Over the longer term, however, increased Chinese military capabilities, coupled with rising U.S.-China tension in the western Pacific, could feed back into the Middle East, igniting such a competition. In anticipation of such an eventuality, it would be more prudent for the United States to explore win-win scenarios than to assume zero-sum outcomes.

Chinese and U.S. capabilities to contribute to regional stability are complementary. What the two countries can do together is greater than each can realistically be expected to accomplish separately. Moreover, increased U.S. energy independence, thanks in large part to the recent shale gas boom, provides an incentive and an opportunity to share the financial and military burdens with China of enhancing stability in the Middle East.

U.S.-China policy coordination in this regard could help pave the way for other extra-regional actors with interests and investments in the region -- countries such as India, Japan, and South Korea -- to play constructive roles. Seizing this opportunity could help facilitate the transition not from a U.S.-led to a Chinese-led hegemonic order in the region and beyond, but to one that is more complex though mutually advantageous and peaceful.