Sino-American Cooperation in the Middle East

Transient

It sounds bizarre to talk about cooperation between the United States and China in the Middle East. Beijing’s ravenous appetite for energy has naturally led it to the Middle East, particularly the GCC states and Iran. There is little doubt that China has emerged as a player in the Middle East in its drive for energy security, but debates have swirled around whether this growing interventionism places Beijing on a crash course with Washington. The recent disagreement in United Nations on how to deal with Syria, with Russia and China on one side and the United States on the other, brings this question into sharp relief.

China has not found it difficult to find partners in the region, but the motives have varied widely. Some countries desire warmer ties with Beijing as a tactic of hedging against the U.S. and Western pressures, not to mention China being on the UN Security Council with veto powers. Interestingly, in 2009, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad told the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, that: “China is now a superpower and is very important in the absence of the Soviet Union…especially for small countries, including Syria…It is very important…for the Middle East region, for the Middle East peace process, for Iraq, and for combating terrorism.”[1] China’s pragmatic investment policy is well-received by countries such as Iran. The U.S. has viewed this as a tactic to reap competitive benefits where Western companies cannot go because of sanction regimes, all the while aiding and abetting anti-Western regimes.[2]

Despite analyses that portray China as aggressively pushing a zero-sum agenda in the Middle East,[3] a more nuanced picture proves more accurate. Beijing is naturally intent on augmenting its diplomatic and economic influence in the Middle East to secure a future energy supply, but is still committed to a “peaceful rise” (heping jueqi) that has, and will continue, to avoid outright clashes with Washington because stability and security in the Gulf still relies on the U.S. military and both countries share broad interests.

My aim here is not to obfuscate the very real frictions that have and will continue to occur between Beijing and Washington in the Middle East. Rather, I hope to add a counterweight to increasing pessimism about the Sino-American relationship by pointing to potential and real areas of cooperation. To do so, let us consider two characteristics of the relationship that are often overlooked: shared interests and Chinese willingness to acquiesce to U.S. pressure in the Middle East.

Shared Interests in the Middle East

Shared interests do not guarantee a lack of conflict, but they cast doubt on zero-sum interpretations of Sino-American interactions. Both Beijing and Washington agree on the danger of nuclear proliferation and of radical Islam while disagreeing on the proper means of dealing with them. China envisions a system of secularized nation states and emphasizes internal stability and controlling religious extremism, whereas many in the United States advocate for long-term stability through systemic reforms like market democracy.[4]

Nuclear proliferation is inimical to US. and Chinese economic and strategic goals. When it comes to Tehran, Beijing and Washington propose different methods, but their ultimate objective is the same: an Iran with a peaceful nuclear program used exclusively for energy purposes.[5] A 2006 article in Chinese newspaper Nanfang Zhoumo quotes leading Chinese scholars arguing that the centerpiece of U.S. policy toward Iran is not the nuclear issue, but a strategy toward democratization in the Middle East, which will lead toward radicalization and terrorism.[6]

Washington has traditionally supported a strict sanctions regime, whereas Beijing has tried to straddle the fence by agreeing to sanctions and the principle of further sanctions if Iran does not submit to IAEA regulations, while simultaneously limiting their severity, as in the case of Resolution 1696 and 1737. This middle-ground is a logical and necessary posture for China. If the U.S. is successful in using the United Nations to implement draconian economic sanctions or justify military confrontation, these would undermine China’s drive to expand economic cooperation with Iran, particularly securing an uninterrupted oil supply. If Iran is victorious in obtaining nuclear weapons, they might make their way into the hands of terrorists and conditions of stability and low tension, favorable for Chinese business, would collapse.[7] In fact, when Chinese analysts were asked whether a nuclear Iranian state might help check U.S. hegemony in the Gulf, such a scenario was vehemently denied as a positive development.[8]

On the radical Islam front, a complicating factor in Sino-Middle East relations—similar to U.S. relations with the region—is the propagation of political Islamist ideas. This is particularly true in terms of Xinjiang, with its Uighur Muslim majority. Following 1997 Uighur riots, Saudi clerics called the Saudi royal family to support the Chinese Muslim populations, with the late Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Baz declaring, “We have a moral obligation to help our Muslim brothers.”[9] Thus began Chinese efforts to co-opt Muslim leaders. During then Iranian President Muhammad Khatami’s visit to China in June 2000, he was taken on a tour of Beijing Ox Street mosque and Xinjiang where he embraced hand-picked Muslim leaders for the cameras. Financial and military deals have overridden concern for Uighur oppression and both Riyadh and Tehran have been conspicuously silent about China’s post-9/11 policies toward Uighurs.[10] It is in Chinese interests to cooperate with the U.S. on initiatives to decrease the appeal of militant Islamism, but, again, the means are up for disagreement.

China’s Acquiescence

On issues that Beijing and Washington do not see eye-to-eye on, China has been content to take “shifts at the margins” to strengthen ties with Middle Eastern regimes that openly acknowledge their disadvantaged position in being too reliant on the U.S.[11] The most noticeable areas of friction in the past have been Iraq, Iran, the Sudan, sea-lanes, and U.S. oil security.[12]

China actually voted in favor of UN Security Council Resolution 1441 in 2002 that held Iraq in “material breach” of disarmament obligations. Although Beijing disapproved of the U.S. decision to invade Iraq, it stood to lose if the U.S. failed and the insurgency spread to Saudi Arabia, Iran, and smaller Gulf states.[13]

Regarding Iran, the Chinese backed U.S. and European proposals to refer Iran’s nuclear program to the UN Security Council in 2006. On the issue of the Sudan, although China is heavily invested in Sudan’s oil sector, China allowed the 2004 UN Security Council Resolution to pass instead of vetoing it, which halted Sudan’s oil exports. The sea-lanes from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea remain under U.S. protection and this is a strategic reality that will not change anytime soon. Beijing seems content for the time being to rely upon the U.S., since China’s blue-water navy is still more a concept than reality.[14]

Beijing has been content in its acquiescence because its strategic interests are subordinated to its energy security interests. As long as goods and energy from the Middle East reach China under the U.S. security umbrella for sea-lanes used by oil transport, Beijing will defer to the U.S.-dominated status quo in the foreseeable future. In the absence of Sino-American conflict, this arrangement works in Beijing’s favor. China has also been consistent in its “peaceful rise” policy. Middle Eastern regimes, moreover, understand the limitations of China as a credible counterweight to the U.S. They know their own interests are best served by maintaining close ties to Washington and that Beijing also desires to maintain constructive relations with the U.S.[15]

From the Washington perspective, U.S. oil security is not actually threatened by Chinese oil endeavors in the Middle East. The main sources of U.S. oil imports are not Arab OPEC nations, but Canada and Mexico, whereas Middle East oil constitutes over fifty percent of Chinese oil imports.

Is China a Revisionist power in the Middle East?

In conclusion, Beijing is asserting itself in the Middle East, not as a revisionist state, but out of necessity for secure energy. China’s focus lies in the “soft power” realm of building friendships with Middle Eastern regimes, which it had no semblance of two decades ago. Although in the long-run China desires a “democratization” of international relations—that is, egalitarian status among all states—in the short-run China views stability as in its best interests.[16]

In addition to prioritizing a peaceful rising, Beijing is reluctant to assert itself because of the remoteness of the Middle East.[17] More importantly, Beijing and Washington share more similar interests than is usually acknowledged. In the long-run, as China begins to fulfill its role as a superpower on the world stage, it will begin to take on more responsibilities that will require ability to project economic and military influence. This may be a positive development for the U.S., as growing numbers of strategic analysts are wary of the U.S. overstretching itself and opting for a moderate strategy of selective engagement. China will continue to defer to the U.S. on issues of security in the region and, as it continues its peaceful rise, share an increasing number of interests.

Kendrick Kuo is pursuing graduate studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS. He is a contributor at Registan and hosts the China Pivots West podcast.

This essay was originally published at the China Policy Institute Blog

Notes 

 [1] Quoted in J. Peter Pham, “China’s ‘Surge’ in the Middle East and Its Implications for U.S. Interests,” American Foreign Policy Interests 31 (2009): 187.

[2] Henry Lee and Shalmon, Dan A., “Searching for Oil: China’s Initiatives in the Middle East,” Environment 49, no. 5 (June 2007): 13.

[3] Refer to Dan Blumenthal, “China and the Middle East: Providing Arms,” Middle East Quarterly (Spring 2005): 11-19.

[4] Kurt W. Radtke, “China and the Greater Middle East: Globalization No Longer Equals Westernization,” Perspectives on Global Development & Technology 6 (2007): 403.

[5] Jon B. Alterman and Garver, John W., The Vital Triangle: China, the United States, and the Middle East(Washington, D.C.: The CSIS Press, 2008), 44.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 45.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cited in Blumenthal, 17.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Henry Lee and Shalmon, Dan A., “Searching for Oil: China’s Initiatives in the Middle East,” Environment 49, no. 5 (June 2007): 20.

[12] Hongyi Harry Lai, “China’s Oil Diplomacy: Is It a Global Security Threat?,” Third World Quarterly 28, no. 3 (2007): 530.

[13] Geoffrey Kemp, “The East Moves West,” The National Interest (Summer 2006): 75.

[14] Lai, 531.

[15] Chris Zambelis and Gentry, Brandon, “China Through Arab Eyes: American Influence in the Middle East,”Paramters (Spring 2008): 70.

[16] Pham, 183.

[17] Ibid.