Look to the Near East

China and the United States have common interests in the Middle East.

In a relationship too often defined by mutual distrust, the United States and China have stumbled towards an unexpected opportunity for mutual cooperation.

A combination of Chinese strategic missteps in East Asia and American fatigue in West Asia has both countries searching for diplomatic measures to enhance security. The United States, the world’s preeminent power, and China, the world’s strongest rising power, share common interests in the Middle East, namely energy and maritime security. These shared interests offer new ways for these two powers to cooperate and weaken bilateral mistrust. Simultaneously, mutual agreement between the world’s two largest economies could assist in the stabilization of a region currently defined by upheaval.

Chinese Miscalculation and American Fatigue

As tensions within the Korean Peninsula continue to flare, Chinese strategic thinking has started to accept a new reality—the People’s Republic of China sits amid turmoil, partially of its own creation. Five years of projecting regional hegemony led many of its East Asian neighbors to strengthen ties with the United States. Regional economic and political cooperation, long a reliable strength in East Asia, shows signs of fraying. Finally, China’s sole regional allied partner, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, has tested Chinese patience. In short, China’s overt policy of peaceful development runs counter to prevailing trends in its own region and exposes weaknesses in China’s overall strategic thinking.

China’s domestic debate regarding its foreign relations is as varied as that found in the United States, but one rising trend inside China helps to explain its miscalculations abroad. For the past several decades, Chinese nationalism has been on the rise. The Chinese Communist Party, moving away from socialist ideology and towards quasi capitalism, actively encouraged nationalist sentiment as a tool to retain legitimacy. This has proven useful for internal politics, but was detrimental to foreign relations.

Chinese nationalism finds expression by arguing that over the course of recorded human history the nation was the primary (or at least one) center of power. It is only in the last century that China has fallen from preeminence and it is the duty of China’s citizens to endeavor to restore its natural position.

What plays well on Chinese Central TV and in the People’s Daily does not sit easily abroad. Perceptions of China are darkening in the region, assisted by Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea and tensions throughout much of Southeast Asia between various ethnic minorities and overseas Chinese populations. Official statements regarding the Chinese nation, combined with the occasional overexuberance of Chinese netizens, have created a perception among its neighbors that China wants to dominate East Asia, not lead it.

Added to negative perceptions are additions to China’s hard power, namely the increased influence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) within Chinese politics and the advancing capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). China’s investment in its military has encouraged similar investments by neighboring countries in reaction. The common emergence of territorial disputes, particularly in the East and South China Seas, created fear that the region may soon be gripped by a serious military clash. Some compare contemporary East Asia today to the Balkans of the early twentieth century, but this view ignores the presence of stabilizing factors like regional trade. Altogether, it is neither surprising nor unwelcome that China is seeking to build up international goodwill within other regions.

As for the United States, the American electorate is tired of military conflict and the country’s involvement in the Middle East. Others have discussed the costs of the Iraq and Afghan Wars—and many in the United States and around the world question the benefits of such a large investment of blood and treasure.