The Mythical Sino-Islamic Nexus

China's strengthening ties with Middle Eastern nations are about energy, not an anti-American alliance.

Raise a Middle East policy issue during a meeting of Western diplomats and academics, and there is little doubt that a long and heated debate would ensue; it would include references to European imperialism and anti-Semitism, the Crusades and the Holocaust, Islamophobia and the Israel Lobby, democracy and the relationship between religion and state, not to mention several detailed plans to resolve the conflict in the Holy Land. Bring up the same issue during a discussion between Chinese officials and intellectuals, and much of the focus of a relatively brief and calm exchange would be on traditional foreign-policy considerations: the region’s energy resources, its strategic location, the relationship between its major states, the influence of outside powers and maybe an allusion to the latest Israeli-Palestinian surge in violence.

Indeed, American foreign-policy experts who visit Beijing are surprised by the almost detached and calculated analysis of the developments in the area of the world that their Chinese counterparts refer to sometimes as “West Asia.” With close to one hundred years of almost obsessive preoccupation by the West with the conflict between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East—and with half a century of U.S. diplomatic hyperactivism and military intervention in the region—Americans seem to exhibit what psychologists refer to as “projection bias,” ascribing their own fixation with the Middle East to the Chinese.

After all, China is emerging as a global power that supposedly is trying to displace the United States as the next hegemon. So it follows that as the ability of Washington to determine political outcomes in the Middle East is eroding, China would try to exploit that vulnerability and take over America’s strategic role as the outside patron of regional actors and as a major player in Arab-Israeli issues—in the same way that the United States replaced Great Britain after 1945 as the supreme power in the Middle East. At a minimum, China would attempt to subvert U.S. interests in the region as the former Soviet Union did during the Cold War.

Indeed, the growing fears in the West after the end of the Cold War over the rise of the “Green” (Islam) and “Yellow” (China) perils, coupled with Chinese effort to broaden its access to new energy resources to help fuel the growth economy, have led some American analysts to speculate that the expansion of Chinese ties with energy producers worldwide could be transformed into an ambitious strategy of forming political-military alliances with the oil-producing states in the Persian Gulf. This would clearly challenge the United States, which assumes the role of protecting Western access to energy resources there.

Not Best Friends

In his The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington raised the prospect of the emergence of a Sino-Islamic nexus consisting of “core states”—China and Iran—under which the Chinese would become the suppliers of advanced weaponry to the Islamic Republic in exchange for unlimited energy supply from that country.

But then this notion of a “Sino-Islamic nexus” doesn’t make a lot of sense if one considers that China faces its own Green Peril of Islamic unrest in the form of a large and disgruntled Turkic-Muslim Uighur population in its Xinjiang province (or East Turkistan). The Uighurs have displayed their opposition to the ruling Han majority through a series of protests and even terrorist acts, which Beijing sees as part of a secessionist Islamist movement that, not unlike the one in Tibet, could bring about the breakup of Greater China.

This reality of Islamist separatists explains why the Chinese cooperated with the United States in its post-9/11 war against terrorism. The Sino-American relationship remained stable during the eight years that the Bush administration invested much of its energy and resources in fighting that war in the broader Middle East.

Some Chinese analysts worried that the preeminent U.S. position in the Persian Gulf and the invasion of Iraq would provide Washington with huge leverage over China, particularly during a war with Taiwan. But others recognized that a costly U.S. intervention in the region could force the United States to contract its military presence in East Asia while allowing China to expand its commercial presence in countries in the broader Middle East—all thanks to free U.S. military protection.

But more recently, the perception that China is challenging U.S. interests in the Middle East seems to be gaining more traction in Washington. China hasn’t backed the efforts by Washington and its allies to isolate Iran through economic sanctions, and Beijing has continued to pursue energy agreements and other commercial deals with the Iranians.

China joined Russia in February in vetoing a UN Security Council resolution censuring Bashar al-Assad for using military force against his own people, and Beijing continues to work with Moscow to disrupt the U.S.-led effort to oust the Baathist regime in Damascus from power.

Against the backdrop of the collapse of some of the pro-American regimes in the Middle East, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and the announcement by the Obama administration that it was reshifting its strategic focus from the Middle East to the Pacific Rim, security hawks are warning again that the Chinese are advancing a long-term strategy of establishing hegemony in the Middle East.