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.
Noting that “for the first time in history,” a Chinese warship entered the Mediterranean last year to help evacuate its nationals from Libya, Tony Corn wrote in Small Wars Journal that in “the not-too-distant future, China may well seek to secure a naval base in Tripoli” as part of an effort to extend its reach in the Middle East and North Africa,” and called on Washington to “launch a strategic communication campaign designed to heighten the situational awareness of the rest of Europe by providing a comprehensive ‘mapping’ of the ever-expanding Sino-Islamic nexus, both functionally and geographically.”
Understanding China’s Interests
Talk about the threat of a “Sino-Islamic nexus” recalls the rhetoric about the menace of Islamofascism that disregarded the ethnic and religious complexities of the Middle East. This saber rattling also helped mobilize support for the ousting of Saddam Hussein based on the notion that the secular Iraqi leader shared a common strategy with the radical Islamist Osama bin Laden.
In fact, China’s ties with Iran should not be misconceived as Chinese identification with the radical agenda of the Islamic Republic. It is the shift in China’s demand for imported energy—the International Energy Agency forecasts that by 2025 China will overtake America as the world’s largest importer of gas and oil—that motivates Beijing to maintain ties with Iran and other energy-rich countries around the world (40 percent of its imports coming from the Middle East). After all, no one argues that close U.S. economic and military ties with Saudi Arabia are a reflection of American support for its theocratic agenda.
Moreover, since an estimated 80 percent of China’s oil imports arrive through sea routes from the Middle East, it is not surprising that Beijing is worried that a Western policy of isolating Iran could lead to a blockade and threaten China’s economic interests.
It is also important to place China’s policy on Syria in the context of its traditional opposition to outside intervention in domestic politics of other countries, a concern shared by Russia. There is also worry that the disintegration of Syria into a civil war could bring a radical Sunni Islamist government in Damascus, which could spill over into Muslim countries in Central Asia and Xinjiang. In a way, U.S. support for the Saudi-led effort to repress the Shiite insurgency in Bahrain is not different from the approach that China is talking in Syria.
If anything, China remains very much a pro-status quo power in the Middle East and shows no sign of trying to encourage radical players in the region to challenge American power there à la the Soviets during the Cold War. Both in its rhetoric and policy, China has refrained from lending support for local insurgents during the evolving Arab Spring, and it has maintained a diversified diplomatic portfolio in the region that includes Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran and Israel.
China and Israel recently celebrated the twenty-year anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, with China becoming important market for Israel’s military industries. Iran may be one of China’s largest oil suppliers—but so is Saudi Arabia, which is trying to use its leverage to affect Beijing’s attitude towards Iran.
And while China has expressed sympathy to the plight of the Palestinians, it refrained from joining the Middle East quartet and has shown no interest in playing an activist role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. All this suggests that weakening the U.S. position in the Middle East is not at the top of China’s foreign-policy agenda. Washington has been doing a good job in making that happen without any Chinese interference.
Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.
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