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Foreign Policy

Converging and Conflicting Interests in the Middle East

Oct 17 , 2012
  • Zhao Weibin

    Researcher, PLA Academy of Military Science

The political upheavals in the Arab world have not settled down, leading to a number of uncertainties.  Strategic configuration in the Middle East is changing dramatically.  Owing to the US decision to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, the rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific region, the failure to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the impotence in resolving the Iranian nuclear issue, and an economic crisis, there is a perception of US decline in and disengagement from the region.  Middle-East countries, especially US traditional allies, are trying to introduce other external forces to reduce the risk of reliance on the US.  As its economy develops rapidly, China increasingly depends on oil from the Middle East and wants to play a greater role in the region.  When the hegemonic power and the rising power meet in the Middle East, their various interests may converge or conflict with each other.

In his speech delivered on May 19, 2011, President Obama made it clear that US core interests in the Middle East included “countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce and safeguarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace”.  It seems that China’s interests in the Middle East and most of the US’s can converge.

1.    Counter-Terrorism

Religious extremism and ethnic contradictions have made the Middle East a breeding ground for terrorism.  Since the 1970s, it has been a hot spot for terrorist activities.  People all over the world, especially Americans, still have the bitter memory of Sept. 11 disaster.  Terrorism is a global issue, and China is also a victim of terrorism.  The “Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement” and other “Eastern Turkestan” terrorist forces have long been masterminding and instigating terrorist attacks against the Chinese government and people.  Fighting the “Eastern Turkestan” terrorist forces is an important part of the international struggle against terrorism.

2.    Nuclear Non-Proliferation

As stated in the UNSC Resolution 1887 (2009), it is a common aspiration for the international community to “seek a safer world for all and to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons”.  Properly addressing the Iran nuclear issue is of great significance for maintaining stability and peace and avoiding greater upheaval in the Middle East.  Both China and the US acknowledge the need to achieve nuclear non-proliferation, promote the nuclear disarmament process, and consolidate the NPT review mechanisms.  Both China and the US do not wish to see the influence of nuclear issues on the geopolitical structure in the Middle East, let alone a regional nuclear arms race.

3.    Free Flow of Commerce /Regional Stability

Maintaining the security of the Middle East impacts oil and other resources supplies for China and the US.  For China, oil imported from the Middle East totals about 58% of the total imported volume, and this percentage might grow to 70% by 2015.  The sea line of communication from the Middle East to the Indian Ocean, through the Strait of Hormuz, has become China’s lifeline.  For the US, ensuring its oil interests in the Middle East is one of the priorities in its foreign policy.  Control over strategic resources is the basis for US hegemony and key to its geopolitical interests.

4.    Palestine-Israel Peace

Palestine-Israel peace is at the heart of Middle-East issues and has a major impact on the region.  Both China and the US support an independent Palestinian State, living in peace and security alongside the State of Israel.  Both agree that it is only through negotiation, not through unilateral acts, that peace can be secured.  Both do not accept the legitimacy of Israel’s continued settlement activity and oppose their effort to legalize settlement outposts.

In spite of the fact that some interests of China and the US may converge in the Middle East, it can be noted that some of their fundamental political and security interests are different, and even conflict with each other.

China is a regional power, and Middle-East countries are potential strategic cooperative partners; while the US is a global power, and the Middle East is an important constituent of the US global strategic layout.  In this region, the US seeks dominance and control, and adopts a hegemonic strategy.  Backed by its mighty military strength, supported by alliances, and with the excuses of counter terrorism and non-proliferation, the US aims to keep its grip on oil resources and expand its influence on the world economy.  China seeks to maintain a balance between various forces, and aims to guarantee its legitimate rights and interests as well as an influence commensurate with its national strength.  The conflicting political and security interests of China and the US can be manifested by the Syrian issue and the Iranian nuclear issue.

5.    On the Syrian Issue

China is greatly concerned about the situation in Syria. It adheres to the principle of “non interference”, respects the choice of Syrian people, is committed to the peaceful, fair and proper political resolution, and supports the UN in continuing to play a leading role.  By contrast, the US imposes tough, targeted sanctions on Syria, and promotes the overthrow of the Al-Assad regime.  It is very resentful about Russia and China’s veto in UN Security Council, claiming “any further bloodshed will be on their hands”.  China appeals to the international community to guard against interference in the internal affairs of a country or proceeding with military action under the pretext of humanitarianism.  Efforts to ease the humanitarian situation must be guided by the principles of neutrality, impartiality and respect for Syria’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity.  China opposes any externally imposed solution aiming at forcing a regime change.

6.    On the Iranian Nuclear Issue

China agrees that relevant resolutions of the UN Security Council should be implemented in a comprehensive manner.  However, sanctions are not an end in themselves.  China is not in favor of excessive pressure on Iran or unilateral sanctions against it.  China is firmly opposed to double standards, and to the use of force or threats to use force.

Ignoring Israel’s nuclear capabilities, the US strongly urges Iran to cooperate fully and immediately with the IAEA on all issues.  At the same time, the US makes efforts to reduce Iran’s oil revenues and isolate its Central Bank from the international financial system.  The US has brought significant pressure on the Iranian regime, and declares that it “will continue to work with our partners to ratchet up the pressure on Iran”.

To conclude, in the Middle East, China and the US have common interests in counter-terrorism, WMD non-proliferation, regional stability and Palestine-Israel peace.  Cooperation between the two countries not only meets the needs of their domestic development, but also becomes an avenue of building mutual trust.  Although their fundamental political and security interests in the region are diverging, both countries need the safe, healthy development of global trade and economy.  The Middle East is one of the three strategic areas of US global hegemony, as well as one of the components of China’s “greater neighboring diplomacy”. 

Generally, strategic interests of China and the US in the Middle East are structurally complementary.  Hot issues in the region might be opportunities for the two countries to expand strategic coordination, and the Middle East might become a platform for more cooperation, rather than competition.


Zhao Weibin is Research Fellow, Center on China-America Defense Relations (CCADR), Academy of Military Science (AMS)

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