The strategic competition between China and the United States has intensified in recent years, with the situations on the Korean Peninsula, across the Strait of Taiwan, and in the South China Sea only complicating the relationship. The Middle East (including Western Asia and North Africa), by contrast, is neither an area of deep contention between Washington and Beijing, nor an area that China exercises its strategic influence adequately. In fact, China and the U.S. share many common strategic interests in the Middle East, such as maintaining energy security, regional stability, international counter-terrorism, and nuclear non-proliferation. Yet cooperation in the region has been mostly minimal.
As China’s cooperation with Middle Eastern countries on energy and economic issues is expanding, so too is its influence. This has led to a situation in which tensions have risen with the United States and other countries hoping to increase their own dealings with the region, yet at the same time the opportunity to strategically cooperate with China and leverage their influence has also increased. Since the beginning of 2011, political change has swept through the Middle East. Today, China and the U.S. agree on the importance of maintaining stability in the region. However, the two countries differ on the necessary levels of foreign intervention in order to maintain regional stability, thus creating a new issue of contention in the already complicated bilateral relationship
As the political landscape continues to change in the Middle East, both China and the United States must develop strategies which promote prolonged cooperation.
First, maintaining stability in the Middle East is a desire for both Washington and Beijing. The security agendas of China and the U.S. coincide on a number of issues, including national transition and reconstruction, economic expansion and social development.
Secondly, maintaining energy security remains a key strategic interest of China and the United States. Although the U.S. demand for energy from the Middle East is declining while China’s energy demand from the region is growing, they share the common interest in maintaining energy production, especially in the midst of global economic volatility.
Thirdly, the need for collaboration in counter-terrorism efforts is crucial to both regional and global security. Both countries understand the need to avoid the rekindling of Islamist extremism throughout the Middle East as it seeks stability after the “Arab Spring.”
In addition to the previous reasons for cooperation, China and the United States are obligated to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). As permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the two countries should strive to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons in order to ease the security strains on the newly developed governments in the region.
Finally, China and the United States should work together to rebuild Afghanistan. Given that the U.S. is set to pull out its troops from Afghanistan, Chinese participation in the rebuilding of the country will help ease the U.S. burden and will be in China’s own security interest as well.
In addition to areas where China and the United States should seek cooperation, there are also areas where the opinions of the two countries differ. Although it is important that these differences are not overlooked, they should not serve as barriers to cooperation either.
China and the United States must engage in constructive dialogue in order to better understand the other’s intentions in the Middle East. In recent years, some scholars in the U.S. have argued that China’s influence in Middle East constitutes a threat to the United States. In particular, they viewed China’s growing oil imports from the Middle East as a threat to Western energy security. At the same time, opinions out of China predicted that the U.S. will become bogged down in the Middle East, in hopes that it would stymie the calls to shift Washington’s attention to the East. The above mentalities not only prevent bilateral cooperation on policies pertaining to the Middle East, they prevent the overall harmonious relationship that leaders in both countries desire.
Additionally, given the differences between China and U.S. in terms of their respective views on foreign policy, the two sides share different policy orientations regarding the political changes taking place as a result of the “Arab Spring.” As many nations throughout the region sought to voice their opinions about their respective governments, the U.S. and other Western countries policy orientation highlighted their tradition of interventionist diplomacy and advocated for democratic change in the region. On the contrary, China stuck to its basic foreign policy line of “non-interference of internal affairs”, respect of national sovereignty, freedom of choice, and constructive dialogue. The responses to unrest in Libya and Syria by Washington and Beijing represent the differing views on foreign policy of the two countries.
Furthermore, while the U.S. has an extensive history in Middle Eastern affairs, China is a late-comer in the region. At present, China’s interests in the region are solely focused on trade and commerce, energy and engineering contracts.
As China’s influence in the Middle East continues to grow, China and the United States will likely jostle for influence in the region. Despite the fact that this tends to be a typical interaction in the bilateral relationship, both sides should make a greater effort to understand the desires or the other. This policy would lead to constructive interactions in the region, and a shift from the typical zero-sum perception of the bilateral relationship between Washington and Beijing.
Liu Zhongmin is Director of Middle East Studies Institute, Shanghai International Studies University.