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Common Ground in the Middle East

Feb 25, 2022
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

It has been mentioned on different occasions that China and the United States could have dialogue and cooperate on Middle East issues. A scholar based in the United Arab Emirates and another expert who once worked with the UN on Middle East issues raised the question in separate academic discussions in the last two months. They were actually expressing the aspiration of their countries not to take sides under U.S. pressure in U.S.-China competition. Chinese scholars would give a definite “yes” answer. Any obstacles are mainly on the U.S. side — or, to be more specific, involve America’s Cold War mentality toward China.

Though people talk about a U.S. withdrawal, the U.S. nevertheless wants to maintain its strategic presence in the region. The question is just how much and to what extent the U.S. will maintain that presence.

China has no ambition to challenge the U.S. in the Middle East. It sees the region as a place with numerous strategic partnerships relevant to its energy security and as a major market for its products. China also sees the region as relevant to its successful implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative. Nor does China want to replace the role of the U.S. in the region, as it believes that people should be their own masters. American scholars are also well aware of China’s policy in this regard. The latest Rand report in 2021— Reimagining U.S. Strategy in the Middle East — says as much.

The last few years have seen the U.S. pressing countries in the region, including Israel and Gulf states, to suspend cooperation with China. But this kind of pressure does not always work. Middle Eastern countries value their cooperation with China, and they do not want to sacrifice any economic opportunities laid before them. Further pressure in this regard will annoy them, will undermine the U.S. image in the region and will ultimately undermine the U.S. strategic presence. But there is a wide range of areas in which China and the U.S. can cooperate.

First, is the reconstruction of the regional security framework and order. Last year saw frequent interactions between major regional actors that could lead to the birth of new regional security mechanisms. China and the U.S. are both important external actors and expect stability. They can work together to steer the efforts of regional actors in the right direction.

Second, the two can cooperate in the fight against unconventional threats, such as terrorism and piracy, which are threats to both countries and the world at large. The two can find space for cooperation within the UN framework. Fighting piracy could be a good example in this regard. It was by U.S. request that the UN Security Council passed a resolution against piracy, which led to China sending vessels for more than 10 years to patrol relevant areas.

Third, China and the U.S. can have dialogues on maintaining a stable energy market. The U.S. and Middle East countries are exporters, while China is a major net importer. All three share the same interest in having a sustainable market with reasonable, predictable prices.

Fourth, China and the U.S. can work together to resolve conflicts in the region. Both see the tensions of various conflicts — for instance, the Palestine-Israel confrontation or Iran nuclear issue — as affecting regional stability. The U.S. and China can work together to keep tensions at low levels and to finally resolve these conflicts.

Moreover, the two can cooperate in helping the region to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, fighting poverty and building infrastructure.

Despite opportunities, however, obstacles are always in evidence — the biggest of which is the Cold War mentality of the United States. Decision-makers like President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have said that the U.S. does not want a new cold war with China, but things on the ground indicate that the U.S. regards the Middle East as a region in which China’s influence can be contained.

The Middle East, a geographical crossroads, has been a victim of great power competition for many years and has, unfortunately, paid too high a price. To be a responsible actor, the U.S. should not bring the Middle East into its great power games but make it a region of cooperation for the benefit of all.

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