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Is China Really a Free Rider in the Middle East?

Aug 22 , 2014
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

With the rise of the recent tensions in the Middle East, in particular the emergence of ISIS in Iraq, China’s role in the region was again brought into focus. On August 8, 2014, in an interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Barack Obama claimed that China had been a free rider for thirty years, and that no one expected China to play the role.

Jin Liangxiang

Actually this is not a new point of view. Paul Haenle, Director of Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, wrote in the Financial Times on October 8, 2013, that “China’s rise to global leadership means rhetoric and vetoes are no longer enough”. He meant that China should side with the US.

An article “Middle East Oil Fuels Fresh China-U.S. Tensions” in Wall Street Journal two days later claimed that China and other oil-consuming nations have benefited as Washington spent billions of dollars a year to police chokepoints like the Strait of Hormuz and other volatile parts of the Middle East to ensure oil flow around the globe.

Though these arguments have some traction in the international community, they are actually based on series of false assumptions on the roles of China and the US. And China’s image as a “free rider” in the Middle East is a result of fabrication.

This argument is firstly based on the false assumption that the US had been a provider of global security in the last decade, which is questionable in itself. It might be true that the US played a positive role in the Middle East in the 1990s. The US led multinational forces to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait back to Iraq; the US tried to make efforts to promote peace process between Israel and Palestine.

But unfortunately, the US was rather a provider of insecurity in the decade since 2001 when George Bush was in the White House. With the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US not only destroyed the domestic order of the two countries, but also further undermined regional security and stability, as indicated by the domestic tensions in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as regional conflicts. The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the emergence of ISIL in Iraq are outcomes of the two wars.

Being prudent in the use of military force might prove to be the right lesson that Barack Obama learned from his predecessor. But that does not mean the Obama’s administration should not be responsible for regional turmoil. Shortly after taking office, Obama decided to withdraw forces from Iraq. It is wrong to intervene in Iraq’s internal issues by military means, but it is equally irresponsible to withdraw forces from Iraq when Iraq’s security forces are far from being prepared. How can the US just leave the mess behind? It is the same with Afghanistan.

Though President Obama has sufficiently demonstrated his reluctance in intervening in Syria’s domestic affairs, he is strongly “committed to stand on the right side of history”, which greatly fueled Syria’s domestic tensions. And it is just by taking advantage of Syria’s civil war that ISIS has been able to increase its strengths.

It should also be noted that the billions of dollars spent in the use of force to “protecting” the Hormuz Strait can hardly be regarded as providing security for public good. There is a common sense that the fifth fleet stationed in Bahrain is for containing Iran, which is a strategic rival of the US. Are the forces for public good? What’s more, despite the objective of containing Iran, US forces are actually contributing to the tension in the Straits.

Secondly, it is false to assume China is a beneficiary of the US military presence in the region. The period from 2002 till 2012 witnessed the rapid growth of China’s crude imports from 1.4 million to 5.40 million barrels a day. Unfortunately, it was also this period of time that witnessed the most rapid growth in oil prices. Prior to 2003, the price of crude oil was below $50 a barrel, but after that, it began to rise to more than $100 a barrel.

Obviously, China is a victim rather than a beneficiary of the rising oil prices. The reasons for the price increase might be numerous, but the primary one should be the instability of the Middle East as a result of the two wars. The increasing demands of China and other emerging economies are always blamed for the rising oil prices. But so long as there is sufficient international capital for investment in oil sectors and sufficient reserve underground, the impact of rising demand should be limited.

China’s oil trade with Iran is also undermined by US policy. China used to have Iran as one of its major sources of oil. At the apex, China imported 600 thousand barrels a day from Iran. But due to US sanctions, China’s import was reduced to 400 thousand barrels a day in 2012.

Similar criticisms also target China’s business opportunities in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, they are also unreasonable. Chinese companies did get the chance to develop oil and mineral resources in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it does not mean that Chinese companies got these opportunities because of the two wars. Indeed, Chinese companies did win contracts to develop two of Iraq’s oil fields prior to the war.

Thirdly, it is false to label China as just a beneficiary of security in the Middle East. On the contrary, China actively worked for Middle East peace and stability under the framework of the UN. Being a major source of UN peace keeping troops, China dispatched thousands of soldiers for UN missions in Lebanon and Sudan. With UN authorization, China has consistently dispatched naval battleships, which serve to protect the sealanes of the Aden Gulf. China also deployed battleships to escort ships carrying Syria’s chemical weapons for destruction in the Mediterranean in 2013 through 2014.

Worthy of special mention is that all these are for the public good, judging since all these actions are under UN framework, whereas US forces in the Middle East often have a poor legal basis.

It is true that China is a major importer of Middle East oil. But it does not mean that China is nothing but a beneficiary. Instead, China is a contributor. China’s investment in Sudan greatly promoted Sudan’s economic growth. China’s stable oil imports helped prevent Gulf countries from being plunged into deeper economic difficulties during the global economic crisis since 2008. China’s investment in Iraq has eased economic difficulties of the country.

China is an economic power. China’s contributions, though more in the economic area, are conducive to promoting security and stability. Or at least, it helped to prevent the regional situation from getting worse.

All in all, China’s role in the region has been blamed unreasonably. By accusing China as “having a free ride”, the US actually is expressing its frustration with the situation and with China’s unwillingness to join the US in its Middle East foray. In fact, in the case of the Iraq war, China criticized US policy.

China’s Middle East envoy has all along been active in trying to help the relative parties to reach peaceful and fair settlements of the urgent issues in the region. It is also believed that, as a rising power, China will play a more active role in regional affairs, security areas in particular, for the benefits of the region and the world as well.

China will continuously support the leading role of the UN in regional security issues, since the UN is still the unique international organization with prestige and authority.

Meanwhile, China will support the countries in the region to enhance their cooperation so that they become the driving force for the settlement of the regional security issues, rather than only relying on forces from outside.

Dr. Jin Liangxiang is a Research Fellow at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.

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