China: A Solution in the Middle East?

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China: A Solution in the Middle East?

China’s growing presence and lack of baggage could make it an effective player in the troubled region.

China: A Solution in the Middle East?
Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

U.S. President Barack Obama admitted at the June 2015 G-7 summit in Germany that his administration did not have a “complete strategy” for Islamic extremists in the Middle East. Although the admission was only a brief note in the president’s remarks, it spoke volumes about the United States’ predicament in dealing with the problems that plague that part of the world. Given their complicated nature, any future U.S. strategy will merely act as a bandage that covers deeply rooted and infested wounds. Until the underlying issues are addressed, the U.S. will find itself trapped in awkward positions again and again.

What should Washington do about the Middle East? It appears that at present, it has no choice but to help the Iraqi government drive ISIS out and restore order in Iraq. But in regard to the problems in Syria and Yemen, and for many other issues in the region, the United States does have choices and must come up with a long-term strategy.

For a variety of compelling reasons, this strategy should include China as an important component. China has been rising in national power and steadily moving toward the center stage of world politics. It is now eager to play a bigger role in international affairs in general and in the Middle East in particular. China’s growing economic ties with both Israel and Arab nations and its lack of religious and political baggage make it an ideal candidate to break the gridlocks in the Middle East and initiate constructive changes. The U.S. should seriously consider this option and carefully facilitate China’s assumption of duties in this conflicted region.

The US: Part of the Problem

The overarching problem in the Middle East is the Israel-Arab conflict. The United States has long been a supporter and protector of Israel. From an Arab perspective, the U.S. stands squarely on the “other side” of the Israeli-Arab divide and cannot be impartial in mediating the conflict.

Fragmentation within the Islamic community constantly plagues the Arab population. Tension between Sunni and Shia Muslims has often resulted in bloody clashes between the competing sects. The U.S. has sowed feelings of resentment and betrayal amongst Muslims by siding with different sects in different historical contexts. By weaving a complicated web of relationships with various Arab nations, the U.S. has effectively entangled itself in Middle Eastern affairs. Clearly, the United States is part of the problem in the Middle East. As such, it cannot be an effective mediator in the conflicts.

Still, Washington cannot simply sever its Middle Eastern ties and leave the region to its own devices. Three key issues, among many others, force the United States to maintain a presence in the Middle East for now and into the foreseeable future. First, it must help rebuild Iraq following the destruction of it in the 2003 invasion. As Colin Powell famously put it, “if you break it, you own it.” Second, the Iran problem will keep the U.S. in the Middle East for as long as the issues remain unresolved. And finally, the United States holds a bias toward Israel when it comes to conflicts between Israel and the Arabs. Therefore, it will remain in the Middle East as long as the conflict persists.

The first problem will most likely be handled by the U.S. alone. In the quest to rebuild Iraq, the United States will have little, if any, help from other nations (the G-7 heads of nations paid only lip service to the U.S. request for assistance). In the case of Iran, Washington ought to take a lesson from the North Korea problem, in which China has been a mediator. China is already invested in the P5+1 (the five UN Security Council Permanent members plus Germany) negotiation with Iran to bring a halt to Iran’s nuclear program. In future negotiations, the U.S. should suggest holding meetings in Beijing (rather than Vienna). While this strategy may grant China undeserved international prestige, it is a small price to pay to ease an onerous undertaking. Allowing China to assume a more prominent role could bring about a dramatic change to this decades-old problem.

As for the third issue, the United States desperately needs China’s help. Only China, with its growing economic clout and lack of diplomatic baggage, can help bridge the gap between Israel/U.S. and the Arabs.

The Middle East: It’s the Economy, Stupid!

There is no panacea for the centuries-old conflicts in the Middle East. These family feuds, in the Chinese expression, “cannot be cut,” and any attempt to sort them out will only make them worse. That said, many of the family feuds are about money. Improved economic conditions often reduce the intensity of tensions and may well do so in the Middle East.

In the quest for influence in the Middle East, China’s future ambitions are even more important than its past diplomatic dealings. Through its policy of promoting investment in the region, China has built strong ties to both Israel and its Arab and Muslim neighbors. These ties provide the leverage necessary to broker more peaceful relations in the region. Chinese businessmen and entrepreneurs have invested heavily in Israel’s “Silicon Wadi” and have helped the country grow through venture capital and private equity deals. Beijing is Israel’s third-largest trading partner and Israel is China’s second-largest source of military technology.

In the Arab nations, Chinese companies have invested heavily in infrastructure, engaged in arms sales, and initiated extensive resource extraction operations. China’s desire to play a larger role in the world, and the Middle East in particular, is largely defined by its oil and resource ambitions. In 2014, China imported about 6.2 million barrels of oil per day. About 3.1 million of those barrels came from the Middle East.  More specifically, 989,000 barrels came from Saudi Arabia, 573,000 barrels came from Iraq, and 546,000 barrels came from Iran. China’s thriving economy has propelled it past the United States as the world’s largest oil importer. As the United States continues to demonstrate its preference for non-Arab oil sources, the bond between Arab oil-producing nations and Chinese companies will strengthen.

But oil is not the only factor bolstering the Chinese-Arab relationship; China and the Middle East also maintain strong trading ties. The Chinese Silk Road (known as the “One Belt, One Road” strategy) offers Middle Easterners improved economic prospects through a resource distribution route that will run from China to Europe. The path, which includes both land and maritime routes, connects China to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Turkey, and Europe. China has vowed to spend nearly fifty billion dollars on building railways, roads, pipelines, shipping lanes, and other infrastructure in the region. Ju Chengzhi, a senior official at China’s transport ministry stated, “The route will link China with major countries in Central Asia, Western Asia, and Europe. It will pass these countries’ administrative centers, major cities, and resource-producing areas.” While China extracts oil and offers commodities in return, the United States has limited commodities to offer the Middle East. The United States also lacks a Silk Road-type plan to promote economic growth in the region.

Ambassador Gong Xiaosheng, China’s special envoy to the Middle East, believes that the Silk Road initiative could be a key answer to the Middle East’s peace problem. During an April 2015 visit to Palestine, Gong expressed his desire for the Silk Road to serve as a catalyst to spur economic development and foster peace. He also related China’s desire to get Palestine involved in China’s development plan. He believes that, unlike previous attempts to foster peace in the Middle East, the beauty of the “One Belt, One Road” strategy lies in its scope: by 2014, as Chaoling Feng notes, 77 out of 118 of China’s bilateral or trilateral free trade agreements were states located along the One Belt, One Road routes. A comprehensive Middle East involvement in the proposed Silk Road will reduce youth unemployment and smooth out uneven economic growth in major population centers. In this way, the initiative will go a long way toward addressing underlying sources of instability.

It is also important to note the role that the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) will play in uniting Middle Eastern factions, while simultaneously supporting the development of the Silk Road. The AIIB provides the funding and investment necessary to turn the “One Belt, One Road” vision into a reality. Egypt has joined the AIIB as a founding member and Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait have signed on as associate members. Membership in the AIIB grants these nations a fast track to Chinese investment funds and will unite them under a common economic interest.

On both ends of the Arab-Israeli dispute, military exchanges and economic cooperation will serve as major building blocks for bilateral relations. Israelis and Palestinians recognize that Chinese investment is invaluable in sustaining their economies. To court future investment from this great power, nations on both sides of the ethnic and religious divide will be forced to moderate their demands. When compared with Washington’s Middle East policies, Beijing’s new approach lays the foundation for more peaceful and prosperous relations. Perhaps it is time to give China a chance.

China: An Ideal Alternative?

China enjoys a number of advantages over the United States (and other great powers such as Great Britain, France, Germany, or Russia) in the Middle East. First, it lacks the religious, colonial, and historical baggage that weighs down many other nations. By refusing to get entangled in violence between Arabs and Israelis, China has demonstrated that it holds no preference between Jews and Muslims. China has also avoided the quagmire of picking sides between competing Muslim sects. Plus, geographic and demographic divisions in the Middle East cannot be attributed to the Chinese. Unlike the other great powers, China has no negative historical legacy in the region. More importantly, China enjoys normal relations with all Middle Eastern countries. Lastly, one should not discount China’s “One Belt, One Road” plan and its ability to bring change to the region.

Of course, China’s increased Middle Eastern investment doesn’t necessarily guarantee future diplomatic success. Key players must also demonstrate their willingness to cooperate with the Chinese. Historical and current political and economic trends indicate that both Israel and Palestine would be likely to do so. China’s support for Palestine is longstanding. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) received weapons and money from China in the 1970s and 1980s, and Chinese leaders refer to Yasser Arafat as “an old friend of the Chinese people.” Nonetheless, China’s historically pro-Arab position and its support for the Iranian regime has not prevented the Israeli government from inviting the Chinese to invest in infrastructure, education, and technology. Member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) also welcome China’s economic involvement as way to stabilize the region. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for example, regard China as a balancing force against their overall reliance on Western powers for stability.

From Israel’s point of view, China represents an increasingly appealing economic and diplomatic partner. The U.S. rebalance to Asia, while intended to address pressing political and economic imperatives in that region, causes Israel to doubt Washington’s commitment to its security. Coupled with Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent diplomatic failure in Israel, the rebalance has complicated the traditionally solid U.S.-Israel alliance. Israel’s April 2015 decision to join the AIIB  also demonstrates its desire to strengthen its diplomatic and economic ties with China. Beijing’s shift from a condemnation of Israel to a relatively neutral position will encourage cooperation. Even though the Arabs are not pleased with China’s shift, economic imperatives require that they accept the change.

Of course, increased involvement in the Middle East means that China will be forced to make tough choices. To some, China’s history as a “free rider” precludes it from addressing the Middle East’s most unwieldy issues.  It is true that China has taken a free ride while the U.S. has shouldered the thankless burden of Middle Eastern peacekeeping and the attendant international criticism. Still, while China may not be able to solve all of the Middle East’s problems, it is in a better position to do so than the United States is. While the U.S. must remain involved in the Middle East to address crucial security commitments, China has the potential to grow into a major player in the region.

Some U.S. commentators contend that if China refuses to take a firm stand on key Middle Eastern issues, it can hardly become a major player. Others argue that China cannot sow the seeds of security, peace, and stability in the Middle East without expending blood or treasure. The Chinese, however, believe that they are different from Americans (and others as well) and will therefore act differently. The Chinese take this as an article of faith. The world should give China the benefit of the doubt.

David Lai, Ph.D., is Research Professor of Asian Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. Noah Lingwall is an intern at the Strategic Studies Institute and a student at the Schreyer Honors College of Pennsylvania State University. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.