Εκτύπωση αυτής της σελίδας
Τετάρτη, 15 Μαϊος 2013 03:00

China and the US in the Middle East: rivals, partners, or what?

Γράφτηκε από Thanassis Papamargaris
Experiencing a fast economic growth for approximately the past thirty years, China has in the last decade felt strong enough to play a much more active role compared to the recent past. Amid a debate regarding whether China will or will not be the next superpower challenging the US global hegemony, the Middle East is considered as among the first regions the potential Sino-American rivalry will take place. However, despite the truth such scenarios entail, reality is arguably more complex, especially in the now changing socio-political landscape of the Middle East.

 pdf

In the pre-Arab Spring years, China became increasingly active in the region and tried to consolidate its presence and influence, mainly in economic terms. In the late 2000s, the total trade volume between China and the Middle East almost doubled in relation to the previous years, while the latter’s egypt mursi chinaexports to China grew by 25%.[1] China’s investment flows have grown tenfold.[2] Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia seem to be in the epicentre of this meteoric rise, since the Sino-Israeli, Sino-Iranian and Sino-Saudi bilateral trade doubled: respectively worth $7.6 billion, $29.4 billion and $43.2 billion in 2010.[3] A large part of China’s trade with Saudi Arabia and Iran consisted of oil; in 2012, the former supplied 44.6 million tons and the latter 21.3 million tons.[4] At the same time, several Middle Eastern governments -such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Algeria- have also concluded deals with Chinese contractors on major infrastructure projects, such as railway, housing and energy.

While all these betray an increasing economic interdependence between China and the Middle East, it is still not as important as the one the region enjoys with the US, even though the latter is much more focused on certain countries, such as the UAE, Israel, Saudi Arabia, as well as Algeria and Iraq: Israel excluded, the American imports from the region are worth $123 billion, 90%[5] of which is oil. The largest part of the oil-related trade has been with Saudi Arabia, while the total value of the US-Saudi Arabia trade is $74 billion.[6] The total value of Israeli-American trade has slightly exceeded $36 billion in 2012.[7] American trade seems to be more political in nature; countries such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt tend to have larger trade in relation to others, such as Iran, Libya, and Syria.

This nevertheless is but one aspect. The US is the established global power and its alliances and international policies date back at least 70 years, meaning that at any given time and in most parts of the world, Washington has a respectable number of relatively reliable allies. China’s policies on the contrary are not that old and for their most part, Beijing was at best a regional power. In the Middle East, this is translated into the US being particularly close to Israel and Saudi Arabia and undoubtedly quite influential towards most other countries. China on the other hand has not so far forged any such relationships. Increased trends in trade and FDI do not constitute sufficient indicators for any hegemonic ambitions from the part of China, even though this scenario cannot be easily discarded. Certainly the Chinese political elites would not at all mind if Beijing assumed in the future a hegemonic role in the region; but their priority for now is South East Asia, where confrontation with the US seems more probable, albeit hitherto mostly verbal.

Nonetheless, it should be emphasised that, apart from the containment of the USSR, a major reason for which the US had increased its presence in the Middle East in the first place was its energy needs. Only recently did the War on Terror and the fear of an aggressive and nuclearised Iran come into being. In any case, the US seems at the moment to steadily pave its way towards energy independence, mainly thanks to techniques such as hydraulic fracturing (or simply “fracking”) and horizontal drilling. Washington’s interest in the Middle East may in the foreseeable future be relatively decreased, thus leaving a power vacuum, which other powers might wish to fill. If such a scenario eventually comes to pass, China will most likely be among the first to try and avail, mainly due to its wish to secure its access to energy. Nonetheless, because of the US Iran-related fears and the War on Terror, even if Washington starts seeing the Middle East in a relatively “oil-less” way, it is highly unlikely that it will completely withdraw from the region, unless of course there is a Pearl Harbour-like dramatic incident with opposite effects: namely driving the US back to isolation. Knowing that, it is improbable that China will directly confront the US, especially given the economic interdependence of the two countries, as well as Washington’s superior economic, geopolitical and military position. At the same time, the US’s long term allies will not that easily abandon Washington to affiliate themselves with Beijing, while the Russian factor is also not to be ignored.

China nonetheless seems rather not interested in the region’s politics, but only in trade and economic cooperation. Simultaneously hosting both the Palestinian and Israeli leaders a few days ago, together with declaring its wish for a meeting between the two to be set up by China may constitute signs of a political turn from the part of Chinese diplomacy, albeit most probably not quite enough to reverse the image. Beijing’s diplomacy entails “an onus on state-imposed ‘stability’, hard-headed national economic benefit and non-interference”.[8] It trades and invests with Israel, Palestine, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, South Sudan and Sudan alike and, although this non-political stance might ease its entry into all markets, it does not assist it in constructing special relationships, as those Israel and Saudi Arabia enjoy with the US. In other words, this is not the way for China to have a hegemonic position in the Middle East. Beijing does not want to have enemies, but it will have no friends either if it does not decide to support them politically. The US might be hated in some parts of the Middle East, but it is loved in others and is, most importantly, taken into account almost everywhere. China is at the moment far from claiming the same and yet this seems not to be an actual problem for its leadership: depending on the oil trade for feeding its growing industry and economy, China is not willing to risk it for the sake of any anti-US hegemonic ambitions. If unsuccessful, such a move “would jeopardise both the domestic socioeconomic development and the security environment”;[9] if successful, it would burden China with responsibilities it is not ready yet to deal with. “It is simply too risky and the negative consequences that would come in the wake of hampered economic relations would be too great… China’s socioeconomic development rests on too fragile a foundation to engage in power politics and military confrontation”.[10]

In parallel, being a prolonged socio-political turmoil, the Arab Spring greatly endangers Beijing’s economic position in the region. Whilst fighting is going on, no production is made, trade is decreased, no new investments can be made and no already existing investments can be withdrawn. The negative effects for China were apparent when Beijing urged Libya’s National Transitional Council to protect its oil investments.[11] Instability per se does noarab chinese summit good to China. Furthermore, although Beijing is committed to this “apolitical” orientation, it still tries to impede the West’s efforts to intervene in Syria, which constitutes a major political decision. In any case, not wanting to rush into anything risky, China at the moment essentially implements a “wait and see” policy, which can be explained by its close, and yet mostly economic, relationship to Assad.

Chinese policies nevertheless are relatively self-contradicting. It is particularly difficult to be completely apolitical both in general but especially in the Middle East. If extremely delicate balances are not kept, then one might be found deeply enmeshed into the region’s politics. Even though China does not want to be considered as the protector of Assad by the anti-Assad elements or vice-versa, by denying intervention to the West, it is perceived exactly as such. Such affiliations may severely endanger its economic position in the near future since it might eventually face new regimes as hostile as the post-1979 Iranian one was towards the West. Luckily for China, this did not happen in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. President Morsi’s recent visit seems to reinforce the already existing economic ties, China’s positive vote regarding the intervention in favour of the rebels in Libya seems to have made up for the theretofore quite negative impressions, while Chinese-Tunisian trade seems to flourish in a way compared only with China’s increasing investments in the country. In parallel, its economic interests which drive its “de facto defying the sanctions” policy towards Iran push  it further into the politics of the region, straight towards situations which it cannot handle; namely a highly political confrontation with the US and an equally political affiliation with Russia.

In short, hegemonic power politics is about picking a side, hopefully the right one. Thus, China’s deliberately apolitical stance may indicate that it does not aim to a hegemonic position, least of all if this comes hand in hand with high tensions towards the US. If on the other hand the US decides to decrease its presence in the region, China might step in in order to secure its oil supply, just like the US did some decades ago amid the power vacuum created by the then declining Great Powers’ retreat. At the moment nevertheless, the US worries about China do exist but seem to be kept relatively at bay: as Ambassador Freeman has put it, “whatever the meaning of China’s assurances that it will not pursue hegemony or engage in military expansionism in future, we cannot be certain that it will not”.[12] In any case, China is not the only one: Russia is not to be ignored, while Turkey’s and Iran’s regional ambitions, together with the efforts of Israel and Saudi Arabia to preserve their position, as well as the possibility of a rising Egypt, create a future all but easy to decipher.


All links accessed on 14/05/2013

[1] Chen, James, “The Emergence of China in the Middle East”, Institute for National Strategic Studies, (December 2011)  http://www.ndu.edu/inss/docuploaded/SF%20271_Chen.pdf

[2]“China Global Investment Tracker: 2010”, The Heritage Foundationwww.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/02/china-global-investment-tracker-2010

[3] By Bo, Zhiyue, “China’s Middle East Policy: Strategic Concerns and Economic Interests”, Middle East Institute, no. 61, (19/04/2012)  http://www.mei.nus.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Download-Insight-61-Bo-HERE1.pdf

[4] Ibid.

[5] Akhtar, Shayerah Ilias & Bolle, Mary Jane & Nelson, Rebecca M., “U.S. Trade and Investment in the Middle East and North Africa: Overview and Issues for Congress”, Congressional Research Service, (March 2013)  http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42153.pdf

[6] “Foreign Trade: Trade in Goods with Saudi Arabia”, United States Census Bureau http://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/c5170.html

[7] “Foreign Trade: Trade in Goods with Israel”, United States Census Bureau  http://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/c5081.html

[8] Kampfner, John, “For Russia and China, the Arab Spring only offers a warning”, The Independent, (06/02/2012)  http://ww>w.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/john-kampfner-for-russia-and-china-the-arab-spring-only-offers-a-warning-6579542.html

[9] Öberg, Astrid Maria, “Making money or pursuing hegemony? China and the Middle East”, Lund University Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies, (Spring 2012)  http://lup.lub.lu.se/luur/download?func=downloadFile&recordOId=3460326&fileOId=3460332

[10] Ibid.

[11] Kandil, Ahmed, “China and the ‘Arab Spring’: a new player in the Middle East”, EuroMesco – IEMED, no. 47, (05/07/2012)  http://www.euromesco.net/images/briefs/euromescobrief47.pdf

[12] Freeman, Chas, “China's Challenge to American Hegemony”, Middle East Policy Council, (2013)  http://www.mepc.org/articles-commentary/speeches/chinas-challenge-american-hegemony?print