Managing US-China relations in the Middle East among common and conflicting interests
The Biden administration has been trying to diplomatically reengage with China, although so far with little response from Beijing. Any broad reengagement would necessarily include reengagement in the Middle East and North Africa. Both sides have a long list of common interests in the Middle East; the areas where their interests diverge relate mainly to suspicions of the other side’s long-term strategy and global ambitions. How can Washington and Beijing build on common interests in the region while addressing their long-term concerns, reducing some of them and accommodating robust competition or even sharp adversarial attitudes in other areas?
In any listing of U.S. interests in the Middle East, the following would be highlighted: maintaining the free flow of energy and trade through critical regional waterways, including the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea; countering terrorism and pre-empting risks from armed extremist groups; preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear proliferation; de-escalating and ending civil wars in order to shrink the ungoverned space exploited by terrorist groups and to stem the flow of refugees; and favoring regional stability and de-escalating inter-state conflict that could drag the U.S. into another Middle Eastern war. In the longer term, the region is an important player both in a successful global energy transition and in reinforcing global climate action.
Interestingly, on the list of Chinese interests are many that overlap with those of the U.S.: maintaining the free flow of energy and trade (from which China benefits tremendously); countering terrorism and Islamic extremist groups (which China identifies as a national security threat in its western-most province); countering the spread of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons (China was a key signatory to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, and wants to keep the nuclear club, of which it is a member, small); ending civil wars and rebuilding broken states (China lost much in the outbreak of civil war in Libya and has attempted to play a mediation role in many of the region’s internal conflicts); and favoring regional stability and de-escalating inter-state conflict (as the U.S brokered the Abraham Accords in 2020, China brokered the Saudi-Iranian normalization agreement in March of this year). While America’s main fear is being dragged into another war, China’s is that any inter-state regional war would skyrocket energy prices and disrupt energy and trade routes. China, like the U.S., also has a longer-term interest in a stable energy transition and a successful global climate change effort.
Of course, the U.S. and China have conflicting interests or values as well. Ideologically, China presents an authoritarian and command model of governance, while the U.S. presents and (occasionally) promotes democracy and human rights. But these elements have not been a central pillar of either side’s actual foreign policy. China does not impose its model of governance (although some of its surveillance technologies enable it in the region) and deals equally with dictatorships and democracies and all shades in between; and American interests have dictated partnerships with multiple authoritarian and repressive governments as well as continuing support to Israel despite the latter’s colonization of occupied Palestinian territory and other violations of international law. China and the U.S. have been on opposing sides of the war in Syria and have taken different approaches to Iran.
Notwithstanding their converging interests in the present, the U.S. and China are crossing swords about the future. They are shadow boxing based on their interpretations of each other’s long-term intentions. While the U.S. has a dominant strategic position in the MENA region today, it is concerned that Chinese commercial ports, industrial parks, and other forms of economic engagement could provide dual-use opportunities and political leverage that could accumulate over time to challenge America’s strategic dominance; and it is also concerned that China’s currently modest arms sale to the region could, over time, rise to threatening proportions. China has made no secret of pushing back on the U.S.-dominated global order; President Xi Jinping has crisscrossed the region challenging America’s erstwhile unipolar position; and Chinese strategists are clear that their economic projects and companies could and should serve as an enabler for China’s overseas hard power projection over time, if and when that might be needed.
In China, it is no secret that Beijing currently benefits from the U.S. military presence in the Middle East, which ensures the free flow of Chinese energy supplies and exports out of and into the region. And China has not made any major moves to challenge America’s current strategic burden-shouldering there. But there are voices in Beijing warning that if China and the U.S. are destined for conflict in the coming decades, then China cannot leave the waterways on which it relies for hydrocarbon supplies and trade under the control of a potentially hostile U.S. military. Under mutual worst-case scenario thinking, both countries risk drifting into exaggeratedly hostile relations today that not only overlook and fail to build on their shared interests but also become part of a self-fulfilling prophecy that confirms negative biases and increases large-scale risk in the Middle East and globally.
What would a more careful and considered U.S. policy toward China in the Middle East look like? In a recent address at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan outlined five principles for overall U.S. policy in the Middle East: partnerships, deterrence, diplomacy and de-escalation, integration, and values; in three out of these five principles, the U.S. and China have room to engage.
Diplomacy and de-escalation
The Biden administration has been serious about leading with diplomacy, both globally and in the Middle East region; and indeed it has been trying to re-engage China diplomatically with limited success in the last few weeks. There are voices in Beijing also calling for a resumption of diplomacy to ease the heightened tensions. It is elementary that the U.S. and China should also lead with diplomacy in trying to manage their common and conflicting interests in the MENA region to boost the former and limit the risk of conflict over the latter.
In terms of de-escalation, there is much the U.S. and China could coordinate on. China has been effective in de-escalating the Saudi-Iranian conflict, while the U.S. has been effective in finding breakthroughs between Israel and Arab states. China can similarly be useful in helping to find both political settlements and reconstruction plans for conflict-ridden countries like Yemen, Sudan, and Libya and possibly, eventually, even Syria.
Sullivan emphasized that regional integration is essential to “advanc[ing] regional peace and prosperity.” In terms of encouraging regional integration, China is already playing a large-scale role. Integration will require building up regional trade, transportation, and energy networks and connectivity. The challenge for both sides is how to encourage investment in integration from both sides without simultaneously escalating strategic concerns and tensions over these same investments.
Even in terms of the first principle of partnerships, among the examples that Sullivan highlighted is the I2U2 initiative that engages India and the U.S. — alongside Israel and the United Arab Emirates — in addressing regional challenges related to water, energy, transportation, space, health, and food security. Although it is hard to imagine in today’s heated political climate both in Washington and Beijing, there are several issue areas where the U.S. and China could beneficially cooperate in the region.
The first is on the Iran file: China was a key member of the P5+1 that brought about the JCPOA, and will have to be a key player in whatever scenarios unfold in dealing with the Iranian nuclear file in the years ahead. Second, China competes with the U.S.-based International Monetary Fund and World Bank as the biggest lender in the MENA region. As middle- and low-income countries in the region struggle under the multiple blows of Covid-19, high food and energy prices, high interest rates, and high inflation, some have economically collapsed, like Lebanon, and others are dangerously strained, like Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, and Morocco. The U.S. and China have an interest in coordinating international lending to shore up dangerously strained economies and avoid further state collapses. Thirdly, there can be no meaningful global climate action without better U.S.-Chinese cooperation; indeed, a few decades from now, with the world potentially in the cataclysmic throes of profound climatic upheaval on a global scale, we might look back at the nationalist and geopolitical conflicts of the 2020s as we now look back uncomprehendingly at medieval conflicts. The 2023 U.N. Climate Change Conference (28th Conference of the Parties, COP28) is convening this fall in the UAE. It behooves the U.S. and China to work together to make this COP — already several COPs too late in terms of urgent climate goals — a global success.
Our multipolar allies
The main powers in the region, many of them America’s long-term partners, recognize the need for a more cooperative and less conflictual and risky direction in U.S.-China relations. While U.S. partners in the region want to maintain their strategic and multi-layered partnership with the United States, they are also clear that China is their main trading partner, both in terms of energy exports and a wide array of infrastructure, consumer, and other products. While they agreed with the U.S. in previous epochs that the Soviet Union or Iran or al-Qaeda were common strategic enemies, none of America’s partners today agree that China — or for that matter, Russia — is their enemy as well. They understand that Russia poses a threat to the U.S. and its European allies in Europe and that China poses a threat to Taiwan and America’s allies in Asia, but they do not see China or Russia posing a threat to them or their societies in the Middle East.
How the U.S. manages this new divergence of perspective with its partners in the region, who want to remain America’s partners, and indeed want to expand and deepen that partnership, is a clear challenge for American policymakers. In order to sustain and strengthen these partnerships, the U.S. should unpack its “strategic competition” strategy and make clear to partners what cooperation with China is fine with the U.S. or even encouraged, what is concerning and why, and what are clear red lines from the U.S. perspective. The U.S. can also engage its partners not only to help shape their own engagement with China but also to influence the outlines of China’s presence and activities in the region.
Engage and guard
Of course, the U.S. and China will continue to have valid security concerns as they eye their long-term global competition. The U.S. would understandably continue to de-risk with its security partners in the region by flagging particularly worrisome security-related issues, like the use of Chinese 5G or 6G technology and dual-use maritime bases. And surely China will also continue to review its interests in the region and guard against threats. But this wariness should not define the whole relationship. Even in the security realm, the U.S. often complains about the lack of burden sharing; in a process of constructive engagement, there are surely areas of common security concern — piracy was recently one of them — where security cooperation and burden sharing is low-risk, high-reward.
Shape the future
There will be nothing simple or unidimensional about the global — and regional — competition between the U.S. and China over the next few decades. But policy on both sides should not be defined by our worst-case scenarios. As Sullivan mentioned in his address, “We are in the early years of a decisive decade — unseen perhaps since the end of the Second World War — where the terms of competition with great powers will be set and the window to deal with shared challenges will narrow dramatically even as the intensity of those challenges grows.” In other words, what we do now is going to shape the rest of the 21st century.
Let us not go quietly into that good night; the U.S. and China are not inevitably destined for worldwide cold or hot war. Much will depend on choices made by leaders on both sides. Part of the policy of guarding against worst-case scenarios is to try, as much as possible — through constructive engagement — to bring about more positive outcomes, while still guarding against major risks. Our better future is one in which both global powers are still in competition, yes, but in a peaceful manner, while engaged in areas of cooperation and common effort as well.
Paul Salem is president and CEO of the Middle East Institute. He focuses on issues of political change, transition, and conflict as well as the regional and international relations of the Middle East.
Photo by JASON LEE/AFP via Getty Images
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