By Ellen Laipson – China wants the US to be more flexible vis a vis Iran and is concerned about the consequences of US failure in Iraq. It does not harbor, for now, any great ambition to inherit leadership for the region’s protracted problems, and is satisfied with its current limited role in the Arab-Israeli peace process. Overall, China would see its interests served if US leadership could manage to bring greater stability to the region, as it develops strategically important energy ties to the oil and gas exporters. It sees, however, poor prospects for America’s ability to achieve that goal.
During recent exchanges in Beijing, Chinese foreign policy experts expressed respect for American power and influence in the Middle East, but were honest and direct about the shortcomings in US policies and performance. They shook their heads in dismay about the “mess” that is Iraq, and wondered why the US is not more creative and flexible in finding some accommodation with Iran. In the view of some Chinese Middle East experts, the asymmetry of power between Washington and Tehran obliges the US to take the lead in breaking the long impasse in bilateral relations. On each topic, the Chinese averred that they could not substitute for American influence and power, and had no plans to do so.
Despite China’s protestations of modest capabilities and intentions, its own policies are evolving quickly in the strategically vital Middle East. Energy demand drives the policy, but fairly quickly leads to other forms of economic interdependence, including two-way foreign investments and trade on a wide array of commercial and industrial products. The industrialization fever underway in the Arab Gulf, according to an academic expert, is oriented almost entirely to the Chinese market. Neither China nor the Arabs talk of strategic partnership or a security dimension to their relations, but some Arabs talk of the Chinese experience of rapid economic growth without radical political change as an attractive reference point. (The Chinese also object to the very notion that there is a Chinese “model”, and prefer to look at processes for change in each country on its own terms.)
Some of China’s foreign policy experts express considerable understanding and empathy for the Arab world. A military officer spoke eloquently of the region’s sensitivities about its loss of status, compared to earlier historic periods, and its loss of international respectability, despite its great natural resources and contributions to world civilization. This gap seemed to resonate with the Chinese, who remember the “century of humiliation” at the hands of outside powers, and may suggest another aspect of growing political and cultural ties that would not be transparent to western observers. This could be one dimension of China’s emerging “soft power” that will accrue political benefits to China over time.
In the short and medium term, Washington and Beijing should be able to avoid letting the Middle East become a source of tension. At the official level, there are now exchanges between regional experts as part of a global forum between the two countries that could facilitate cooperation on discrete problems. Leaders also need to associate themselves with the notion that strategic competition over this vital region, reminiscent of US-Soviet competition during the Cold War, is not in either party’s interest. Energy issues need to be managed at the level of institutions of global governance and in the marketplace; some more transparency on the part of the Chinese would be desirable. Beyond that, the two powers could work together more actively to prevent nuclearization of the region, and China can be a constructive, albeit secondary, player in bringing greater stability to Iraq and reducing tensions with Iran, which are global, not regional, concerns. Chinese interlocutors hope for an agenda that is not too daunting, as they move from observers to more “responsible stakeholders” in the critical Middle East.