China, US jostle in Middle East
By Richard Javad Heydarian
This century has witnessed China's emergence as the main challenger to the
superpower status of the United States. In dramatic fashion, China is beginning
to establish its foothold in the highly strategic, energy-rich region of the
Middle East by forging strong ties with regional powers and gradually
challenging US-Israel regional dominance. Thanks to decades of double-digit
economic growth and accelerating military modernization, China now has both the
need for and the capability of engaging the Middle East.
Confined to the sidelines during the Cold War, the Chinese leadership finally
found a window of opportunity to enter the region's politics and expand its
military exports. During the 1980s, China increasingly criticized Soviet
disinterest in assisting
regional "revisionist powers" such as Syria against US allies. Subsequently, it
sought regional influence through forging strong ties with leading anti-US
powers in the region.
The Middle East was a staging area for Cold War conflicts between the United
States and the Soviet Union. Will the region become a battleground in the 21st
century conflict between a rising China and a stagnant United States?
Through the 1990s, China provided an increasing amount of ballistic missile
technology to Syria. But the key partner to emerge in the region was Iran.
During the Iran-Iraq war, China was a key military supplier for Iran. From the
1980s to 1997, support for nuclear programs became a pivotal element of
Beijing's effort to forge a strong partnership with Iran.
In the 1990s, Iran embarked on a major program of reconstruction, and gradual
increases in oil prices accelerated Iran's hopes for a comeback. The
reconstruction program expanded Iran's industrial base and reinvigorated the
population and economy. US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan eliminated Iran's
enemies to the East and West. Iran was now at a new position of strategic
ascendancy and began to step up its rhetoric against the US-Israel tandem.
Faced with such powerful adversaries, it sought deeper cooperation with the
rising superpower, China. An emboldened Iran also honed its regional influence
and consolidated it in Iraq, Lebanon, occupied Palestine, Syria and even in
China's burgeoning ties with Iran are not really surprising. Iran is a host to
the second-largest reserves of oil and natural gas. It is also a traditional
regional power, with a huge network of allies and proxies across the region.
For Iran, faced with increasing investment vacuum and international isolation
over its nuclear program, China represents a potential remedy for the
development of its vast energy resources and a source for modern military
technology. China sees Iran as a counter-force to US allies in the region and
has contemplated establishing a naval presence in the Persian Gulf, where 40%
of global energy is transported.
China has also been a major source of support against the UN Security Council
calls for severe sanctions against Iran. As the Atlantic allies together with
Russia pushed for more sanctions against Iran, China consistently sabotaged the
efforts. In January, it signaled its disinterest in any sanctions by a sending
low-level representative to the "Iran Six" talks (the United Nations Security
Council's five permanent five plus Germany). During the February Munich
Security Conference, China's foreign minister vehemently opposed any prospects
of sanctions against Iran. The position was reiterated during the April meeting
of the leaders of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China).
China's trade-investment interests in Iran are deepening alongside the growing
strategic as well as ideological alignment between the two powers. In the past
five years, China has emerged as the major investor in Iran, with an estimated
US$120 billion worth of energy investments. Despite the sanctions already in
place, trade between the countries grew by 35% in 2008, to $27 billion. In
2009, China signed over $8 billion in new energy investments. Seemingly, there
is an emerging China-Iran tandem.
Charming America's Arab allies
A testament to China's growing diplomatic sophistication is how it has endorsed
alternative narratives, norms, and visions to challenge highly unpopular US
policies in the Middle East and the Washington consensus on economic
development globally. In 1996, China established the Shanghai Cooperation
Organization to balance North Atlantic Treaty Organization expansion in central
Asia and provide an alternative security community in greater Asia.
In direct contrast to the unpopular American approach, China later developed
the Beijing Consensus, which emphasized state-led development, non-interference
in the affairs of other countries, and trade without political preconditions.
As anti-US sentiment grew in the Middle East, China found it easier to expand
ties with all relevant regional powers, including America's Arab allies, Egypt
and Saudi Arabia. China's strategic maneuverings have been a savvy fusion of
mercantilist foreign policy and security-focused diplomacy.
Saudi Arabia's vast energy reserves are vital to China's long-term economic
interests. In 1988, China provided a desperate Saudi Arabia with intermediate
range CSS-2 missiles to meet the country's strategic needs, something that the
US refused to do. Since then, relations have grown. Currently, Saudi Arabia is
China's biggest supplier of crude oil - followed by Angola and Iran - and China
is the Saudis' biggest export market, surpassing the troubled US market.
Since 2006, President Hu Jintao has visited the kingdom twice. Every month, the
Chinese send representatives to Saudi Arabia to ensure relations are on track
and energy supplies are secure. Since the establishment of ties between the two
countries in 1990, trade has grown from an initial amount of $290 million to
about $41.8 billion in 2008.
In 2009, 70 Chinese companies, mainly in construction and employing about
16,000 Chinese workers, were active in the kingdom. Since 2007, the Chinese
have won more than $2 billion in non-energy contracts. In strategic terms, the
Saudis are seeking to diversify their foreign relations - or wean themselves of
dependence on the United States - by expanding ties with China. They also view
their growing ties with the Asian power as a springboard to tap the growing
market of Asia as the west struggles to absorb Saudi oil.
Egypt, the strongest Arab military, is a key US ally under President Hosni
Mubarak and has been the second-largest recipient of US military aid after
Israel. Given such intimate US-Egyptian ties, the Chinese influence in the
country should be minimal. But things are beginning to change. By 2008,
bilateral trade stood at $6.2 billion and by 2010 China is expected to become
Egypt's largest trade partner.
Military ties between the two countries have also been improving. In recent
years, high-level military and defense officials have regularly visited each
other and worked on ways to expand relations further. Almost a year after a
Chinese official met a top Egyptian Air Force commander, Egypt announced its
plans in 2010 to co-produce an advanced fighter, under the Chinese-Pakistani
JF-17 thunder combat aircraft project. The Egyptians view China as a strategic
partner that could help them achieve military self-sufficiency.
China and Israel
Through a clandestine set of operations from the 1980s until the end of the
century, Israel provided China with almost $4 billion in sensitive technology.
These exports, some traced back to the United States, contributed immensely to
China's military modernization by upgrading Soviet technology and incorporating
As China's relations with Syria and Iran improved, there has been a marked
deterioration in China-Israel relations. Pressure from the United States has
also prompted Israel to put some distance between itself and China. In recent
years, Israeli officials angered the Chinese leadership by making diplomatic
and cultural visits to Taiwan, and the Israeli media has implicitly
acknowledged Taiwan's sovereignty.
Since Deng Xiaoping, China has shifted to a more pragmatic view of the
Israeli-Arab conflict and has emphasized peaceful mutual co-existence,
recognition of Israel by its Arab neighbors, and Israeli withdrawal from
occupied territories along with a security guarantee by Arab countries.
Although China is part of the Security Council, it isn't formally part of the
Middle East quartet of the United States, European Union, Russia, and the UN.
China has yet to exercise a decisive role in the resolution of the Arab-Israeli
conflict. Although China has been more sympathetic toward Hamas, Hezbollah, and
other resistance groups in the region, it opposes terrorism as a means for
accomplishing political objectives.
China-US strategic competition
China's push into the Middle East is a calculated extension of its rising
global status. Already a major ally of the only Muslim nuclear power - Pakistan
- China is deepening its ties with the main US foe in the region, Iran, while
wooing America's main Arab allies. Consequently, China's support has emboldened
Iran's defiance and dampened prospects of serious sanctions.
US critics of China, particularly on the right, view China as a strategic
competitor rather than a strategic partner and are deeply apprehensive about
China's growing influence in the Middle East. They understand China's expanding
ties with regional powers - such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt - as a
direct challenge to US control over strategic energy reserves in the region and
are especially concerned over Chinese exports of strategic military hardware
such as ballistic missiles to its allies in the region. They see China as
blocking attempts to isolate Iran and empowering anti-US forces in the region,
hence undermining US power in the region.
"Instead of practically begging China for support," writes former US
representative at the UN John Bolton, "America should be making its own hard
decisions to do what is necessary to prevent what now looks almost inevitable
absent an Israeli military strike: Iran with nuclear weapons."
China has also opposed US military expansion in the Persian Gulf and military
adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has described the United States as a
source of destabilization in the region. China has also repeatedly criticized
US plans to sanction and isolate Sudan over allegations of genocide, instead
calling for a peaceful resolution of the issue. In general, China views
sanctions as a counterproductive and ineffective means for policy change.
The United States remains the preponderant military power in the world. But
while paying a heavy price - materially and ideologically - in its wars in the
region and struggling with a troubled domestic economy, the United States
watches as China positions itself at the center of regional politics and
swiftly expands its investments, trade, and military relations with powerful
Flushed with cash and clout, Beijing is changing the regional balance of power
even as a relative newcomer to the Middle East. Washington, meanwhile, is too
distracted by its wars to do much more than observe the tectonic shifts.
FPIF contributor Richard Javad Heydarian is an Iranian observer and
analyst of developments in the Middle East. He is based in Manila.