China's Changing Role in the Middle East
June 5, 2019
By Jonathan Fulton
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A quiet shift in geopolitics has been takingplace, with East Asia and the Middle Eastdrawing closer together. Energy trade explainspart of this, as Japan, South Korea, andChina are consistently among the largest export marketsfor Middle Eastern oil and gas. As the global economiccenter of gravity moves east, economic relationsbetween the two regions are becoming increasinglydeep and multifaceted.In the case of China, the relationships have moved beyondeconomic interests, to incorporate strategic concernsas well. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), called“the most significant and far-reaching initiative thatChina has ever put forward” is dramatically expandingChinese interests and influence in the Middle East andNorth Africa (MENA) region. as a “wary dragon” in MENA, the extent of Chinese influencein the region is still at an early stage, but Chinais becoming an increasingly relevant regional actor.2This report begins with an analysis of China’s presencein MENA, with a brief discussion of the BRI, followed bya deeper look at how this initiative is shaping China’srelations with states across the region. It then examinesthe response of Middle Eastern states, many of whichneed to develop a more diversified set of relationshipswith extraregional powers, especially given the perceptionthat leaders in the United States want to reducethe US regional footprint. It ends with an analysis ofhow US-China competition plays out in the region: aretheir interests compatible, creating opportunities forcooperation, or do they diverge to thecreating opportunities forcooperation, or do they diverge to the point that competitionis the most likely outcome?
Conclusion and Recommendations for theFuture
While there is a divergence in how China and theUnited States approach the Middle East, their interestsare largely compatible. Both want a stable Middle Eastwith strong states that have the capacity to contributeto a regional status quo that supports their strategicand economic concerns. Whether the two can worktogether in achieving this remains to be seen.That each perceives the other as its main strategic rivalsuggests that MENA could well be a theater of US-Chinacompetition. At the same time, there is enough overlapof interests that, under the right conditions, it couldalso be a theater of cooperation. Achieving this is easiersaid than done, and will require careful and consistent management of the bilateral relationship. That theHouse Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the MiddleEast, North Africa, and International Terrorism recentlyheld hearings on Chinese and Russian influence in MENAis a hopeful sign that US leadership recognizes a shiftin China’s role in the region. Dr. Jon Alterman providedespecially clear-eyed testimony, noting that “Chinaseems to be seeking ways to compete without becominga rival, and its early results seem positive.”71 Informedanalysis of China’s strategic and economic ambitions inMENA has never been more important. To this end, thefollowing recommendations should be considered.• The expansion of Chinese power and influence inthe region needs to be tracked closely and comprehensively,understanding the difference in Chineserelationships with each country in the region.• There is a significant gap in expertise within the USpolicymaker community, and this needs to be filled.Most US MENA experts lack familiarity with China,and most US China experts lack familiarity withMENA. Similarly, Chinese MENA experts need tobecome more familiar with the US role in the MiddleEast.• A track-two effort between US and Chinese foreignpolicy experts focused on MENA would help bothsides understand each other, identify key proposalsfor their respective governments and, more generally,help maximize the possibility of a Middle Eastthat does not become a focus of superpower competitionin the coming decades.