Though others have tried and failed, China’s oil needs may be forcing its hand at making inroads in the Middle East. What will this look like? And can the Chinese make it work?
The Middle East has been a notoriously difficult environment for would-be imperial powers from the West to manage. France, Britain, Russia and the United States have all tried and largely failed to convince the region’s states and peoples of the benevolence of their rule or the wisdom of their policies. Past failures, however, are not stopping China from presenting itself as a new contender in the game for regional influence.
That the rising Middle Kingdom would eventually take interest in the goings-on of the world’s premier region for oil and gas production should come as no surprise. After all, oil and the lucrative trade that comes with it have have called, Siren-like, to the globe’s great economic and military powers for over a century.
With China importing an ever greater amount of its prodigious consumption of petroleum from abroad, it stands to reason that Beijing should, like all the others before it, be lured into the web of Middle East diplomacy.
Chinese economic interests have openly competed with Western powers for commercial contracts and opportunities for a long time, so China’s entry into the region isn’t necessarily new — just ask any trader in Dubai. In this most unstable and conflict-ridden of places, however, the low politics of commerce very often take a back seat to the hard competition of military and political maneuvering, a game in which the Chinese have been loath to participate — and for good reason. But because it has avoided these games, China isn’t yet considered a regional player of much significance.
The great dragon of diplomacy
For quite some time, Beijing has seemed content with allowing the United States to waste time and resources on policing the Middle East while it quietly grew stronger in the background. This strategy made sense, given China’s limited military resources. This is still the case to some extent, since it is by no means certain that the Chinese military could gain and maintain control of the waters off its own coasts in the event of war, let alone project power all the way to the Persian Gulf. With Japan, India and a host of others aligning with Washington and against Beijing, China would be hard pressed to extend much in the way of hard power and influence very far beyond its borders.
Despite all of this, the Chinese look to be entering, however tepidly, the greatest of the regional great games. In May of last year, for instance, Beijing hosted meetings with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority.
The meetings did not take place simultaneously, of course, and from the outside it appears that very little of geopolitical substance was discussed beyond the usual public-relations photo ops. But with China set to spend over a half-trillion dollars on oil imports by 2020, one can bet that the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be top on the list of items to be discussed at future meetings of the Chinese Politburo.
This list would also need to include the ongoing aftershocks of the Arab Spring, including the civil wars and uprisings it has spawned, and the deadly rivalry between Israel and Iran over the latter country’s nuclear ambitions, as these issues pose deep threats to Chinese interests.
The Arab Spring, for example, raised the terrifying prospect of mobs of enraged and disgruntled citizens turning on entrenched autocrats, something China’s ruling elite last had to contend with in 1989, when it violently quashed protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. This has left China eager to do whatever it can to protect the region’s despots from Western interference. Though Russia has done most of the public legwork in trying to keep the likes of Libya’s Qaddafi and now Syria’s Assad in power, China, too, has provided aid and comfort to these regimes.
As for Iran, the simple fact is that Tehran has an immense amount of oil and gas ready for export that China desperately needs if its long march to economic modernity is to remain on track.
While the Chinese have no desire to see yet another Asian state develop and field nuclear weapons – it is already effectively surrounded by nuclear powers – the possible threat any bombs wielded by Iran poses to China pales in comparison to the huge thirst for Mid-East crude exhibited by the Chinese economy. As a result, Beijing is doing all it can to establish deep economic links with Tehran. This does not mean Beijing is ready to come to Iran’s aid should talks over Iran’s nuclear program break down and war loom as a result, but it does mean that getting additional U.N. sanctions placed on Iran will be extraordinarily difficult and political authorization for military strikes impossible.
East and West collide in the Middle East
So, what does all this mean for the future? Will China’s entry into the Middle East’s byzantine political sphere bring stability to the region? Will it help bring an end to the region’s many bitter conflicts or help quell the region’s penchant for violence and strife? Unfortunately, the answer to all of these questions is almost certainly “no,” but not because Beijing has ill intentions or that its goals are inherently destabilizing.
No, simple competition for political influence in the greater Middle East will bring China into conflict with the United States out of necessity. Indeed, to some extent it is already doing so, as the United States sees and fears China’s growing influence in a region that has for decades been part of Washington’s bailiwick. Therefore, for every move China makes, Washington will make one in response, and vice versa.
Moreover, the United States is growing less dependent on oil from the Middle East due to the development of North America’s shale oil and gas resources, at the same time that China is growing more dependent. These shifts will see American and Chinese interests further diverge with the passing of time.
Washington will eventually become less interested in supporting despotic oil-rich states simply because they have oil and more interested in pursuing what it sees as its values – democracy and, for religious and cultural reasons, the security of Israel. China, on the other hand, will become more dependent on the region’s oil-rich despots and naturally in tune with their anti-democratic inclinations.
As a consequence of this long-term divergence of interests, the region will inevitably be once again divided into two great camps, each headed by a global superpower. On one side will be America, Israel and a few of the more pro-U.S. Arab states. China, Iran and those oil-rich Arab autocracies that have grown disenchanted with U.S. hegemony, however, will be on the other side. History indicates, unfortunately, that vying superpowers do not make for a peaceful region.
It is possible, for instance, that China’s entry could strengthen the anti-Israel axis enough to force the Israelis to the bargaining table, but strong superpower support for Israel’s enemies did little to dampen the flames of conflict in the past. In fact, such support led directly to two major regional wars — the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War — while the exit of one superpower from the region — the USSR after 1991 — led to an era of relative Arab-Israeli peace, albeit one greatly lopsided in Israel’s favor.
Familiar pitfalls of foreign intervention
As for the Sunni-Shiite conflict pitting the Arab Sunni world against an Iranian-dominated Shiite coalition, that, too, would unlikely be quieted by the addition of another superpower to the region’s political calculations. Instead, Beijing, like Russia and the United States before it, will almost certainly become entrapped by any eventual strategic alliances it decides to make and forced to provide diplomatic support and military aid whenever its allies cry out for help. In return for all this, China will receive very little besides the oil it will get to purchase at market prices, which will be more expensive precisely due to the increased conflict China’s Middle Eastern gambits will provoke.
The great irony for both China and the Middle East going forward is that now — when it is so weak vis-à-vis the United States and so uncommitted to the region’s various actors — it will paradoxically have both the most influence on the states it seeks to court and the maneuvering room with which to pursue those courtships. As it gets drawn in and tied down, which is inevitable due to the quicksand that is the region’s politics, China will lose both, making the cost of pursuing any given course of action that much more difficult and expensive. All the while, Beijing will be making an even bigger enemy out of the United States.
If the men ruling China were smart, they would realize this and do everything in their power to avoid being drawn into the game of great-power politics in the Middle East. In committing themselves as Washington has done, Beijing will only make enemies.
As long as it remains aloof on the sidelines, China will reap nothing but accolades and appeals for friendship – useful bargaining chips that can be stored up for future use. It will also enjoy all the benefits of a U.S.-led regional order, which is far preferable to more war and instability, without shouldering any of the costs.
Unfortunately, the Siren song of great power imperialism is strong and Beijing seems unlikely to ignore it.