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Difference between US and China Approaches in the Middle East

With China’s increased power, its interests are spreading all over the world, and this country will try to reach into areas where he used to have no influence or even presence.  One of the problems that China will face in the future is that its increased influence in some regions is in conflict with US presence and influence there, and, thus, there will be a conflict of interests. One of these regions is the Middle East.

With China’s increased power, its interests are spreading all over the world, and this country will try to reach into areas where he used to have no influence or even presence.  One of the problems that China will face in the future is that its increased influence in some regions is in conflict with US presence and influence there, and, thus, there will be a conflict of interests. One of these regions is the Middle East.


In this regard, the United States can adopt different approaches. It can either increase its presence in the Middle East and East Asian region to deal with the influence of China, or to come to terms with the presence and influence of China in this region under certain conditions. China can either increase its political, economic and military influence, or can limit its influence to the economic area.

US Strategy for Exerting Influence in Different Areas

On the way to becoming a global power, the United States has adopted a unique method. In the nineteenth century, when most of the European powers were involved in fights to win power and wealth in different parts of the world, the US was not involved in such competitions.

In the mid-20th century, when the United States gradually entered the global arena, it adopted an indirect approach to deal with threats and dangers. It chose to take an indirect approach to counter Communism, which it considered as the most serious threat, and was involved in promoting stability, transparency and economic prosperity in the world. To accomplish this goal, it made simultaneous use of both economic and military instruments. However, the Europeans decided to boost national power and domestic potentials per se.

The presence of the United States in the Middle East following World War II also had two reasons: 1. Military presence and 2. Economic support. The strategy of the United States and its allies in the region was to secure oilfields in the region, providing shipping security and reforming political systems to prevent the influence of Communism (change of Feudalism, etc.). Of course, the security of the Zionist regime was also of high significance, but was not the top priority. Support for provision of security for oilfields in Saudi Arabia, forming a coalition to confront Saddam, the confrontation with Iran after the revolution, and the like were all indicative of the fact that the United States was seeking to create a desirable order in the Middle East, but not direct control over the region.

One of the problems which the United States faces in the Middle East is why this country, which apparently has always defended the values of liberal democracy, should support the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East and the Zionist regime. This contradiction has made the people of the region think that American society is an ideal society run by a hated government.

China’s Strategy for Exerting Influence in Different Areas

Even at the pinnacle of its power in the past, China was a regional power, not a global one. For this reason, this country has never sought to seize land in distant areas, as Europeans did. On the contrary, it was Europeans who had colonies in East Asia. Following the Communist Revolution, China adopted a policy with an internal view, which continued until the 1970s. It was then that China defined a global role for itself.

Many American theorists believe that given the ideas and writings of main Chinese theorists and given its history, China’s silence and the lack of its aggressive role on the global scene, represent a clever approach by this country to advance its goals on a global level.

China’s Interests in the Middle East

China has long enjoyed good cultural relationships with the Middle East, especially since the advent of Islam. The Silk Road allowed many Muslim merchants in the region to commute to China, which played a very significant role in expanding cultural ties. Gradually, Muslims settled in some regions in China; their travel to Mecca and also education of some youths at Al-Azhar University contributed to the expansion of these ties. However, not much happened at the level of governments. Although the People’s Republic of China was in favor of anti-colonial movements in the Middle East, nevertheless, there was no support provided in practice.

Over the last two decades, with the rise of China’s presence on the global scene, China has been more involved in the Middle East, compared with the past. China’s top priority has always been economic issues. Out of the economic issues, three areas have been particularly significant to China:

  1. Energy: Middle East serves as the most important source of China’s energy supply. Although this country is seeking diversification of its energy sources, nonetheless, China’s oil imports from the Middle East increased by 9% from 2013 to 2014.
  2. Trade: The Gulf Cooperation Council has significantly boosted its trade relations with China over the last years. The US Bureau of Economic Analysis predicts that by 2020, China will be the largest exporter to these countries. China’s exports to these countries will double by 2013, reaching $ 135 billion a year.

At the time being, 250,000 Chinese are based in Dubai to facilitate trade with Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and, thus, traders in these regions will not have to travel to China to trade with this country.

  1. Infrastructure: Infrastructure contracts represent the third most important area of China’s economic cooperation with the region. China is a top priority for the countries in this region, which is due to low costs and the speed with which the infrastructure is developed. Because of the specific circumstances in the Middle East, the leaders of these countries want their infrastructure projects and programs to come to fruition as quickly as possible. Therefore, China plays a pivotal role in this regard.

China’s investment in the Middle East amounted to more than $ 60 billion between 2010 and 2016. The construction of a railway in Mecca, the UAE’s oil pipeline to the Indian Ocean, and the construction of 40,000 housing projects in Bahrain are just some instances.


China’s relations with the Middle East have always taken place at the governmental level. Unlike China, the United States seeks to engage with non-governmental sectors in order to start relations with foreign countries and tries to relate to business and scientific elites and other members of the civil society. However, China tries to reach conclusion much faster and seeks to strengthen relations with the public sector.



Different Approaches to the Middle East


The costs borne and the efforts made by the US to ostensibly provide security in the Middle East, such as the US invasion of Afghanistan, have in fact benefited China. At the time when the US was spending hefty amounts of money in the Middle East, China was busy investing in these countries. For example, China invested $ 16 billion in Iraq and is considered as the largest foreign investor in this country.


China’s strategy in the Middle East differs from its policy of influence and expansion of power in Eastern Asia. China is more prudent in the Middle East and moves under the shadow of the United States, whereas in Eastern Asia, this does not hold true and China considers it as a direct and legitimate sphere of influence, and does not easily allow the US to stop it. In order to establish its desirable order in Eastern Asia, China does not need to coordinate its actions with the United States, as it has superior military and economic power.


Even with the interests of the United States and China overlapping in the Middle East (i.e., maintaining security and stability and keeping trade relations), these two countries are different in their approaches to the Middle East. The United States lays a lot of emphasis on the process. For example, the US emphasis on land and economic reform in the post-Cold War era in the countries of the region to counter communism is just one instance.


The United States had found that Feudalism was one of the reasons for tendency toward Communism, so in its foreign policy, it decided to persuade its allies in the region to put an end to Feudalism. The Truman Point Four Program and the Foreign Aid Act were carried out in the same vein. After the Vietnam War and loss of America’s face, this country tried to adopt a more ethical approach so that in the long run, there would be no harm to American interests. Therefore, promotion of democracy was on the agenda, and this was considered as the best way to ensure the security and interests of the United States.


In the aftermath of the Cold War, state-building and democracy represented two basic principles of American foreign policy and foreign aid. Since the 1990s, these two principles have been touched upon in all national security strategies of US presidents. The Obama administration implemented 350 initiatives on so-called human rights and good governance around the world. Since 2010, the government has invested $3.2 billion to strengthen civil society.


By contrast, China has never believed that in order to secure its interests, it is necessary to promote its own thinking and culture, since it has always pursued its interests in strengthening its relations with other governments. In the Middle East, China has never sought to strengthen the civil society because it considers civil society in this region as an opposing group, the strengthening of which means practically undermining the government with which China has good trade relations.


In 2011, during civil uprisings in the Arab world, China sought to maintain the status quo, fearing that its trading partners in Egypt and Libya would be defeated, their governments would be dissolved, and revolutionary groups that considered China as the violator of their people’s rights and interests, would come to power. Therefore, China never supported these social movements.


China’s Efforts to Find Replacements


At the time being, in countries which were replete with tension in 2011, governments run by former officials come to power, which might be problematic for the US. China, which at that time did not interfere in the internal developments of these countries and was actually in favor of their staying in power, is in a better position today.


One of the differences between the US’s and China’s policy in the region is that, in addition to maintaining relationships, the United States also seeks changes in the internal state of affairs in those countries and calls for some reforms. However, China does not have these considerations in the domestic affairs of other countries. Therefore, China is involved in establishing military and economic relations with other countries without any preconditions and thus other countries have a better feeling toward China’s policy.


For countries such as Iran, which have been pressured by the United States, China acts as a counterbalance against the US in global equations. For countries that feel that the United States has turned its back on them (like Saudi Arabia), the Chinese will act as a provider of needs that the United States has not met.


In the Middle East, China is indeed trying to be what the United States is not. This role is the same as the one that the US played in the Middle East in the 1920s. At that time, some countries wanted to get rid of the British and French colonial power, and by making suggestions and meeting their needs, the United States (which had a better reputation), could replace England and France.


Indeed, China has presented itself as a white painting canvas, on which the countries in the region can design and paint in any way they wish. China is not a difficult partner for the countries of the region, as other Western powers are, especially the United States. China, unlike them, does not lay emphasis on domestic issues, governance, human rights, etc., and does not make military and economic offers conditional on these.


China’s Limitations


Although China’s economic, military, and energy relations with the Middle East have significantly developed, nonetheless it is necessary to not that, as compared with the US, China has no place there. In terms of science, culture and technology, compared with the US, China has no say. American universities are the most prestigious ones; there is high demand for American products (cars, mobile phones, etc.) all over the world, and American products are not comparable to Chinese products in terms of workmanship. This has all contributed to the fact that, despite China’s extensive efforts, it can not be in a position on a par with the United States.


For these reasons, China is more willing to try to expand its influence in the areas surrounding it and move more quietly and more cautiously in the Middle East. The Central Asian region, which remains intact, is also a relatively good area for expanding China’s influence and presence.


That’s why China’s exports to Central Asian countries have steadily increased over the past two decades. The chart below shows China’s exports to Central Asia.



China has taken its lesson from the Soviet experience and has learned that it should not confront the United States. Unlike the Soviet Union, from which Western countries and US allies were trying to keep their distance and not want to have any relations with, China is not in the same boat and is the first economic partner of many US allies in the Middle East. In fact, there is no negative attitude toward China’s economic growth and its increased influence in Asia and many other areas. Even in Europe, there is no such attitude. Unlike the Soviet Union, China does not seek to create a new order and system in other areas. Rather, it emphasizes a win-win situation.

The US does not oppose China’s cooperation with Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Djibouti (where the United States has a naval base), but it will not allow China to threaten America’s interests in the maritime domain. US cooperation with India, Japan and Australia in the field of maritime affairs can be interpreted in this same context. The US effort to undermine the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Pacific Trade Agreement falls in this same domain and is aimed at undermining China.


Although the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was a Chinese initiative, and many considered it as a means for advancing China’s policies, nevertheless, today it could be said that China has lost its control of the bank. This is because 16 major investors and shareholders of the bank are Europeans and they do not necessarily work in tandem with China’s policies. In fact, this has become one of China’s constraints.


For this same reason, nowadays China is trying to accomplish its objectives in alternative ways. Silk Road Project is one of these alternatives. The Silk Road Fund as well as the China Development Bank, which aims to make huge investments in the interests of China, are some of these instances.


            Access Roads by Land

Due to Differences between Russia and the US, neither will try to marginalize China. China is trying to expand its influence for this same reason. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Central Asian region remains underdeveloped. China has the ability to supply the infrastructure and meet the needs of these countries, better than Russia and through these countries it can access Europe via land.


Roads have numerous advantages for China. The shipping cost from China to Europe is about three and a half times the cost of rail and roads. On the other hand, the United States is not particularly sensitive to these access roads whereas it is quite sensitive to the sea routes in the Indian Ocean and South Eastern Asia.



The Order Desirable to China

Over the last decades, in the confrontation between Communism and Capitalism, there were deep divisions between the United States and the Soviet Union. However, these days, China is also seeking good governance and other values which the US pretends to cherish. In commerce, China is not opposed to free trade, and is interested in expanding trade relations based on mutual interests.


In spite of the (former) Soviet Union, China is not seeking propagation of its ideology and supremacy of thought and within this framework which is desirable to the US, it is seeking its own interests. In the current system, China is advancing its own interests and is not opposed to the current system. It advocates the status quo. China is fighting corruption and wants transparency although, according to the reports by world organizations, after Russians, Chinese companies pay the most bribes to strike foreign deals. This suggests that China apparently does not oppose the values that the US propagates (which is because China is not interested in sustaining costs). However, actually, it acts against those values and seeks its own interests.


The US strategy towards China is to make it a responsible actor at the global arena. China is also trying to opt for relations with the United States, which are based on neither opposition, nor conflict. Cooperation and mutual benefits are among China’s goals in establishing relationships with the United States.


In fact, China is trying to exhibit a new model of a world power. In the 19th Century, world power was defined in terms of control exercised in other countries. In the twentieth century, global power was a function of the extent to which policy was shaped by and shaped policies in the form of institutionalization. At the time being, China is trying to become a world power through economic diplomacy and to present a new model. In this same way and with an emphasis on economy and trade in foreign policies, China now enjoys good relations with almost all countries, while the United States does not enjoy good relations with many countries and considers them as its enemies. China’s relations with Iran, Syria, Iraq, Sudan and the like demonstrate this Chinese policy. The United States is not willing to have strategic ties with such countries and this is a very good advantage for China.


Current State of Affairs

As a source of fossil fuels, the Middle East has always been a focus of attention for great powers. However, today its importance has diminished, and great powers are trying to reduce their reliance on oil and gas, and are trying to move towards new energies. The United States and many European countries are cutting down on their reliance on Middle Eastern energy day by day.


However, for China, there is a different story. China’s reliance on Middle East oil and gas is on the rise. The following table demonstrates the volume of oil and gas imports from different parts of the world. The highest import is from the Middle East, which has been steadily rising over the past two decades.


If China does not import oil and gas and relies on domestic coal to supply electricity, it will face serious air pollution, which is the case in some Chinese cities.

If countries access new technologies, in future their reliance on oil and gas will be dramatically reduced. If reliance of world trade on oil and gas continues on the same basis, in the next 20 years, the US will be left out of world trade and China will be the forerunner in this regard.



Currently, China is one of the largest foreign investors in the Middle East, and by 2020, it will be the largest exporter to this region. However, the United States is cutting down on its economic ties with the Middle East. The increase in China’s presence in the Middle East is both an opportunity for the United States (increased China’s reliance on Middle East oil and gas, while the US has reduced its dependence on oil and gas, thanks to new technologies) and a threat (due to China’s growing economic relations, its influence in the Middle East has increased).



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