U.S. policy is creating an opening for China in the Middle East, which Beijing is exploiting skillfully.
Over the last decade, the United States has been drawn into a series of imbroglios in the Middle East and South Asia, sapping military and financial resources and frustrating policymakers who seem to have no good options for managing regional troubles. In Asia, by contrast, the picture is clearer. America has tangible economic, political and military interests there. The region is also where many believe America’s global superpower status faces the most obvious challenge: China. Thus, realists such as John Mearsheimer, writing in The National Interest, approve of the “pivot” or “rebalance.”
In Asia, America is trying to support its allies and preserve regional stability in the face of rising tensions and nationalist recrudescence, while avoiding unnecessary confrontation with China. The recent diplomatic conflicts over air defense identification zones and increasing confrontations over territorial disputes demonstrate that playing referee in Asia while protecting American interests is no easy task. While Asia deserves America’s focus and resources, the real dress rehearsal for China’s challenge to America’s superpower status is already taking place—in the Middle East. Here, Mearsheimer’s insistence on the need for Middle East retrenchment, in order to concentrate on the more serious rivalry with China, suffers from a major flaw in logic.
History suggests that when a great power draws down from a region, another takes advantage and fills the void. And indeed, as America grows weary of its involvement in the Middle East, China is filling the vacuum. As a result, states in that region are using relations with China to push back against America, with few economic or political consequences. Unfortunately, American policymakers seem blind to this fact, looking at countries such as Syria and Iran, or those in Asia, as discrete issues, rather than as constituent parts of the broader great game that is taking place.
Though China is not widely seen a major power in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf, it should be. Through its economic strength and power of attraction, the country has made major inroads that cannot be dismissed, and may be laying the key foundations for a new balance of power.
China’s “rise” has captured the imagination of many in the Arab world. Gulf rulers in particular stand in awe of how China’s economy has skyrocketed (see the chart below) while rejecting Western norms and maintaining its own political structures. So fast has China’s rise been that, since 2000, it has achieved practically 30 percent yearly average trade growth rate with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, 26 percent with the UAE and Iraq, and 28 percent with Iran
Meanwhile, America’s trade with the Gulf is in decline. Total trade decreased by $6.3 billion from 2012 to 2013. While some gains were made, the losses include a $3 billion drop in trade with Saudi Arabia and a $6 billion drop with Iraq. A reduction in oil imports accounts for a majority of this, but U.S. exports to Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait and Oman were also all down over this period. Chinese trade data for 2013 has yet to be reported, but based on these trends China has, or will this year, overtake America as the largest trading partner for every Gulf state.
SOURCE: Andy Polk