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China has role to play in Mideast
Publication Date : 08-01-2013
Several major factors will affect the situation in the Middle East in the next decade. First is the eastward shift of the United States' strategic focus.
After World War II, the US invested its strategic resources heavily in the Middle East to maintain its dominant position in the region. But the shift of the world's economic and political focus to the Asia-Pacific region at the beginning of the 21st century, combined with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the global financial crisis, forced Washington to change its global strategy. So it shifted its strategic focus to Asia-Pacific and curtailed its investment in the Middle East.
On assuming office in 2009, US President Barack Obama spelled out his Middle East goals as withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, finding ways to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and devising a strategy to check Iran's nuclear ambitions.
The US is now trying to rebuild its soft power and image in the Middle East through "smart diplomacy" rather than the conventional high-investment, high-risk and high-return policy. But the Middle East is a region where multiple powers have scrambled for supremacy since ancient times.
The second factor that will influence the Middle East is the changing global energy pattern. Along with the "shale gas" revolution, the US is slowly becoming the world's major energy supplier. While the Americans are complacent about achieving "energy independence", the oil trade pattern in the Middle East is becoming distorted. Middle East countries export most of their oil and gas to and import a lot of their goods from their East Asian counterparts, and the US is becoming increasingly powerless in providing military and security guarantee in the Middle East, which could challenge the hegemony of the petrodollar.
The third factor is the transformation of the Middle East countries. The old political system in the region is breaking down, while establishing a new order is proving to be increasingly difficult. Therefore, the region's countries face a long transition, full of difficulties and reverses, during which much will depend on whether the new governments can put in place the material foundation for national development and thus achieve a power balance.
At present, the core competitiveness of Middle East countries is very low. The Middle East is home to about 400 million people, but its exports, apart from oil, are equivalent only to that of Switzerland. So, in the aftermath of the "Arab Spring", the region's countries have to develop their economies in order to restore peace and order, which will be a long and arduous process.
The fourth factor is the game being played by regional forces. The complicated ethnic, religious and geopolitical conflicts in the Middle East have helped maintain the regional balance of power. On one hand, countries in an advantageous position, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are eager to dominate the region. On the other, countries like Iran and Iraq could join hands to demand a more prominent role in the region. And history tells us that the "geopolitical characteristic" of the Middle East can overwhelm any ideology.
In the next decade, China is likely to increase its investment and thus demand a greater say in the Middle East. China may be a latecomer to global power politics, but because of its rise and deepening interaction with other big countries, it will demand more attention in the Middle East.
The Middle East is a region with the highest concentration of contentious issues and most intense diplomatic struggles. Hence, it offers China an opportunity to spread its diplomatic principles of respecting other countries' sovereignty and opposing external interference in a country's internal affairs, as well as enhance its soft power.
Apart from offering China a chance to secure its energy supply, the Middle East will continue to slow down the pace of the US' eastward strategic shift because of its complex issues.
Also, the region's countries will be more dependent on China in the next decade as the global power centre continues to shift to the East. The Middle East countries regard China as an important partner, which can help them expand their international space, balance the impact of the old powers and promote economic development. The next decade, thus, could see the region's countries' "Look East" strategy being put into practice.
Moreover, China's investment in the Middle East will increase gradually so as not to disturb its geopolitical and economic balance. Therefore, China's diplomacy should gear up to face the challenges of the Middle East such as lack of security and financial arrangements.
China understands that other external factors also influence the situation in the Middle East. For example, it has vetoed three Western countries-backed UN resolutions on the Syrian crisis partly because of what happened in Libya and the US' eastward strategic shift.
China will cooperate and compete with the US-led Western countries in the Middle East but avoid a head-on confrontation with them. Sino-US relations should not, and cannot, be a zero-sum game in the Middle East. That the US will lose its dominant position in the region is becoming increasingly evident. But China's strategic investment in the Middle East should not be aimed at ending the US' traditional influence in the region.
China has just set foot in the Middle East, and its engagement there is not directed at ending the US' dominance. Since China has no core interests in the Middle East, it can reach a compromise with the US on the regional affairs.
The Middle East will continue to experience unrest and see regional powers fighting to establish hegemony in the next decade. China should try to make a difference for the better in such matters.
The author, a former ambassador to Iran, is a researcher at the China Institute of International Studies.