For three millennia, the attentions of the Middle East have swayed from East to West and back again.
The region’s current engagement with Asia is less a statement about a retreating America than it is about an energy-hungry Asia with new strength in trade, technical capabilities and investment resources. China — as Asia’s largest economy and the economic hub of the Asian growth engine — has become a key influence in this pivotal region.
There are two major parts to this transition: a maturing and increasingly energy independent United States and the seeming inevitability of Asia’s economic and political rise. The Middle East has played a major role in America’s energy supply chain since the end of World War II, but the U.S. has now become a swing player in oil and gas markets, and that’s contributing to changing regional dynamics.
As for Beijing’s connections to the region, politicians and intellectuals in the Middle East have historically encouraged China’s engagement. From ties formed in the post-colonial movement to foundations built on commerce and trade, a sense of shared Asian history and culture is even more common today than during the Cold War when Arab Nationalist intellectuals called for closer ties to China and international Maoism.
Today’s Arab leaders see a strong, engaged China as buttressing their own credibility with the weight of over a billion more people and previously unimaginable economic clout. Further, China’s defense cooperation and seat on the UN Security Council make it an invaluable defense ally. That is especially meaningful to Middle Eastern countries attempting to strike a new balance as independent regional actors such as Iran and Turkey — to not be entirely trapped in either the U.S. or Russian camp.
While there has been a great deal of attention on Chinese support for Syria and Iran, China has several other key inroads into regional influence. Chinese investment and infrastructure projects in Africa mean that China is setting up a substantial diaspora and network of initiatives near the Southern borders of Arab states in North Africa. Part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative is already lining the African Coast with Chinese economic activity. It would be a small step from there to branch out further into North Africa and to connect across the Sahara Desert initiatives in Sub-Saharan Africa with initiatives on the Mediterranean.
A future of peace and stability in North Africa could bring increased Chinese investment. China is currently a large investor and donor of international aid to Libya, but the country is still too dangerous and too internally divided for Beijing to have seen much of a diplomatic return on its investment — yet.
Meanwhile, Algeria is closely set within Russia’s orbit as it wages an under-the-radar war with an active Al Qaeda insurgency, but Algeria does contain a substantial Chinese diaspora compared to neighboring states. And in Egypt, China has found an enthusiastic participant for its Belt and Road Initiative. Since the Arab Spring, Cairo has managed to strike a delicate balance between support from the U.S. and Russia — so it has much to gain by cooperation with China’s diplomatic alternative.
Certainly, as post-Arab Spring Egypt struggles with domestic stability, including an insurgency on the Sinai Peninsula and an often-violent and heavy-handed response to protests, China will become an attractive ally because of Beijing’s historic refusal to “interfere” in the domestic affairs of foreign partners.
While long-term peace building could bring Chinese partnership with Libya and Algeria, in the short term it is Egypt that holds the most promise for Chinese investors and Chinese diplomats.
Perhaps the biggest area for growth in Chinese relations is in the Gulf states. China is at a unique advantage in that region as U.S. relationships evolve.
Unlike with Iran and Syria, Russia has very little possibility of gaining and keeping the favor in Riyadh and other Gulf states. Gulf allies have been tricky for Washington, but it’s been downright messy for Moscow. Russia has accused Saudi Arabia of funding Chechen militants on its home soil and supporting terrorist attacks against its troops in Syria. There is little diplomatic love lost between Moscow and Riyadh despite the need to cooperate on OPEC discussions. Meanwhile, Saudi and Chinese cooperation is so extensive that it even includes space exploration.
The real key here is the simultaneity of the transition of the U.S. role in the Middle East and the emergence of China’s economic and diplomatic clout. Given America’s energy windfall in the Permian and the Bakken basins, the U.S. is undergoing a transition from an economic-diplomatic balance to a role more heavily weighted exclusively on diplomacy. Missile strikes in Syria and the diplomatic isolation of Qatar have little if any economic payback for America. At the same time, China’s trade and diplomatic efforts cement its energy supply chain and pave the Belt and Road with Chinese consumer goods.
Tony Nash is the CEO and Chief Economist at data technology firm Complete Intelligence. Jay Heisler is a counter-terrorism analyst, writer and blogger who is a longtime staffer at Washington D.C.-based Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.