US and China go bump in the Middle East
By Khody Akhavi
WASHINGTON - For China these days it seems that nothing - not rising energy
prices; not sanctions aimed at its more unsavory business partners, Myanmar and
Sudan; not even the prospect of a nuclear Iran - can curb its thirst for oil.
As China's energy needs grow at a rate higher than any other country's, so too
have its economic relationships with the oil-producing nations of the Gulf.
Like the US more than 60 years ago, China today is seen as a new and
commercially refreshing player, happily unsentimental and - crucially -
disinterested in the internal affairs of the region.
As Adbulaziz Sager of the Gulf Research Center notes, "The chief
advantage of China's role in the region is its lack of political baggage."
With the US mired in its "war on terror", tied up in knots of its own making,
needing desperately to extricate itself from Iraq while preserving its eroding
influence, China appears poised to challenge US interests in the region.
But if that has Washington worried, it shouldn't, says Jon B Alterman of the
Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has
co-authored a new study with John Garver on China's interests in the region
entitled "The Vital Triangle: China, the United States, and the Middle East."
"The tendency in the US is to see China as a threat or counter to US
interests," he said during a panel on Wednesday, adding that China's
involvement in the region exposes its own national security vulnerability.
"The Chinese lose sleep at night thinking that their energy dependence relies
on the Middle East," he said.
Beijing, which imports half its oil from the Middle East, views political
instability in the region as its greatest threat. Often, it is Washington's
policies that precipitate that insecurity, and which Beijing - with no
political or military footprint of its own - has been unable to curb.
According to ambassador Chaz Freeman, a career US diplomat and chief
interpreter during president Richard Nixon's path-breaking visit to China in
1972, the Chinese "don't see themselves as rivaling the US" in the region, yet
they are unlikely to "subordinate themselves to us, or underwrite our
The status quo presumably makes a strategic relationship between the US and
China all the more appealing. While opportunities exist to create a
multilateral security framework to reduce tensions and keep the oil flowing,
China has been generally reluctant to take on the role of "responsible
stakeholder" on the international stage, a term coined by former deputy
secretary of state Robert Zoellick.
It is even more cautious in dealing with the issue of immediate concern to the
US: Iran's nuclear program and Beijing's cordial relations with Tehran.
As Alterman and Garver contend, "China recognizes Iran as a durable and
like-minded major regional power with which cooperation has and will serve
China's interest in many areas."
Iran exports 340,000 barrels of oil per day to China, making it Beijing's
third-largest supplier, behind Angola and Saudi Arabia. China's investments in
Iranian oil infrastructure include a recent deal estimated at US$100 billion to
develop the Yadavaran oil field, and the construction of a 386-kilometer oil
pipeline running through neighboring Kazakhstan.
From Washington's perspective, it is Beijing's technical cooperation on Iran's
civilian nuclear program and China's continued attempts to deflect pressure on
Iran over its nuclear dossier that are most troubling. China's sale of what
Washington considers dual-use chemicals, capable of being diverted to military
use, has led the US to sanction some of China's state-owned companies.
"Nuclear Iran is going to be a game changer in the Middle East," said Nicholas
Burns, former US under secretary of state for policy .
As the Europeans have decreased their economic trade with Iran in response to
US-led calls for isolation, Burns said that Beijing has only stepped in to fill
On Monday, the European Union tightened its own sanctions on Iran, freezing
assets of the Iranian Bank Melli and imposing travel bans on high-level experts
involved in Iran's nuclear program.
"The Chinese need to understand the primacy of the Middle East for the United
States," he said. "Will China realize it's on the virtual governing board of
the world? There's a question of whether China sees that role for themselves."
While Washington awaits the improbable, it seems that Beijing will continue to
hedge its bets. It has slowly been persuaded to act on Iran, joining the other
four permanent members of the UN Security Council - Britain, France, Russia and
the US - in addition to Germany, to offer Tehran a revised package of
incentives should it halt its uranium-enrichment activities.
China's official position states that sanctions will not fundamentally resolve
the nuclear issue, and are only a means to persuade Iran to negotiate under
conditions agreed on by the United Nations Security Council. Like Russia, the
Chinese oppose any move that would lead to an escalation in tensions at the
expense of their economic interests in Iran.
But China also wants to avoid a confrontation over Tehran's program and
balances against whichever side - the US or Iran - leans towards it, said
"The more the US tips towards war, the more [China] sides with Iran; if Iran is
being confrontational, the more they tip to the US," said Alterman. "It's a
subtle policy, not what they do, but how they do."
For Freeman, the erosion of US influence in the region means that Washington
won't be able to set the agenda, or control events as it once did. But that is
not necessarily a bad thing.
"What we are witnessing is part of a broad dilution of US dominance," he said.
"If you can't tell people what to do, then you must persuade them, and that is
what diplomats supposedly know how to do."