According to reports, last weekend’s California summit between President Obama and his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, focused on subjects such as North Korea, cyber security and areas of potential cooperation between the two world powers. President Obama said that “we’re more likely to achieve our objectives of prosperity and security of our people if we are working together cooperatively, rather than engaged in conflict.” However, as President Obama tries to pivot away from his disastrous Middle East-North African policies to focus more on Asia, and China in particular, he finds himself faced with China’s increasing presence in the chaotic region he is leaving behind. Conflicts developing between China and the United States over Middle East interests on diplomatic, economic and even military levels are inevitable, made more imminent by Obama’s reckless policies and shift in priorities.
On President Obama’s watch, the rising sectarian violence in the Middle East-North African region, the Islamist take-over in Egypt, and Islamist Iran getting ever closer to achieving its ambition of a nuclear arms arsenal capability have fueled the kind of instability in an energy rich portion of the world that China abhors. China believes it has no choice but to step into the morass left by Obama to protect its own national interests. With the United States’ abdication of leadership under Obama, China also sees an historic opportunity to extend the sphere of influence it has already established on the African continent. And that means currying favor with the Arab states and Iran, at the United States’ expense.
Vali Nasr, a foreign policy expert and former special adviser to Richard Holbrooke, the envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2009 to 2010, explained in an interview with PBS News Hour last month that “the Middle East is a rising strategic interest” for China. Nasr, who is currently dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, noted that China refers to the wide area encompassing Pakistan to Iran to Saudi Arabia and Turkey as “West Asia.” China looks at this area as a vast source of supply for its energy needs and as a potential market for its investments and products. By 2020, it is estimated that 80% of China’s oil needs will be supplied from the Middle East.
Thus, “just as we are pivoting East, the Chinese are pivoting West,” Vali Nasr noted. China craves stability and influence in the region, and will bet on the rulers it perceives as the most likely to tamp down unpredictable, potentially dangerous outcomes.
Reflecting China’s increased efforts to become more directly involved in matters outside of its own Pacific backyard, it hosted Palestinian and Israeli leaders earlier this spring and put forward its version of a peace plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that tracked closely with the Arab peace plan.
Chinese special envoy to the Middle East Wu Sike told the publication Xinhua in an interview on June 3rd, during his visit to Egypt as part of his Mideast tour, that “China is willing to cooperate with Arab states to push the Middle East peace process.” The Arab states highly value China’s position on the Palestinian cause and appreciate China’s peace proposal, Wu said, which “represents an important diplomatic action of the new Chinese leadership.”
After meeting with Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Arabi, Wu told Xinhua: “Arabi said that China backs justice and provides strong support for the number one issue in the Arab world.”
Wu downplayed any differences regarding the Syrian conflict, despite the fact that the Arab League supports the Syrian opposition and China continues to support, in a low-key manner, the Assad regime. Referring to a second international conference on Syria expected to be held in Geneva this summer, sponsored by the United States and Russia, Wu tried to position China as a relatively neutral party most interested in securing a peaceful resolution: “China sees that Geneva II conference is necessary and that Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and all concerned Syrian parties should take part in the conference. China’s position is clear: it requires the international community to create momentum for a political solution to the crisis.”
China is complementing its more assertive diplomatic presence in the Middle East with increased economic investments, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. In 2012 alone, according to Heritage Foundation statistics, China invested $4.9 billion in the United Arab Emirates’ real-estate sector and another $3.3 billion in its energy sector. Trade between the two countries has grown 35 percent annually over a 10-year period. Dubai is also an important entryway for China into Africa, where it has numerous investments.
China invested $12.9 billion in Saudi Arabia in 2012, including the energy and metals sectors. By comparison, according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, U.S. foreign direct investment in Saudi Arabia was $8.0 billion in 2010 (latest data available), a 0.2% decrease from 2009.
China is also making aggressive moves to enter the Qatar and Egyptian markets, as the Obama administration seeks to lower its profile in the region. And while the United States has its defense pact with Yemen, China has become Yemen’s biggest trading partner. At the same time, playing all ends against the middle, China is also Iran’s biggest trading partner.
Speaking of Iran, China and Iran have conducted joint naval exercises. For example, the Iranian Navy’s 24th fleet of warships, comprising the Sabalan destroyer and Kharg helicopter carrier, docked in China’s Zhangjiagang port in early March of this year and conducted training exercises. The Kharg helicopter carrier is the largest of its kind in “West Asia.” It operates as a backup aircraft transport for the Iranian Navy’s destroyers in international waters.
The Iranian commander said that “presence in the Pacific Ocean is a prelude to [Iran’s] presence in the Atlantic Ocean,” adding, according to PressTV, that a constant and extensive presence of Iran in international waters will be on top of the Navy’s agenda.
Moreover, China has continued its arms transfers to Iran despite United Nations sanctions. According to a report prepared in October 2012 for the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, multiple sources have indicated that “China inaugurated a missile plant in Iran in early 2010, even as the United States and its allies were pressing Beijing to support a new round of tough economic sanctions.”
Jane’s Defence Weekly reported in the same time frame that there has also been cooperation between the Iranian and Chinese aerospace industries and there have been cooperative tactical missile programs underway between China and Iran. “China’s design bureaus have displayed several ‘export only’ weapons (such as the C-705 lightweight cruise missile) that would seem set to follow the established route into Iran,” Jane’s Defence Weekly stated. “With such a solid relationship established between the two countries it is not difficult to see why China has been reluctant to commit to the Western push for sanctions against Iran.”
In February 2012, according to the report for the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission mentioned above, Iran began “production of the Zafar naval cruise missile, a short-range, antiship, radar-guided missile apparently based on Chinese C-701AR missile.”
With regard to Chinese oil imports from Iran, Beijing and Tehran signed a deal in 2011 that gives China exclusive rights to several Iranian oil and natural gas fields through 2024.
Just a year ago, in response to U.S. sanctions aimed at Iran’s oil exports, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson insisted that “China’s importing of Iranian oil is based on its own economic development needs. This is fully reasonable and legitimate.”
From April of last year to April of this year, China has actually increased its oil imports from Iran, although they are less than they were in 2011.
Yet, against this background of continued military and economic cooperation between China and Iran, the State Department last week decided to reward China. The State Department exempted China from financial sanctions targeting Iranian oil sales because it had supposedly reduced its purchases of Iranian crude oil.
In commenting on what he hoped would result from his two days of meetings with President Obama, China’s President Xi Jinping said he was looking for the establishment of a “new model of major country relationship” with the United States. President Obama’s disastrous policies in the Middle East and North Africa and his pivot away from the region give China the chance to construct its own model there to replace the United States’ strategic leadership.
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