This Q&A was adapted from a Carnegie live event assessing China-Middle East relations following Iran and Saudi Arabia’s agreement to restore diplomatic ties. It has been edited for clarity.
Paul Haenle: How you think the Middle East sees the United States responding to China’s rising influence in the region?
Maha Yahya: Unfortunately, I think many see the United States as saying one thing and meaning another on multiple fronts, not just in terms of China.
In terms of China in particular, what they see is that the United States is worried about China’s influence. Given the growing number of trade agreements, the perception from the region is that China is a natural partner, especially for Gulf countries. It is the growing political influence that I think the region views the United States as finding worrisome. So they are trying to play both sides of the game and see how they can maximize their own gains. They see the United States as a worried partner, but not sufficiently worried to come in and say, “Everybody out. The Middle East is America’s backyard.”
Paul Haenle: We’ve talked about the Global Security Initiative, the Global Development Initiative, and a third one called the Global Civilization Initiative. These are being rolled out by the Chinese leadership as a form of alternative ideas and concepts around how large powers should exercise their influence in the world. Much of it contrasts with the way the United States exercises its power. We see China emphasizing diplomacy and dialogue, as opposed to the United States, which often has a military component that goes along with its diplomacy. Traditionally, China has been focused primarily on economic engagement in the Middle East through the Belt and Road Initiative. What is your sense about how are these new initiatives are being perceived in the region?
Benjamin Ho: My sense is that countries in the Middle East generally welcome these initiatives. The concepts are worded in a way that leaves very little to disagree, often filled with nice and helpful language. There is no mention of encouraging countries to be liberal democracies. So the concepts themselves are not threatening.
But I think what we need to see in the coming years is what kind of actual plans are being implemented, as opposed to just initiatives. We are in an era of more forward diplomacy by China that started after the 20th Party Congress. The government and the Foreign Ministry have put forth a more reconciliatory tone with regard to countries other than the United States. Broadly speaking, it would seem that the Chinese have used a softer tone in its foreign relations. I don’t know whether that’s intentional or part of this Global Security or Global Development Initiative, but I think it is interesting.
Maha mentioned earlier that countries in the Middle East complain that the United States says one thing and means another. If you look back at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore this past week, there were a couple of people who questioned the Chinese as saying one thing and meaning another in Southeast Asia. I don’t know whether these parallels exist across regions, but perhaps we could extract some value from a comparative analysis of perceptions of America and China in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
Paul Haenle: Benjamin, you are well aware, because you’re based here in the region, how Southeast Asian countries deal with this notion of choosing sides. They really want to find ways to benefit from China on the economic and trade piece but often rely on the United States for security and other public goods. How do you see that dynamic playing out in the Middle East?
Benjamin Ho: I don’t know a lot about the deep perceptions of the Middle East. From what I’ve read and perhaps from speaking with [Middle Eastern] students I’ve taught, it would seem that China is perceived with less historical baggage than the United States in the Middle East. That certainly helps in the region. Not having that historical baggage provides China with some form of a clean slate, so to speak.
I think countries in the Middle East sometimes keep the more contested issues outside the relationship in favor of a more transactional approach. The Middle East doesn’t interfere in what is happening in China, and China doesn’t interfere in what’s happening in the Middle East. I think this kind of relationship can be kept on an even keel, but if you want to deepen the relationship, then at some point, you’re going to start touching on some of these hot-button issues. I think that’s where the rubber meets the road. I don’t think we’ve reached that stage yet, or if we will ever reach it.
Paul Haenle: In recent years, we’ve seen China take on a larger security role. For instance, we saw the 43rd People’s Liberation Army naval task force, which normally is engaged in anti-piracy patrols off the Gulf of Aden, conduct evacuation operations for more than 1,300 Chinese nationals in Sudan. How do you anticipate this security dimension playing out over the near to middle-term? Are there indicators that would point to China’s greater security involvement in the region?
Yu Jie: The question, firstly, is whether China is willing to take a more active role and, secondly, it may not really depend on China, because great powers carry greater responsibility, whether China likes it or not. China will have to perform some sense of security duties first, to consolidate its regional relationships and, second, as a way to protect its economic interests.
I think that is the part of reason why China is keen to expand the Shanghai Cooperation Organization—it’s hoping that some of the regional countries will be able to sign up and feel more comfortable working in multilateral organizations led by China. The second piece here, beyond security engagement, is that China also hopes that every time when it comes to vote within the United Nations that the region votes in accordance with China’s preferences, whether it be neutral or in favor of China.