By Michael Singh
The Wall Street Journal - May 20, 2015
China’s negotiations to establish a naval base in Djibouti–where
the U.S. has its own military installation, Camp Lemonnier–is sure to
heighten concerns in Washington about Beijing’s geopolitical
aspirations. As China rises and its global ambitions expand, it has
stepped up its economic, diplomatic, and military involvement in the
Middle East. But the Chinese–like the outside powers that preceded
them–are learning that the road to influence in the Middle East is
Chinese interests in the region–energy, counterterrorism, the free
flow of commerce–are not unique. But as the sheer size of China’s needs
and the magnitude of its pretensions to global power have grown, it has
shifted away from its philosophy of “non-interference” and reliance on
U.S.-provided order to a more forward-leaning role. Chinese naval
vessels have made port calls in Iran and the United Arab Emirates, conducted expeditionary missions to evacuate Chinese nationals from Libya and Yemen, and in recent days have conducted unprecedented joint drills with Russian forces in the Mediterranean.
Greater involvement in the Middle East means a greater chance of
becoming enmeshed in its troubles. This has bedeviled China, which has
long sought to cultivate all sides of every conflict in the region. Arab
states have been displeased with China’s repeated vetoes of U.N.
Security Council resolutions regarding Syria. That conflict and the one
in Yemen have pitted China’s Gulf Arab allies–from which it obtains
significant supplies of oil and seeks infrastructure contracts–against
its best friend in the region, Iran.
As fighting intensified in Yemen this year, Beijing issued an anodyne statement that avoided taking sides. Chinese President Xi Jinping canceled a planned visit
to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, reportedly angering the Saudis in his effort
to avoid being drawn into the fray. Mr. Xi also has not taken a
long-rumored visit to Iran, which suggests that it is not just the
United States that has difficulty balancing its relationships in the
Similarly, China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, which envisions
transportation corridors and infrastructure projects stretching from
East Asia to the Mideast, has gained little purchase in the region. The
China-Arab Cooperation Forum in June 2014–the first such meeting after
Mr. Xi’s initiative was unveiled–concluded without endorsing the plan.
Only Egypt and Iran have shown enthusiasm, yet this has paid few
dividends for Beijing. It is India, not China, that is set to develop Iran’s Arabian Sea port of Chabahar. And in late 2014 Cairo passed up Chinese bidders
for billions of dollars of contracts related to the planned companion
waterway to the Suez Canal, though Egyptian President Abdel Fattah
el-Sisi had hinted that China would be favored.
Amid all the other items on Washington’s Mideast agenda, China’s
activities mean that the possibility of contending for regional
influence with a great-power rival cannot be excluded. Yet China’s
struggles to translate power and resources into influence present an
opportunity for U.S. leaders: They have an opening to convince Beijing
that its resources and energies would be better spent in support of an
U.S.-led regional order that advances interests shared by both powers
and their regional allies, rather than striking out on their own as they
have done in East Asia. Given broader U.S.-China tensions, this will be
a tall order. It will be all the more so if the U.S. lacks a strategy
behind which it can rally others.
Michael Singh is managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. From 2005 to 2008, he worked on Middle East issues at the National Security Council. He is on Twitter: @MichaelSinghDC.