Why China Won’t Become a Middle East Power

Ample attention continues to be paid towards Wang Jisi’s argument for a Grand Chinese Strategy – “the March West” – and rightfully so.  The “March West” proposes that China enhances its engagement with Central and South Asia, due to the complexities of East Asian engagement at this moment.  Wang’s proposal is a logical means by which the Chinese can escape the tense diplomatic environment of East Asia and build strong ties with surrounding countries.  The problem with Wang’s proposition is that encourages wild speculation regarding China’s interests throughout Western Asia.

First and foremost, China remains and shall remain centered on its objectives in the Pacific.  East Asia is a crowded neighborhood, full of modern states with strong militaries and economies, but regional supremacy is essential for long-term Chinese aspirations.  China’s relations with its East Asian neighbors (and other Pacific powers – i.e. the United States) are the marquee element of its foreign policy.  Yet, as recent events reveal, China’s plan to rise to preeminence lends towards the creation of hostility, misunderstandings, and unnecessary posturing.  Reaching out to its Western neighbors is a lower-risk operation.

It is without debate that China will seek to retain strong ties with the Central Asian Republics, primarily due to China’s Western Development Policy (a plan to develop its western provinces, namely Xinjiang).  Likewise, given South Asia’s proximity to China and continue strong relations with Pakistan, it is fairly certain that China will do more to engage its South Asian neighbors (it may work the opposite direction by encouraging India to reach out to East Asia).

What it will not do is involve itself heavily in the affairs of the Middle East.  China’s “March West” is being interpreted by some in North America and Europe as an indication of China’s interests in engaging in the Middle East.  Their logic centers on China’s rising energy needs.  Essentially, as the US builds up its domestic energy industry (shale oil/gas) and continues to withdraw its security forces from the region, China will have no choice but to “take” the United States’ place as the underwriter of Middle Eastern energy security. 

This view is wrong and fundamentally misinterprets how foreign policy decisions are crafted within China.  First, the United States is not “withdrawing” from the Middle East.  It certainly is seeking a lower profile in the region, but the past decade of US involvement in the region should be seen as an aberrant outlier, not a rule.  Second, China has not suddenly discovered the Middle East.  It has historic and strong ties to Iran, Syria (Assad’s regime), and Libya (pre-revolution).  The revolutions in Syria and Libya were a strong reminder of how wary they must be with investment in foreign regimes and their ties with Iran continue to be a source of continual diplomatic maneuvering.  China will certainly continue to engage the region and invest in specific projects (it has isolated projects sprinkled throughout the Middle East), but regional engagement will continue to be a secondary objective for Beijing. 

In short, the Middle East is too unstable for Chinese tastes.  It would rather stay in its own neighborhood or continue to develop investments made elsewhere (like in sub-Saharan Africa).  For its energy needs, I would bet that Middle Eastern stockpiles are not nearly as attractive as those found in Russia.  Therefore, expect China to continue to act as it has – seek preeminence in East Asia and invest strongly in its neighbors (i.e. Russia).     

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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