An atmosphere of polarization and anticipation has settled over US-China relations, complicating other countries’ dilemma in managing the conflicts between the main player in the international order and its rising, globally-expanding counterpart. The intricacies in dealing with the conflict between Beijing and Washington are connected to the latter’s mounting pressure on countries around the world to curtail their economic, technological, and military relations with China. Against this backdrop, InterRegional for Strategic Analysis organized a panel discussion entitled, “Cold War 2.0: How Are Different Countries Dealing with US-China Tensions?” The panel featured Dr. Jonathan Fulton, Professor at Zayed University and a Non-resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council.
China’s Vision for the World Order
The Chinese vision of global interactions is based on internal balances, regional status, and China’s view of its central position in the global system. The main features of Beijing’s global policy are as follows:
1. China’s centrality in a hierarchical world: China considers itself the “heart of the world,” or the “Middle Kingdom” as expressed in the Chinese language. This viewpoint is based on a historical/cultural view of its international relations when Asia was the heart of the ancient world and China was the crossroads of global trade routes. China has a hierarchical view of the global order, and the twin standards of power and interest remain the arbiters of its international relations. In other words, according to China, countries are judged in terms of their strength and importance to China’s interests.
2. Transition from covert ascent to global expansion: Since Deng Xiaoping, China had pursued a strategy of “bide and hide” and concealing its capabilities. However, in 2008, that strategy changed for several reasons: American military interventions to spread democracy during the George W. Bush administration; the global financial crisis that left the Chinese economy largely unaffected; and the Beijing Olympics in 2008, which inspired China’s confidence in its model and its viability. China then began following a strategy of global expansion based on spreading its economic and technological influence in an attempt to attain superpower status. This manifested later in the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s vision for a globalized future and world order.
3. Trio of government, development, and a strong economy: China focuses on the strength of the government, economy, and economic development. Since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is a revolutionary party, it is concerned with internal cohesion and legitimizing the party above all else. As such, all of its policies are first directed domestically and aimed at promoting the legitimacy of the ruling party.
4. Leaders’ arduous rise to the peak of power: Leaders in China attain office through a very long process of succession, networking, influence, and reinforcing one’s power within the party. They look on with amazement as leaders in the West assume their positions according to the preferences of the majority through elections, as well as the rise of some figures to power, such as former US President Donald Trump, despite their lack of political experience.
5. “China first” policy: China’s fundamental interests are domestic cohesion and stability, as the CCP still considers itself a revolutionary party whose main goal is maintaining stability and confronting opponents. As such, its main priorities begin with ensuring domestic political stability, strengthening internal power, countering opponents and rebels in the Xinjiang region, facing economic and environmental crises, handling regional threats in the South China Sea and its relationship with Taiwan, managing conflicts with major powers, and ends with maintaining relations with geographically distant and politically complex regions, such as the Middle East.
6. Preference for a united front with strong centralized countries: China seeks to build a barricade between itself and Washington that includes strong centralized countries that do not adopt the Western democratic model and, therefore, are aligned with China against Western pressures. This compels China to support countries that adopt strict policies against the expansion of political Islam and that oppose the power of Western penetration, which it sees as a violation of its sovereignty.
7. South and Central Asia—areas eligible for a Chinese military role: The main speaker believes that China may turn towards establishing military bases in Gwadar, Pakistan and Tajikistan to protect Chinese interests in South and Central Asia. This is due to the changes in the region following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, as well as concerns over China’s shared borders in the area between Xinjiang and Afghanistan.
China considers political Islam and terrorism a top priority in its foreign policy and strives to counter the East Turkistan Liberation Movement in the Xinjiang region. China also has concerns over the transnational effects of the Taliban’s rise to power. To that end, it is trying to contain them and limit their influence through economic support and using Iran and Pakistan as proxies.
China’s Middle East Policy
China’s policy towards the Middle East is marked by relative constancy and stability, based on economic involvement in the region and building strategic partnerships, not alliances, so as to avoid costly defense commitments in the region. The most significant features of China’s Middle East policy are as follows:
1. China’s policy of “non-alliance”: China adheres to a policy of non-alliance with any powers so as to avoid involvement in costly defense commitments that would affect the realization of its interests. Thus, it maintains partnerships with Iran and Middle East countries simultaneously, while trying to remain free of the bonds of alliances and having to defend others’ interests. China focuses on strengthening economic cooperation with its partners, employing mutually beneficial relationships to support its political interests, while also pushing countries to adopt positions aligned with these interests.
2. Beijing’s focus on shared interests with Washington: Despite the rumors surrounding the clash between the US and China, Beijing focuses on rapprochement with Washington in matters such as freedom of navigation in the Arab Gulf, access to energy products for international markets, and the survival and safety of Israel as a key trade and technology partner with China.
3. Adoption of a non-military strategy outside the region: China tries to avoid deploying large military forces outside its region. Except for the counter-piracy military base in Djibouti, China does not maintain any declared military bases. However, there are rumors of another military base in Gwadar Port in Pakistan.
The military base in Djibouti has a limited military mission and scope, as well as a great geographical separation from Chinese military bases of operation in the South China Sea. This makes it somewhat vulnerable, as the US could cut off the military supply lines to this base at any time. However, China asserts that its military deployment comes in response to the US’s demands to bear the cost of security deployment and protect trade/oil flows in vital shipping lanes.
4. Policy of building supply chains, not military bases: China is a very different superpower from the US. Beijing focuses on building business clusters rather than security alliances, establishing ports and supply chains instead of military bases, and deploying workers, technicians, and technical experts rather than armies and military forces.
However, the main speaker believes that China is following a more assertive policy in its immediate regional neighborhood. This can be seen in its policy of building islands in the South China Sea; its military deployment in the Indo-Pacific; its confrontation of hostile alliances, such as the Quad or AUKUS alliances; its military encirclement of Taiwan; and its attempt to curb US influence in the region and undermine American-Asian engagement policies.
5. China considers Iran as leverage over the US: The general attitude of the panel discussion is that China considers Iran a strong pressure point keeping Washington in the Middle East and preventing it from leaving a vacuum in the region. According to the view proposed in the panel discussion, most items of the China-Iran Strategic Cooperation Agreement have not been implemented—they are merely chess moves meant to push Washington to remain in the region. China uses the strategic partnership with Iran to check the latter’s behavior and prompt it to avoid threatening China’s interests in the region’s stability. To that end, China has encouraged Iran to continue negotiating its nuclear program and refrain from attacking tankers in vital shipping lanes and threatening neighboring countries.
6. Importance of energy security and trade issues: A key perspective of the discussion panel posits that China considers the Middle East a promising market and source of energy. However, it avoids seeing the region as an arena for geostrategic spread. China also believes it lacks the expertise to deal with the region’s problems, just as Middle East countries do not know China well. This makes relationships between the parties relatively shallow and limited, according to this perspective.
Dealing with China’s Rise
China’s ascent carries with it many benefits for Middle East countries, as well as challenges related to global polarization:
1. Enhanced understanding of China in region’s policy: The formation of a policy toward China begins with the need to understand Chinese politics. This can be achieved through encouraging Chinese language learning, studying Chinese culture, sending delegations to China, and paying attention to diplomatic missions sent to China. In this way, the most active and knowledgeable diplomats in Chinese affairs will be selected to lead Arab diplomatic efforts in this vital nation.
2. Setting a broad future agenda for relations: Arab-Chinese relations must move towards future fields to include the transfer of technical knowledge, technology, highly developed industries, renewable energy, biotechnology, and other sectors with high economic returns. For example, China and the UAE are focusing on future fields in their relations.
According to statements from His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ), Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, during his visit to China in July 2019, a road map for a 100-year relationship between the two countries has already been drawn up. As such, the focus is now on producing coronavirus vaccines, epidemiological research, medical industries, artificial intelligence, drone technology, 5G networks, port development, and the future of energy, all of which are areas with broad civil and military applications.
3. No need to choose between China and Washington: Arab countries should not accept being placed in the position of choosing between China and the US. Rather, they can use the situation to their advantage by maintaining close relations with both. According to the panelists, China has become indispensable to all of Washington’s allies due to the need for Chinese supplies and investments, rapid technological progress, and other economic benefits from engaging with China in an active economic partnership. Therefore, no country should accept being forced to choose between Washington and Beijing.
4. Activating Track II diplomacy: The panelists proposed developing backchannels for discussion between Washington, Beijing, and Arab countries at the level of think tanks, academic institutions, journalists, and experts, and away from the participation of political officials. In this way, all sides can open parallel tracks for discussing controversial issues, options, and policy projects to enhance joint cooperation and mutual gains, as well as overcome polarized relations between Washington and Beijing.
In conclusion, polarized relations between the US and China are expected to persist, as Washington labels Beijing as the main threat to its position in the world order, China pursues its global expansion strategy via the Belt and Road initiative, and the contentious issues between the two parties in the fields of technology, trade, and security in the Indo-Pacific continue to grow.