Comparing Middle East Policies of the USA and China

Shahid H. Raja
11 min readJun 18, 2023

Introduction

Thanks to its rich reserves of oil, strategic location, and complex political dynamics, the Middle East has long been a focal point of geopolitical maneuvering and diplomatic engagements, attracting the attention of global powers seeking to shape the course of events. In this context, two prominent actors, China, and the United States, have emerged with distinct foreign policy approaches that reflect their unique national interests, historical contexts, and strategic priorities.

China’s ascent as a global superpower and its expanding economic interests have propelled its engagement with the Middle East to new heights. China recognizes the region’s significance as a crucial source of energy and a market for its goods, making it a vital component of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

This approach is characterized by a pragmatic stance that prioritizes stability, non-interference, and economic cooperation, often avoiding entanglement in the internal affairs of Middle Eastern nations. China’s emphasis on economic diplomacy has enabled it to foster strategic partnerships with various countries in the region, challenging the traditional dominance of Western powers.

On the other hand, the United States has maintained a longstanding and deeply entrenched presence in the Middle East, driven by a range of geopolitical, security, and economic interests. Historically, American foreign policy in the region has revolved around maintaining regional stability, safeguarding its allies, countering terrorism, and ensuring the free flow of oil.

The United States has pursued an interventionist approach, characterized by military deployments, alliances, and interventions aimed at protecting its interests and exerting influence. American Middle East policy has also been shaped by its commitment to democratic values and human rights, often advocating for political reform and democratization in the region.

This essay aims to provide a comprehensive comparative analysis of the Chinese and American Middle East foreign policies, shedding light on their similarities, divergences, and potential implications for regional dynamics.

Issues at Stake in the Middle East Chessboard

Out of the multiple issues in the geopolitics of the Middle East, the following six have emerged as key concerns for both China and America:

1. Energy security

2. Global Terrorism

3. Nuclear proliferation,

4. Israeli hegemonic designs,

5. Regional conflicts

6. Democratic Deficit

Let me discuss them briefly

A. Energy Security and Oil Price Stability

Given the Middle East’s significant oil reserves and its impact on global energy markets, both, China and America and its allies, have high stakes in the region. Although, after the successful commercial extraction of its vast offshore hydrocarbon resources, America is not an energy-importing country now, it must ensure energy security and oil price stability for its allies in Europe and Southeast Asia.

However, China’s need for oil and gas resources stems from two reasons: first, it lacks sufficient hydrocarbon reserves, and second, its growing population and its across-the-board rising living standards have further contributed to the country’s soaring energy needs. At the same time, it needs vast energy resources to sustain its industrial sector, which has been a key driver of its rapid growth.

While China and the United States are keenly interested in the Middle East’s oil and gas resources, they have different strategies for ensuring uninterrupted access to these resources. The USA and its allies encourage their private sector entities to enter joint ventures with state-owned enterprises in the Arab countries and support them through diplomatic engagements and military cooperation. That’s why the United States maintains a significant military presence in the Middle East to help ensure the security of shipping lanes and critical infrastructure.

At the same time, the U.S. forms alliances and security partnerships with countries in the region. These alliances, such as those with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), provide strategic cooperation and military support, thus ensuring the West’s dominant role in the oil policies of the countries, not only to have easy access to energy resources for its allies but also to limit its access to China. For this purpose, it uses its dollar dominance as a coercive tool

On the other hand, China shuns the use of military presence to ensure its energy security and prefers to enter into state-to-state agreements to ensure its energy security, increasing its economic ties with countries in the Middle East. Through investments by Chinese state-owned enterprises, infrastructure projects, and trade agreements, China aims to secure access to energy resources in the region. That’s why China’s BRI includes projects, such as pipelines, ports, and transportation networks, that facilitate the flow of energy resources from the region to China.

B. Arab-Israel Relations

Keeping in view the geopolitical and geostrategic importance of Israel in their respective Middle East foreign policies, both China and the United States have distinct strategies when it comes to their relationships with Israel and other Arab countries in the Middle East.

The United States has a longstanding strategic partnership with Israel and provides substantial military, economic, and diplomatic support to Israel. Treating Israel as a key ally in the region to safeguard American interests in the region, this support includes defence cooperation, intelligence sharing, and diplomatic backing. It ensures that not only no other country in the region should ever think of attaining nuclear parity with the Israeli clandestine nuclear capability but none of the militaries in the region should be powerful enough to pose any conventional military threat to Israel

For this, the USA has been making all-out efforts through its various Camp David accords and other similar initiatives to ensure that Arab countries recognize Israel and conclude peace agreements with Israel, and there should never be any anti-Israel alliance in the Middle East like the one formed in 1967. Similarly, the main focus of its counter-terrorism strategies is to degrade the capabilities of all anti-Israel militant groups in the region

On the other hand, China, while recognizing the importance of Israel in the geopolitical chessboard of the Middle East, is not prepared to give it the importance that it deserves as a major country in the region. Consequently, China maintains diplomatic relations with both Israel and Arab countries, aiming to maintain a balanced approach. It seeks to avoid taking sides in regional conflicts and pursues diplomatic engagement with all parties involved. China seeks to enhance energy cooperation with both Israel and Arab countries. It invests in energy projects, explores oil and gas opportunities, and promotes collaboration in renewable energy and energy infrastructure development.

C. Nuclear Proliferation

While both China and the USA e keen to control nuclear proliferation at the global and regional levels, they have different approaches regarding Arab countries' access to nuclear technology. Keeping in view the cost-effectiveness of nuclear technology and its multiple uses in several fields, China is not averse to the peaceful use of nuclear energy in Arab countries, emphasizing the development of nuclear power for electricity generation, desalination, and other civilian purposes. It sees nuclear technology as a means to support economic development and meet energy demands.

China has a history of engaging in nuclear cooperation with Arab countries. It has been involved in providing nuclear technology, including the construction of nuclear power plants and the transfer of nuclear know-how, to some Arab nations. However, China is a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and therefore insists on proper safeguards and oversight to ensure the responsible use of nuclear technology by Arab countries and adherence to international non-proliferation obligations.

On the other hand, America tends to be cautious and selective in allowing access to nuclear technology by Arab countries, even for civilian use, while maintaining a calculated ambiguity about Israeli ambitions. The United States typically negotiates bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements, known as 123 agreements, with countries seeking access to American nuclear technology. These agreements outline strict conditions, making it next to impossible for any Arab country to acquire any sophisticated nuclear technology. Not only that, it maintains strict export control regimes to prevent the unauthorized transfer of sensitive nuclear technology or materials to Arab countries.

D. Global Terrorism

Like all other issues, both China and the USA have the common aim of controlling the spread of global terrorism but adopt different approaches to deal with the threat of global terrorism emanating from the Middle East. Both Superpowers are keen to contain global terrorism. However, while the USA believes in its military solution with the help of intelligence & technology, China stresses a developmental approach, removing the root causes of terrorism-poverty, inequality, and conflicts.

Following the devastating 9/11 attacks, the U.S. launched a global war on terror, focusing on military interventions, intelligence operations, and multilateral partnerships to dismantle terrorist networks and promote stability in the region. The U.S. strategy has involved targeted military operations, such as the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and subsequent efforts to combat extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

The United States has also provided substantial military and financial aid to Middle Eastern countries to enhance their capacity to combat terrorism. Additionally, the U.S. has utilized diplomatic channels to build international coalitions, encourage regional cooperation, and advocate for counterterrorism measures at the United Nations and other international forums.

China, on the other hand, has pursued a more cautious and nuanced approach to address the threat of global terrorism in the Middle East. China’s primary concern has been to safeguard its national security interests and maintain stability in its restive Xinjiang region, where it has faced separatist movements and acts of terrorism. China has implemented a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, that includes a combination of security measures, socio-economic development programs, and ideological campaigns. China has sought to build diplomatic ties with Middle Eastern countries and leverage its economic influence to secure their cooperation in counterterrorism efforts.

While the approaches of the United States and China differ, both countries recognize the gravity of the global terrorism threat emanating from the Middle East. Despite their differing priorities, there have been instances of cooperation and coordination between the two powers, particularly in intelligence sharing and efforts to counter specific terrorist organizations. However, differences in political ideologies, regional interests, and concerns over sovereignty have limited the extent of their collaboration.

E. Regional Conflicts

While the overt aim of both China and the USDA is to maintain regional security and stability, their actions are diametrically opposed to each other. The USA and its allies are not only fanning regional conflicts in pursuit of their national interests but have been actively engaged militarily in several such conflicts, either directly or through their proxy militant outfits. Their open involvement in the Syrian crisis, the invasion of Iraq, and overthrowing Muammar Qaddafi are too obvious, but their involvement in suppressing the Arab Spring, and the Yemen civil war is not properly highlighted. It has often taken a more interventionist stance, engaging in military operations, providing military aid to regional allies, and directly supporting certain factions in conflicts. The US has also been instrumental in brokering peace agreements, usually through coercive means, simply to benefit its staunch ally, Israel.

However, China has been very cautious in getting involved in these regional conflicts, knowing full well that one of the prime objectives of American involvement in these conflicts is to oust Russia from the Middle East and stop the growing influence of China through its developmental approach.

It has traditionally pursued a more non-interventionist approach in the Middle East, emphasizing principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries and respect for national sovereignty. China’s primary focus has been peaceful resolutions of regional conflicts, maintaining friendly relations with multiple actors in a conflict, and avoiding taking sides or getting deeply involved. Instead, it tends to prioritize stability and seeks to build economic ties and engage in infrastructure projects through initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative. The masterpiece of this Chinese Middle East policy has been the rapprochement between two traditional rivals, namely Iran and Saudi Arabia, brokered by the Chinese.

F. Democratic Deficit

The Democratic deficit, globally and in different regional theatres, has been one of the sore points of contention between these two superpowers of the day. The United States has historically advocated for and openly professed to promote democratic values and institutions in the region. Claiming democracy, particularly that of Western style, as a key component of stability, peace, and human rights, the USA has supported democratic movements, provided assistance for democratic transitions, encouraged political reforms. and used diplomatic and economic tools to incentivize democratic progress. However, it is more rhetoric than substance, more optics than real intentions. One cursory glance at the political governance systems of the countries the USA has been friends with for the last seven decades would expose the hollowness of all its claims.

China, on the other hand, takes a different stance when it comes to democracy in the Middle East. China places a greater emphasis on non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, including their political systems. It generally avoids making explicit calls for democratic reforms and does not actively promote democracy as a priority in its foreign policy. China prioritizes stability and maintaining good relations with governments in power, regardless of their democratic credentials.

China’s approach is rooted in its own political system and historical experiences. It often highlights the importance of respecting different paths to development and national sovereignty. China focuses more on economic cooperation, investment, and trade, seeking to enhance its own interests through economic partnerships with countries in the Middle East, regardless of their political systems.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the United States and China have adopted distinct approaches in their relations with Middle Eastern countries to safeguard their respective interests. The United States has historically pursued a policy of active involvement, employing military interventions, diplomatic negotiations, and economic aid to promote stability and secure its strategic objectives in the region. This approach, characterized by a focus on democratic values, human rights, and the protection of American interests, has often generated mixed results, with both successes and failures.

On the other hand, China has pursued a more pragmatic approach, prioritizing economic interests, energy security, and non-interference in the internal affairs of Middle Eastern countries. By engaging in extensive trade and investment agreements, China has secured access to vital resources and markets, solidifying its position as a major player in the region. However, this approach has drawn criticism for its disregard for human rights concerns and potential long-term implications for regional stability.

While the United States and China differ in their approaches, both countries recognize the strategic significance of the Middle East and its impact on global affairs. As the dynamics in the region continue to evolve, it is essential for these global powers to strike a delicate balance between pursuing their interests and engaging in constructive diplomacy. The challenge lies in finding common ground and cooperating on issues of mutual concern, such as counterterrorism, nuclear proliferation, and regional stability.

Ultimately, the divergent approaches of the United States and China in their relations with Middle Eastern countries reflect the complexities of global power dynamics and the pursuit of national interests. As the Middle East remains a region of profound significance, the future of its relationships with these superpowers will undoubtedly shape the geopolitical landscape and have far-reaching consequences for the international community. Thus, finding avenues for cooperation and understanding between the United States, China, and Middle Eastern countries becomes imperative in order to foster a more stable and prosperous future.

From the book “International Relations: Basic Concepts and Global Issues,” published by Amazon and available at

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