Convergence and Conflict: Potential Sino-American Conflict over the Middle East

The Trump administration’s evolving Middle East policy is looking more and more like China’s. It is true, the United States and China differ on one big issue: Iran. There, the White House feels a need to show sticks while China leans toward offering carrots. On a slew of other issues, though, the U.S. and Chinese approaches—in the Middle East and around the world—are converging.

While this convergence holds out the prospect for Sino-American cooperation in the Middle East, it also lays the groundwork for a Sino-American clash. Very different approaches to the world have created complementary U.S. and Chinese roles, and more similar global strategies are likely to cause new frictions.

There are several ways in which Chinese and U.S. strategies are becoming more similar. For example, China has long had a strong preference for pursuing bilateral diplomacy, where it is almost inevitably the stronger power compared to its partners. For centuries, Chinese emperors demanded tribute from their weaker neighbors while avoiding the web of colonial entanglements that Europe pursued in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The United States was different. In the years after World War II, the United States embraced multilateral diplomacy, first through the United Nations, and then through alliances such as NATO. While the United States was the most powerful actor in all of these organizations, the U.S. government made a strong effort to create a sense of shared ownership to encourage broader compliance.

The multilateral urge in the United States seems to be shifting now. In December 2016, then-President elect Trump tweeted that the United Nations “right now…is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!” Throughout the campaign, he described NATO as “obsolete,” and just before he took office in January 2017, he told a German paper that the United States should only come to the defense of alliance members who had “fulfilled their obligation to us.” While China’s pronouncements are more measured than President Trump’s, the instinct is the same: narrowly conceived national interests are paramount, and they are best pursued through direct bilateral engagements with weaker powers.

In another similarity, those engagements are overwhelmingly commercial in nature. While Chinese officials are eager to engage with counterparts in other governments, there is no hiding the fact that trade and business are what animate China’s global relationships. In fact, China seems to be experimenting with the idea that strong commercial ties allow China to gain influence without the expensive diplomatic and military footprint that global influence has required in the past.

The United States now seems interested in more commercially-driven diplomacy. The president draws on his real estate and marketing background to emphasize the commercial aspects of international relations, proclaiming he will negotiate agreements that are economically advantageous to the United States.

Third, China bristles at efforts to meddle in other states’ internal affairs, arguing that strong governments are the answer to modern scourges such as terrorism. Chinese officials not only reject the notion that human rights abuses contribute to terrorism, they argue that Westerners’ emphasis on democratization and human rights empowers terrorists and keeps those terrorists out of prison. Chinese success rides on cultivating governments, not their citizens.

While the Trump administration has been more measured than China in its skepticism of human rights advocacy, it shares many of China’s views. President Trump himself has abandoned a long history of U.S. exceptionalism. After a television host characterized Russian president Vladimir Putin as “a killer” in February 2017, the president replied, “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?”

Surprisingly, the convergences of U.S. and Chinese attitudes may lay the groundwork for conflict. China’s approach to the Middle East is complementary to the American one, helping ease growing Chinese influence there. China can afford to have a relatively light military presence abroad because the United States has maintained a heavy one. For example, the U.S. Navy has ensured freedom of navigation through the Indian Ocean, even as much of the trade making use of this route has been with China. China has also benefited from the international economic environment that the United States has helped shape, promoting trade regimes that promise the equal treatment of goods. The United States has sought to invigorate the economies of China’s trading partners by encouraging the private sector and working to stamp out corruption.

Some China-watchers argue that China has now become vested in the global economic system that the United States has helped create, and it would scarcely be in China’s interest to undermine it. But there is a more fundamental tension at work. The U.S.-led system has been predicated on promoting resilient societies and fostering economic competition, transparency, and opportunity. The United States has focused on processes. The Chinese system, by contrast, has had the luxury to stress the importance of outcomes, and of winning; whispers of corruption and cronyism are rarely far from discussions of Chinese contracting. A less process-oriented world is likely to be messier and make more demands on China to sustain its interests. A U.S. policy that is more oriented to zero-sum competition is likely to create more of a collision-course with China.

Part of the secret to managing Sino-American tensions for decades has been maintaining clearly different approaches to the world, which have worked out to be complementary. Growing similarities between U.S. and Chinese approaches, which are visible in the Middle East, will likely mean more direct competition and more conflict. China has emphasized the importance of “harmony” in global affairs, but harmony requires the careful coordination of different musical notes. Shifting U.S. approaches, producing a different global environment, threaten to create unexpected dissonance.

This piece originally appeared in Middle East Notes and Comment, a newsletter of the CSIS Middle East Program. This piece draws on a new report by Jon B. Alterman entitled The Other Side of the World: China, the United States, and the Struggle for Middle East Security.” It is available for download in English, Arabic, and Mandarin.

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author (s).

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program