Report Launch: "The Other Side of the World"
The U.S.-led order in the Middle East has enabled China to reap economic benefits without contributing to security costs. This dynamic could be in jeopardy if the Trump administration decides to shift towards a more transactional foreign policy in the region, argued experts at the launch of the CSIS Brzezinski Institute’s new report “The Other Side of the World” on April 24, 2017. Anne Gearan, the Washington Post’s political correspondent, moderated a panel discussion between the CSIS Brzezinski Chair and Middle East program director Jon Alterman, the CSIS Simon Chair in Political Economy Matthew Goodman, and the director of CSIS’s Alliances and American Leadership project, Andrew Shearer.
China’s interests in the Middle East have developed in parallel with the country’s growing demand for natural resources and energy. As Goodman noted, for most regions of the world China’s exports dwarf its imports, but the opposite is true in the Middle East. While the United States moves ever-closer to energy independence, China remains dependent on the Middle East for more than half of its imported energy. Investment plays a critical role in China’s regional strategy. In 2013, President Xi Jinping unveiled the “Belt and Road Initiative,” which seeks to connect China and the rest of Eurasia through the construction and financing of ambitious infrastructure projects. Goodman estimated that China could spend up to $4 trillion on the initiative, which indicates the economic potential China sees in enhancing its westward commercial links.
China’s interests in the Middle East have developed in parallel with the country’s growing demand for natural resources and energy.
China’s activities in the Middle East reveal a new model of global influence, argued Alterman. Whereas the United States seeks to promote resilient societies as a means to building relationships, China predominantly pursues its economic interests through bilateral relations with other governments. This approach makes sense, Alterman noted, as China is almost always the more powerful partner in bilateral negotiations. Part of China’s broader strategy also includes deemphasizing its partners’ political and social issues in favor of promoting supposedly “win-win” economic relationships. While the United States often adds stipulations, China is willing to do business with few, if any, strings attached.
While the United States often adds stipulations, China is willing to do business with few, if any, strings attached.
China’s new model for global influence has only been possible because of the United States’ and its partners’ willingness to provide security, argued Shearer. Thanks to the United States’ efforts to foster multilateral institutions, China has not felt the need to build foreign military installments to secure its economic interests in the Middle East. The Chinese have started constructing multipurpose bases in the region, including a naval base in Djibouti. Shearer judged that China is building them in part to ensure military access to remote areas, and in part to keep an eye on U.S. Navy activities. He added that there was an additional, symbolic aspect to these installations, as China seeks carefully to expand its global footprint without provoking a strong reaction from local governments or the United States.
But panelists agreed the Chinese government will not be able to benefit forever from what one called the “You do security, we do business,” paradigm. China’s infrastructure projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan serve as a prescient example of the looming security challenges China will need to confront. As Alterman noted, where goods can cross borders, so can people, and China is facilitating travel between Southwest Asian areas that are battling extremism and the sometimes restive Muslim-majority areas of western China. Furthermore, the Trump administration’s professed skepticism of multilateral institutions throws doubt on the United States’ commitment to investing in the region’s security.
The Chinese government will not be able to benefit forever from what one panelist called the “You do security, we do business,” paradigm.
Moving forward, China faces several other obstacles to its continued rise on the international stage. The panelists questioned the sustainability of China’s approach to its global interactions. China has championed a model, specifically in Africa, whereby it not only provides capital but also uses its own workers to implement infrastructure projects. Partnering governments have pushed back against China for extracting their resources without contributing to sustainable local development. While Goodman indicated that these complaints have prompted China to alter its strategy somewhat, the United States remains a more appealing partner for many. U.S. firms are viewed as reliable, willing to follow international regulations, and collaborative, often providing valuable training and technology transfer to local governments. At times, China’s weak investment in security capacity has also rendered it unable to influence global events. Alterman pointed to Libya as the prime example. With the unexpected fall of Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, China had to rapidly evacuate 30,000 workers, presenting an unprecedented logistical challenge.
China’s domestic problems could also impede its rise on the global stage. Goodman dispelled the notion that China could soon challenge the United States’ dominant position in the international order, stating that China’s power and influence should not be exaggerated. China still faces high levels of poverty in rural areas, and the government must combat pressing environmental issues. Moreover, China realizes that its current levels of growth are unsustainable unless it shifts towards a service-and-consumer-driven economy.
Finally, the endurance of U.S. soft power will remain a lasting obstacle for China’s international ambitions, Alterman argued. The United States has strong people-to-people ties around the globe and is home to some of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world. People consume American culture, not Chinese. U.S. business and technology firms are the most attractive in the world and U.S. commercial brands are highly sought after. While China is undoubtedly a growing power in the Middle East, there are many challenges, both seen and unforeseen, that it must still navigate.
The endurance of U.S. soft power will remain a lasting obstacle for China’s international ambitions, Alterman argued.