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The Dragon in the Desert: Rise of China in Arabia

Updated On: Dec 01, 2006

During the era of the Monroe Doctrine starting from 1823, European powers were unilaterally discouraged by the US from having spheres of influence in South America.

Would the same thing happen for China’s influence over the Middle East? The Middle East has long been considered vital for US strategic interest because of two factors – oil and religion. US’s top allies and worst enemies are concurrently found in this region.

US is concerned about Chinese advances in Middle Eastern influence – including its working relationship with Iran and rising Chinese soft power in the region. Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear power, the second of the Axis of Evil to become so. US is afraid that Iran would do so with Chinese technological help. To underscore this fear, a recent anti-ship cruise missile fired at a US warship by the Iranian-supported Hizbollah is found to be a Made-in-China Silkworm.

More importantly, in the long run, the US is afraid that Chinese economic growth would serve as a glowing testimony to the Chinese model of development and upset American democratic ideals for the region. Many see the Chinese political model as a more suitable fit for the Mid-East’s autocratic and monarchic regimes.  China’s expanding exports to the Middle East recording a 38.1% jump for the first 9 months of 2006 was testimonial to China’s increasing prowess. 

In contrast, the US is perceived as a declining economic power.  The weakening US dollar and slowing economy does not help much as a working model for developing states.   Compounding the problem is the United States’ invasion of Iraq and its ironclad support for Israel.  In fact, US recent policies in the Mid-East have convinced the Arabs to diversify their investments away from the US (and the West) due to lingering suspicions. China may become a beneficiary of this outflow of the Islamic dollar.  Other East Asian states such as Malaysia and Singapore may benefit from this diversification as well.

Not all in Washington agrees with this view of an impending Sino-US Middle-Eastern rivalry. Recent years have seen the re-emergence of the faction supporting the view that China should be seen as a stakeholder.  This group of American politicians, academics and business leaders essentially believe that the Rise of China would coincide with Washington interests in many areas. They believe that US would do well to work with China in the long run and in various areas since their interests coincide, and this includes the Mid-East. Chinese intentions seem to indicate this. "China is ready to work with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to strengthen peace and development in the Middle East," Chinese President Hu Jintao said in Saudi Arabia in April 2006.

Sources:

China will work for stable Sino-US ties (Straits Times, 29 November 2006)

China in Mideast minefield for US (Jakarta Post, 28 November 2006)

China in anteroom of Mideast influence (Jakarta Post, 28 November 2006)