Through the post-war era, and especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States has been the guarantor of something approximating peace in the Middle East. The U.S. accepted that role largely because of its need for Middle Eastern oil imports. But times have changed: domestic energy development, especially fracking technology, unleashed on private lands beyond the reach of the Democratic Party’s Luddites, is rapidly turning the United States into the world’s main producer of energy. The oil-producing countries of the Middle East are correspondingly losing importance to our foreign policy.
Which, naturally, creates a vacuum. So who will fill it? Germany thinks the natural candidate is China, which has replaced the U.S. as the main consumer of Middle Eastern oil. At the Middle East Forum, David Goldman notes an interesting article in Germany’s Der Spiegel, which apparently has not appeared in English:
English-language media completely ignored a noteworthy statement that led Der Spiegel’s German-language website October 12, a call for China to “take on responsibility as a world power” in the Middle East. Penned by Bernhard Zand, the German news organization’s Beijing correspondent, it is terse and to the point: now that China imports more oil from the Middle East than any other country in the world, it must answer for the region’s security. “America’s interest in the Middle East diminishes day by day” as it heads towards energy self-sufficiency, wrote Zand, adding:
China’s interest in a peaceful Middle East is enormous, by contrast. Beijing is not only the biggest customer of precisely those oil powers who presently are fanning the flames of conflict in Syria; as a VIP customer, Beijing has growing political influence, which it should use openly. The word of the Chinese foreign minister has just as much weight in Tehran and Riyadh as that of his American counterpart.
This is telling, and, I am afraid, true:
The time when American could be counted on to secure Beijing’s supply lines soon will come to an end – America’s budget deficit will take care of that by itself. Whoever wants to be a world power must take on responsibilities.
I think that is correct. Despite the best efforts of conservatives, America’s crushing debt burden inevitably will lead to severe cutbacks in military spending, and therefore in our ability to project power around the world.
So it is time for China to step up and take responsibility:
American commentators have regarded China as a spoiler, the source of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons technology, Iran’s ballistic missiles, and other alarming instances of proliferation. It is worth considering a radically different view of China’s interests in the lands between the Himalayas and the Mediterranean: no world power has more to lose from instability than does China.
China’s relationship with Iran is complex; follow the link for the details. China’s relations with Turkey factor into the equation:
Iran sits between two Sunni powers – Turkey and Pakistan – that depend to a great extent on Saudi financing, and that also have excellent relations with China. Turkey’s still-disputed agreement to buy a Chinese air defense system represented a revolution in Chinese-Turkish relations, motivated by a Chinese promise to transfer the whole package of relevant technology to Turkey and to help the Turks to manufacture the systems, a more generous offer than ever Ankara got from the West. Turkey is the logical terminus for the “New Silk Road” of road, rail, pipelines and broadband that China has proposed to build in Central Asia.
But China also has very good relations with Israel, a fact that could scramble the Middle Eastern puzzle:
China, it might be added, also has excellent relations with Israel, whose premier technical university just was offered a US$130 million grant from Hong Kong magnate Li Ka-shing to fund part of the costs of building a branch in China. Chinese provincial and local governments will contribute another $147 million. The seamless interchange of ideas and personnel between Israel’s military, universities and tech entrepreneurs is a success story in miniature that China hopes to reproduce in scale.
Can China play a positive role in world affairs? Can it replace the U.S. as policeman of the Middle East? I don’t know, but the heavy sands of economic interest are rapidly flowing away from us, and toward the Chinese. Consequences will follow, for better or worse.
PAUL ADDS: As John says, China has very good relations with Israel. But I doubt that China can ever be to Israel what the U.S. was. China’s dependency on oil from the Middle East will, in the long run, cause it to tilt towards the side of the Arabs. And the Chinese lack the affinity and connections with Jews that can offset purely economic interests.
On the other hand, China could become at least as steadfast an ally of Israel as the U.S. has been under President Obama and would likely be under future Democratic presidents.