The United States, the Middle East, and China

Remarks to the Far East Luncheon Group

I’m here to speak to you about the United States, the Middle East, and China. Given the topic, it seems appropriate to tout both my new book, Interesting Times: China, America, and the Shifting Balance of Prestige and my last one, America’s Misadventures in the Middle East. Both, I am told, will be available for sale by the publisher after my talk. I’ll be happy to sign copies of either or both of these books, if anyone is interested in my doing that.

In foreign policy, national interest is the measure of all things. But interests, national or otherwise, are defined by the vectors of domestic politics. No region better illustrates this than the Middle East, the region that extends from the Eastern Mediterranean to Iran and Arabia. I want to speak to you today about the differing national interests of the states and peoples of this region, the United States, and China, which is emerging as a growing presence there as it is everywhere. One legacy of the Cold War is an American tendency to search for an arch adversary and cast relationships with it in zero-sum terms. As I will explain, I don’t think that is the correct prism through which to view China’s engagement with the Middle East.

But before I get to China, let me begin with a few observations about where we Americans now stand in the Middle East with regard to Arab-Israeli peace, strategic transit, energy security, markets, and the effects of regional instability on our domestic tranquility.

For fifty years, we have treated the achievement of security for a Jewish homeland in Palestine as our top priority in the Middle East. We have sought to achieve this by military aid to foster and guarantee Israeli military hegemony in the region and by diplomacy aimed at brokering acceptance of it by its Arab and Muslim neighbors. The results are in. At no small cost to the United States in terms of the radicalization of Arab and Muslim opinion, oil embargoes, subsidies, gifts of war materiel, wars, and now anti-American terrorism with global reach, Israel has become a regional military Goliath, enjoying a nuclear monopoly and overwhelming superiority in the region’s battle space. But U.S. diplomacy has definitively failed.

In no small measure as a result of its own decisions, the Jewish state has no recognized or secure borders. Although acknowledged as an unwelcome fact, Israel remains a pariah in its region. In many ways, acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy is receding, not advancing, under the impact of the racial and religious bigotry its policies are seen to exemplify. Israel appears to have decided to stake its existence on the dubious proposition that it can sustain military superiority over its neighbors in perpetuity. It has no diplomatic strategy for achieving acceptance by them. Nor does the United States.

The great American naval strategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, was the first to call the region "the Middle East." The age of oil had not then quite arrived. Admiral Mahan wanted to highlight the area’s strategic importance as the meeting place of Europe, Africa, and Asia and the focal point of the transportation corridors connecting Europe with the Indo-Pacific. The Middle East’s geopolitical location remains a central but largely unremarked aspect of its importance. Logistics is everything in military strategy but only logisticians seem to think about it. Without the ability to transit the Middle East at will, America would be much impaired as a global power. The maintenance of a permissive environment for such transit thus remains a vital U.S. interest. Our privileges in this regard rest on the value the region’s rulers assign to our commitment to protect them. That, in turn, depends on whether they judge that they have an alternative to the United States as their protector. It’s clear that, at present, no one else wants or can take on the role we have traditionally performed. So, though we are increasingly estranged from the region’s peoples, our ability to travel through it to other parts of the globe is not in immediate jeopardy.

When someone mentions the Middle East, most people think first of oil. The United States ceased to be a net exporter of petroleum in 1970, when domestic oil production peaked. By 2005, we were importing 60 percent of the oil we consumed. Most of this came from outside the Middle East. Still, about 56 percent of the world’s oil reserves are in that region, as is the only surge production capacity. What happens in the Middle East, more than anywhere else, determines both levels of global supply and prices. During the Cold War, the U.S.-led anti-Soviet coalition we called "the free world" was heavily dependent on imports from the region. Our economic and strategic interests combined to make secure access to its energy supplies a matter of vital concern. Our relationships with countries in the Middle East like Iran and Saudi Arabia reflected this. So did our emphasis on freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf.

Our ability to extract oil and gas from shale and other previously unexploited sources at current price levels will alter these equations importantly. By the end of the decade, the United States may again be a net exporter of energy. Our reliance on imported oil could fall to as little as 10 percent before rebounding as shale reservoirs are depleted. But, regardless of North American progress toward energy self-sufficiency, the world and most of its major energy consumers will remain dependent on oil from the Middle East. What happens there will continue to have a decisive effect on energy prices. The availability of energy from shale means strategic immunity from supply disruptions outside North America. It does not mean independence from global markets.

What self-sufficiency does mean is that our interest in protecting access to the Persian Gulf’s energy resources will soon derive entirely from our aspirations for leadership of a globally healthy economy rather than from our own import dependency. This will raise obvious questions about the benefits versus the costs to our country of our traditional "lone ranger" approach to preventing the disruption of supplies and shipping in the Persian Gulf. I wouldn’t be surprised to find us looking for partners with whom to share the financial and military burdens of that mission in future.

The Middle East accounts for around 5 percent of global GDP. It is growing by about 5 percent annually and accounts for about 5 percent of U.S. exports. Arab cash purchases and generous taxpayer funding of arms transfers to Israel play a vital role in keeping production lines open and sustaining the U.S. defense industrial base. Including military goods and services, the United States has a substantial but declining share of the region’s imports — about one-fourth of them. By way of comparison, China’s share is nearly two-fifths and India’s one-fifth, almost all non military in nature. The Middle East is a significant market for American engineering, educational, and consulting services. Otherwise, as long as Arab oil producers’ currencies remain linked to the dollar, the region’s markets cannot be said to be of more than marginal importance to the U.S. export economy.

The Middle East has, however, become the principal focus of U.S. national security policy. U.S. support for Israel and military interventions in the region have made it the epicenter of anti-American terrorism with global reach. Israel is threatening war on Iran to preclude it from developing nuclear weapons. Although other countries in the region dislike — even fear — Iran, none supports preemptive attack on the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, our cooperation with the region’s governments on counterterrorism is on the rise. So is the number of terrorists. There is a lot more hatred of America out there than there was before 9/11. We have added the resentment of most Sunnis to that of Iranian Shi`a, while igniting a civil war between these two sects of Islam and destabilizing the Fertile Crescent. No one can now say when or how any of this will end.

The peoples of the region share a desire for freedom from imperial or colonial dominance and for affirmation of their disparate religious, ethnic, or cultural identities. They are not much interested in our ideology or political practices but, by contrast with other regions, almost all seek foreign patrons to secure themselves against each other. Israeli Jews depend on us to support their ethno-religious uniqueness. Iranians believe that we menace their independence and cultural identity. Egyptians count on us because they do not know where else now to turn. Kurds hope we will back their self-determination. The Gulf Arabs seek our help and that of others to protect them against Israel and to balance Iranian power and preclude Persian hegemony.

Middle Eastern governments with oil or gas depend on energy exports to finance their defense and domestic welfare, development, and stability. Those without such resources seek subsidies for the same purposes. Despite varying degrees of foreign dependency, all jealously guard their independence and freedom of action. And none is wedded to us or any other patron. All are looking around for alternative backers.

This is where many in the region believe China could come in. In China, the Arabs see a partner who will buy their oil without demanding that they accept a foreign ideology, abandon their way of life, or make other choices they’d rather avoid. They see a country that is far away and has no imperial agenda in their region but which is technologically competent and likely in time to be militarily powerful. They see a place to buy things they can use and enjoy. They see a country that unreservedly welcomes their investments and is grateful for the jobs these create. They see a major civilization that seems determined to build a partnership with them, does not insult their religion or their way of life, values its reputation as a reliable supplier too much to engage in the promiscuous application of sanctions or other coercive measures, and has no habit of bombing or invading other countries to whose policies it objects.

In short, the Arabs see the Chinese as pretty much like Americans — that is, Americans as we used to be before we decided to experiment with diplomacy-free foreign policy, hit-and-run democratization, regime change, drone wars, and other "neocon" conceits of the age. And they see a chance to rebalance their international relationships to offset their longstanding overdependence on the United States. But the political aloofness that makes China attractive as a partner also makes it unlikely that it would agree to compete with us for the privilege of acquiring and protecting foreign client states.

China has a long history of engagement with the Middle East. Islam entered China shortly after its seventh-century revelation, in 618, the year the Tang Dynasty began. The first official envoy of the Rashiddun Caliphate arrived in Chang’an in 651. It’s little known in the West that the great Ming Admiral Zheng He, who commanded multiple voyages to South Asia, East Africa, and the Middle East from 1405 to 1433, was a Muslim whose grandfather and father had made the pilgrimage to Mecca and who had been tutored in Arabic. He was following long-established, well-mapped Arab and Chinese trade routes. Four of his seven voyages touched Arabia. He himself visited Mecca on the last of them. The connections between East and West Asia were severed and atrophied during the era of European imperialism and the Cold War. They are now being rebuilt with astonishing speed.

China’s economy grew more than six-fold over the past ten years. China became the world’s largest energy consumer in 2010. It is the world’s biggest investor in renewable energy, but last December it displaced the United States as its largest oil importer. China now consumes 21.3 percent of the world’s oil. Not surprisingly, its main interest in the Middle East is uninterrupted access to the region’s abundant energy supplies.

China imports over half its oil from the region, primarily from Saudi Arabia, though it also buys almost half the oil produced in post-Saddam Iraq, where Chinese oil companies now play a leading role, and more than two-fifths of the oil exported by Iran. To buy all that oil, China must sell goods and services to Middle Eastern oil producers. As has become so common in so many other places, China is now the top destination for the region’s exports and the largest source of its imports. Chinese companies are the largest foreign investors in a growing number of Middle Eastern countries. For non oil-producing countries that rely heavily on the tourist industry, Chinese visitors are now a significant source of hard currency. Chinese is taught in Confucius Institutes in Israel, most Arab countries, Iran, and Turkey.

American presidents up to Woodrow Wilson (and his immediate successors) would have understood today’s China’s reluctance to take sides in the quarrels of others. As a vulnerable new state, the People’s Republic of China follows a policy analogous to that recommended by our founding fathers. As Thomas Jefferson put it: "Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none." China does not wish to be manipulated by Israel against the Arabs, by the Arabs against Israel or each other, or by either against Iran. It hopes for productive relations with all. Unique among great powers, China simultaneously maintains largely positive and substantive relations with all the region’s peoples. This is not an easy stand to take in an area prone to view events as a conflict between good and evil.

In dealing with the turmoil in Syria, China has clung to its vision of non interference in the internal affairs of sovereign nations despite the damage this has done to its image in Saudi Arabia, its most important economic partner in the region and the principal sponsor of the Syrian rebels. Its unwillingness to support the Assad government against the insurgents has meanwhile earned it no points with Iran. China has excellent relations with Israel (including a lot of military technology coooperation), but does not take the side of the Jewish state in its struggle to master and dispossess the Palestinians. Nor, as a country that seeks no enemies, is China prepared to play the role of mediator in the Middle East. It recognizes, as the Greek philosopher Bias did two-and-a-half millennia ago, that "it is better to mediate between enemies than between friends, because one of the friends is sure to become an enemy and one of the enemies a friend."

China has sound domestic reasons to be cautious about involvement in the Middle East. There is not a single province in China without a native Muslim population. Increasing numbers of Chinese make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Although — for complex reasons — the official figures are much lower, well over 100 million Chinese are Muslim, and the number is growing. Some Uyghurs have raised the banner of Islam in a violent campaign for the secession of Xinjiang. Al-Qaeda had a Uyghur chapter. The contagious sectarian dogmas of the Middle East could adversely affect China’s security and social tranquility.

In short, China shares neither the priorities nor the impulse to activism of the United States in the Middle East. It has no emotional commitment to the Jews of Israel or the Muslims of Arab countries, Iran, orTurkey. It did not have its diplomats taken hostage by raging students in Tehran. Its armed forces are configured to defend its national territory, not to project power on the global level or to the Middle East. China does not need security of transit through the region.

China is dependent on Middle East oil supplies but confident that the self-interest of vendors and diplomacy make the use of force largely irrelevant to the security of energy supplies. Where actual threats to this security have arisen, as from Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden, China has independently deployed the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) as part of an ad hoc, U.N.-authorized, multinational effort to restore freedom of navigation. Meanwhile, China has hedged against the possibility that the United States, India, or another great power might try to break its energy supply chains by diversifying its sources of oil and gas as much as it can. And, for sound strategic reasons, unlike us, China has kept its distance from the religious struggles of the Middle East. It has been content to buy what it needs and sell what it can to cover the cost, stay out of politics, and avoid taking stands on religious issues. If that sounds like the advice your grandmother gave you for dealing with other people, that just confirms its essential wisdom.

Much as the countries of the Middle East would like to enlist China as a sponsor and protector, they are learning that China has neither the capability nor the inclination to take on these roles. Their disappointment with Chinese distance from them has not impeded their development of a robust pattern of economic interdependence with China. The good news is that China does not seek to usurp our self-appointed role as the protector of the Middle East. That, I think, is also, in some senses, the bad news. We will not easily escape the burdens we have assumed in that region.

There is room for Sino-American cooperation in the Middle East. There is no inevitability about contention between us there. One must hope that we can in fact ways to work together or in parallel. It would help to listen, not apply mirror-imaged stereotypes to each other. Perhaps we could both learn something from that. Neither coercion nor the use of force is the only way to advance the national interest. Diplomacy and other measures short of war are generally less costly and more effective. The politics of the homeland may define national interests but a clear-eyed view of the realities of the world beyond it is essential for their successful prosecution.

Despite the growing economic interdependence of the United States and China, the overall trajectory of our official relations is at present negative. We would do well to avoid adding needless elements of a zero-sum game in the Middle East to the mix. There, as elsewhere, we need to search for broader common interests within which narrow differences can be subsumed and on which policy coordination can take place. I hope the effort to do this will be a significant part of the summit meeting between Chinese Communist Party chairman Xi Jinping and President Obama that begins tomorrow.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)

DACOR, Washington, D.C.

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