With the rise of the Islamic State and the protracted civil war in Syria, the Middle East has drawn international attention as a region continually plagued by conflict, unrest, and ineffective leadership. Washington and Beijing’s regional involvement includes commitments that go well beyond the energy sector. Yet it remains to be seen how much China will contribute to multilateral efforts to manage regional instability.

At Carnegie’s second Global Dialogue, Carnegie–Tsinghua’s Matt Ferchen moderated a panel on Chinese and American regional interests in the Middle East and the likelihood that the two powers will respond in concert to challenges like Iranian nuclear ambitions and ongoing intraregional conflicts in Syria and Iraq. The panel included Carnegie’s Karim Sadjadpour, Wang Lian and Wu Bingbing of Peking University, and Bernard Haykel from Princeton University. 

Discussion Highlights

  • Countering Terrorism: Although the Islamic State poses an immediate threat, one panelist noted that the United States, China, and other states have limited means to address the situation in the short term, because its roots are at least as structural as proximate. The panelist suggested that one underlying cause is that Sunni communities perceive the region’s predominantly Shia rule to be disenfranchising, a frustration that the Islamic State has used to mobilize pockets of Sunni Arab support. The different—albeit overlapping—objectives that inform U.S. and Chinese counterterrorism efforts, panelists asserted, further complicate potential collaboration. Beijing emphasizes non-interference and overall regional stability, while Washington is more willing to use military force and supply weapons to local actors. Thus, panelists conclude that joint Sino-U.S. counterterrorism efforts, while possible, would prove challenging to implement in a manner amenable to both sides.

  • Discrepancies in Power Projection: Middle Eastern stability depends as much on global powers as it does on regional ones, panelists asserted. Yet a gap exists between U.S. and Chinese military capabilities and regional interests—China simply cannot project power into the region to the same extent as the United States. Moreover, panelists pointed out, Beijing’s ongoing commitment to non-interference in other states’ internal affairs remains a political obstacle to greater military involvement. Nevertheless, a U.S.-Sino consensus is still indispensable to resolving regional tensions. In the short to medium term, panelists concluded that China will likely remain without a regional military presence, and the degree of Beijing’s involvement will continue to be facilitating crisis response and humanitarian resources.  

  • China’s Western Borders: Panelists noted that U.S. military withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan might potentially have destabilizing effects on China’s western borders. They observed that Uighur unrest in Xinjiang remains a complex problem for China. Some panelists raised concerns that imams returning from training in the Middle East may upset China’s internal stability.  Beijing therefore has a vested interest, one panelist asserted, in ensuring that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan goes smoothly. He suggested that western China stands to benefit from the stability that would be afforded by strong internal governance from Kabul, particularly after NATO and U.S. troops have departed.

  • Deepening Economic Cooperation: Panelists pointed out that China has a serious interest in a stable, developing Middle East and North Africa. Chinese investments are financing factories, harbors, and other infrastructural projects in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. The region’s oil reserves also have important implications for China’s energy security. In addition, Middle Eastern states hope to foster deeper economic ties with China in high-tech sectors, such as petrochemicals and alternative energy. Relevant state actors seek this economic exchange, panelists explained, not only to offset U.S. regional dominance, but also to develop their own domestic economies, which currently rely heavily on the oil and petrochemical sectors.

  • Nuclear Talks With Iran: Panelists cautioned that the chances of an impending deal between Obama and Rouhani should not be overestimated. Even if such an agreement were to be reached, the opposition from Israel, the U.S. Congress, and Iranian conservatives could still be enough to prevent a fully comprehensive deal. Panelists also observed that Iran’s regional importance, its relative stability compared to its neighbors, and the country’s vast energy resources have made China reassess Iran’s strategic importance, which may suggest that China will be more reluctant in impose tougher sanctions in the future.