The Middle East has historically been a strong focus of U.S. foreign policy; China, as part of its rise as a global power, is increasingly looking to grow its economic engagement in the region. But questions remain regarding the ability of the two countries to cooperate in the Middle East. While the United States reviews its policy in the region, the Trump administration has vocalized strong positions on issues such as the Iran nuclear deal and even taken military actions on Syria. At the same time, China is focusing on promoting its Belt and Road Initiative in the Middle East and continues to make technology investments in countries like Israel.

The Carnegie–Tsinghua Center’s Paul Haenle moderated a discussion on Chinese and U.S. economic and security interests in the Middle East. U.S. policy experts Karim Sadjadpour and Jon Finer discussed the future of U.S. engagement in the region under the Trump administration. Chinese scholars Jia Qingguo and Wang Suolao analyzed China’s growing influence in the Middle East.

This panel was the fourth in the Carnegie Global Dialogue Series 2016-2017. This discussion was off the record.

Discussion Highlights

  • Change and Continuity in the Trump Administration: The early stages of the Trump administration have shown unexpected change and continuity, one panelist remarked. Most notably, the discussants have observed a departure from the Obama administration’s strategy of sustained diplomacy. Instead, a number of civilian positions have been filled with military advisers, which a discussant argued signals a new level of militarization, supported by the deployment of U.S. troops in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. On the other hand, the discussant said that while Trump has made terrorism and the self-proclaimed Islamic State a key priority, the new president’s policies have not significantly differed from Obama’s approach. One panelist added that an increased use of military force to counter terrorism is very likely in the foreseeable future. Similarly, there has been unexpected continuity in the administration’s approach to settlements in Gaza and relations with Israel and Palestine.
  • Increasing Chinese Influence in the Middle East: Since its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China has sought diplomatic recognition with a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and Israel. China-Middle East relations deepened, one panelist said, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, when China become a net crude oil importer. According to one panelist, China’s influence in the region shifted from a mere economic partnership to more comprehensive, diplomatic ties under former President Hu Jintao. Finally, the panelist said, President Xi Jinping’s tenure has seen the Belt and Road Initiative as the flagship initiative characterizing China-Middle East relations. This marks an ever-strengthening and diversification of the connection between China and the Middle Eastern region, the panelist argued.
  • Overarching Objectives: As China’s ties with the region at large show increasing complexity and inter-dependency, the leadership is under mounting pressure to minimize political risks and preserve stability in the region, one discussant said. However, many panelists observed that China’s strategy shows a level of disengagement on a security level. Rather, a discussant pointed out that China is more prone to use diplomatic channels, such as in its involvement in the Iran nuclear deal through the UN Security Council. The promotion of co-development in a peaceful international environment remains China’s main goal and strategy in the Middle East, one panelist noted. There is a consistent belief in China that assisting regional countries in achieving sustainable development is the only durable channel to ensure peace and stability, and this is China’s ultimate objective in the region, one panelist concluded.
  • The Belt and Road Initiative in the Middle East: The Middle East has a plethora of resources and an urgent need for development. At the same time, China aims to make its own development more sustainable and to promote growth and stability through investments and progress, panelists noted. Consequently, one panelist concluded, there is a natural synergy between the Belt and Road Initiative and the needs and interests of the Middle East. One panelist suggested that the Belt and Road Initiative’s focus on investment and development without political ramifications is a way to ensure a positive relationship with the region as a whole. However, another panelist argued that this strategy has raised suspicion, adding that even though China does not see or plan for its investments to be endorsements of specific regimes or policies, they may still be perceived as such by third party observers. This raises the risk of unexpectedly complicating the current situation, the panelist warned.
  • China-U.S. Cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative: The U.S. stance on the Belt and Road Initiative is still unclear, and many commentators see it as a zero-sum game, rather than the positive sum game that it is intended to be, according to one discussant. While the United States resisted the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, one panelist suggested that the United States should more fully engage with the Belt and Road Initiative. The panelist further argued that there could be real, effective collaboration between China and the United States, with the United States able to provide the technological knowhow and China the funds to initiate and support large investment and infrastructure projects. Since both countries are deeply and increasingly involved in the region, a healthy China-U.S. relationship is key to regional stability, one panelist concluded.

Jia Qingguo

Jia Qingguo is a professor and dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University. He is a member of the Standing Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Karim Sadjadpour

Karim Sadjadpour is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment. He previously served as the chief Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Wang Suolao

Wang Suolao is an associate professor and director of the Center for Middle East Studies in the School of International Studies at Peking University.

Jon Finer

Jon Finer was chief of staff to former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and director of policy planning at the U.S. Department of State.

Paul Haenle

Paul Haenle is the director of the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy based at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Haenle’s research focuses on Chinese foreign policy and U.S.-China relations.