Thursday, October 8, 2009

What will China's rising influence mean for the Middle East region?

Lebanon - The Daily Star - October 01, 2009

Today, over 1.3 billion Chinese are celebrating the 60th anniversary of their country’s birth. But as China continues to gain prominence on the international stage many are wondering what will be the impact of the country’s rising influence. Over the last six decades China has progressed from a vast, backwater country into a modern nation that many say is an ascendent superpower. Already, it has the world’s third largest Gross Domestic Product, and it is expected that the country will surpass both Japan and the United States by the year 2030 to become the world’s largest economy. In tandem with this rapid economic transformation, China has undergone major changes in terms of its military preparedness and power-projection capability.

China’s rise as an economic giant, combined with its military modernization raises the question of how the country’s power will be used in the future, particularly here in the Middle East.

A hint of what may be in store for this region came this week in the form of an essay penned by China’s former special envoy to the Middle East, Sun Bigan. Writing in the Asia and Africa Review, Sun argued that there is a risk of deeping rifts between China and the United States over influence and oil in the region, saying: “Bilateral quarrels and clashes are unavoidable. We cannot lower vigilance against hostility in the Middle East over energy interests and security.”

Sun’s remarks are disheartening for people of this region, whose territories have long been viewed by outside powers as an arena for power struggles. For many foreign states, the Middle East, despite all of its rich society, history and culture, is little more than an oversized oil well or a contested piece of religious real estate.

However, we can be thankful that at least Sun has been more honest and forthcoming than officials from other countries. George W. Bush, for example, launched a war that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, but has ever acknowledged that the mission was really about oil and other strategic issues, not the lofty ideals of “freedom” and “democracy” that he cited ahead of the invasion. Likewise, Bush’s predecessors lent their full support to Saddam Hussein when that alliance suited their purposes, even though they knew that the former dictator was responsible for the murder of scores of his own people.

Just as the US has recklessly pursued its interests without regard for the people of this region, China has prioritized its own needs in places like Sudan and Iran, despite the ramifications of its engagement.

Things can only get worse for the people of this region if Sun’s predictions are accurate and China and the US go head-to-head in an open struggle for supremacy in the Middle East.