In West Asia, where US and China’s interests intersect - Hindustan Times
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In West Asia, where US and China’s interests intersect

ByManoj Kewalramani
Apr 15, 2021 06:36 PM IST

The American presence in the region allows a certain degree of free-riding for China, particularly with regard to security objectives related to terrorism, trade and energy. At the same time, Washington is unlikely to be opposed to Beijing committing more resources in this context.

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s recent six-nation tour of West Asia has sparked discussions about Beijing’s taking a more active approach in the region. In part, this is driven by China’s expanding interests; in part, it is a product of the China-United States (US) competition and geopolitical churn underway after Joe Biden’s election.

This resetting of the pieces creates new drivers for Beijing to play a greater role. After his visit, Wang Yi outlined five broad parameters of future engagement, while emphasising that China supports building a “new security framework” for the region that eschews major power competition (AP)
This resetting of the pieces creates new drivers for Beijing to play a greater role. After his visit, Wang Yi outlined five broad parameters of future engagement, while emphasising that China supports building a “new security framework” for the region that eschews major power competition (AP)

Wang’s visit came in the backdrop of American policy towards the region undergoing key changes. Under Donald Trump, the US withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran and pursued a re-engineering of the region’s politics. This fructified in the form of the 2020 Abraham Accords and the end of the Gulf Cooperation Council crisis involving Qatar earlier this year.

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Beijing’s official response to these was lukewarm at best. Concerns about the impact on the Palestinian issue and the potential for an anti-Iran coalition dominated the discourse, as any consequent instability would not only hurt the progress of the Belt and Road Initiative but also China’s energy imports.

Biden’s election victory, however, eased some of these concerns. Under Biden, the US has returned to engagement with Iran. The ongoing talks in Vienna, aimed at bringing both the US and Iran back in compliance with the nuclear deal, is an example of this. However, engineering a thaw with Tehran while balancing the interests of Tel Aviv will not be easy.

At the same time, Biden has adopted a tougher position on Saudi Arabia compared to Trump. He ended US support for the war in Yemen and made public an intelligence report on the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Given the pressure from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party in Congress over US-Saudi ties, it appears that the Riyadh-Washington relationship will remain difficult.

This resetting of the pieces creates new drivers for Beijing to play a greater role. After his visit, Wang Yi outlined five broad parameters of future engagement, while emphasising that China supports building a “new security framework” for the region that eschews major power competition. The five parameters include seeking deeper development and digital economy cooperation; ensuring oil infrastructure, energy and trade security; cooperation on fighting terrorism and de-radicalisation; building alignment on values such as non-interference in internal affairs and human rights; and pursuing nuclear non-proliferation.

Based on these, it is clear that Beijing wants to do more but is not keen on replicating Washington’s political and military engagement in the region. In fact, China continues to remain wary of the ethnic and political fault lines inWest Asia. The challenge for Beijing will remain in deepening its stake while avoiding getting caught up in the region’s political disputes.

China’s interests lie in, first, securing its energy supplies, given that it is heavily dependent on Saudi Arabia and Iraq and desires easier access to Iranian supplies. In contrast, West Asia is no longer critical to US energy security. Second, there is a desire to secure and expand Chinese infrastructure investments in the region.

Third, while American, European and Russian exporters dominate the region’s arms market, Beijing has made inroads with drone sales and desires a bigger piece of the pie. Despite this, it is wary of the possibility of a nuclear-weapons race in the region, which can lead to tremendous instability. Fourth, China wants to engage regional players to build greater support for its approach to issues such as human rights, multilateralism and development and deployment of new technologies.

Examining these, it is clear that there are areas where American and Chinese interests coincide. The American presence in the region allows a certain degree of free-riding for China, particularly with regard to security objectives related to terrorism, trade and energy. At the same time, Washington is unlikely to be opposed to Beijing committing more resources in this context. There’s also a chance for alignment on Iran and nuclear non-proliferation. US secretary of state Antony Blinken acknowledged this after the Anchorage dialogue with Chinese diplomats, identifying Iran and Afghanistan among two areas where the interests of both sides “intersect”. On values and emerging technologies, however, frictions are likely to persist and even deepen.

Manoj Kewalramani is the chair of the Indo-Pacific Studies Programme at the Takshashila Institution

The views expressed are personal

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