President Trump’s reinvention of American foreign policy has done little to ease conflict in the Middle East. Despite his assertion that ISIS is defeated, the group remains a threat to the region’s stability. The United States has injected further uncertainty by breaking with international consensus in recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to compete for regional dominance through a proxy war in Yemen. Meanwhile, China is starting to deepen its involvement in the Middle East through the Belt and Road Initiative and is becoming more dependent on the region for energy imports. Following the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, China now finds itself working with Europe to uphold the agreement. How will China’s growing footprint impact the interests of the United States and other regional actors?

Carnegie–Tsinghua Center Director Paul Haenle moderated a discussion between Carnegie scholars and experts from Peking University on shifting dynamics in the Middle East and the implications for U.S. and Chinese regional diplomacy.

This panel was the fourth of the Carnegie Global Dialogue Series 2018-2019 and cosponsored by Peking University’s School of International Studies.

This event was off the record.

Discussion Highlights

  • The Middle East’s Regional Transformation: One discussant argued that the Middle East is in a process of transformation due to two major shocks: the uprisings that came to be known as the Arab Spring and the collapse of oil prices. The panelists said that the failure of social contracts between governments and populations led to the Arab Spring. But many countries that withstood the pressure from these insurrections could not deal with the 2014 decrease in oil prices. The discussants cautioned that the escalating situation between Israel and Palestine may evolve into another destabilizing shock. Some of the panelists noted that China could contribute to stabilizing some regional countries through economic aid and infrastructural developement. Economic reforms alone, however, cannot resolve all the issues in the Middle East.
  • The Role of the United States in the Region: The panelists noted that the United States is currently adjusting its priorities in the Middle East, and U.S. citizens are tired of their government’s involvement in the region. However, Washington is not withdrawing from the Middle East, but is instead working to narrow the gap between its ambitions in the region and what it can realistically accomplish. The discussants agreed that China’s emerging position in the region will also influence U.S. strategy. An important question is whether Washington will continue providing security for the region while China steers clear of conflicts and only participates in the economic field.
  • U.S.-China Cooperation in the Middle East: The discussants examined how differently the United States and China have approached the region. While Washington has involved itself in various military conflicts, Beijing has emphasized economic cooperation and elevated its relationships with Iran and Saudi Arabia to comprehensive partnerships, straddling regional divides in a manner the United States has been unable or unwilling to replicate. Despite these different approaches, the U.S. has long-standing interests in the Middle East and will not remove itself entirely from the region. Though it is unclear how much Washington will decide to invest in the Middle East, it will likely help with reconstruction and counterterrorism efforts, two areas in which China could also contribute.
  • The Sustainability of China’s “Non-Interference” Stance: The panelists agreed that China’s emerging involvement in the Middle East is the result of its Belt and Road Initiative and increased dependency on the region for for energy imports. Although ongoing conflicts might damage Beijing’s interests, it has yet to shift its foreign policy approach of hands-off, no-strings-attached investment, which includes staying out of conflicts and not interfering in countries’ internal affairs. The discussants questioned whether China will be able to maintain its neutral position, especially with regard to Iran and Saudi Arabia, as its involvement in the region grows.

Paul Haenle

Paul Haenle holds the Maurice R. Greenberg Director’s Chair at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy based at Tsinghua University in Beijing. His research focuses on Chinese foreign policy and U.S.-China relations.

Marwan Muasher

Marwan Muasher is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he overseas research in Washington and Beirut on the Middle East.

Wang Suolao

Wang Suolao is deputy director of the Institute of Area Studies and associate professor at the School of International Studies, both at Peking University.

Brett McGurk

Brett McGurk is a nonresident senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He recently served as special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS at the U.S. Department of State.

Wang Yu

Wang Yu is an associate professor at the School of Foreign Languages and director of the Institute of Israeli and Jewish Studies, both at Peking University.