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As US Power Declines, Can China Step Into Void In Middle East?

Article illustrative image Partner logo New horizons

PARIS - Barack Obama has a surprising tendency to fly to emerging countries, and more specifically, to Asia, when dramatic events break out in the Middle East and in North Africa.

When the Libyan operation started in March 2011, the U.S. President was on his way to Brazil. When the latest crisis broke out in Gaza, he was heading to Thailand, Burma and Cambodia.

This reminded us of the comment in May of the Obama administration official, following tough international negotiations on the Iranian nuclear issue held in Baghdad, about how much more fun it was to work in burgeoning Asia than the depressing Middle East.

But could the US rightfully focus on Asia, at the expense of the Middle East? Experts noted the limits of such policy: it is impossible for “U.S. Power,” no matter how limited it has become, not to take its responsibilities in such important parts of the world.

President Obama, who wanted to start his second mandate heralding a shift toward Asia and basking in the glory of heroic Burmese human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi, was diverted by the rockets and the tanks being deployed in the Middle East. A good trip ruined, indeed.

Meanwhile, one change totally went unnoticed: while the U.S. was turning to Asia, China was turning to … the Middle East. On Nov. 1st, Beijing presented a four-point plan to UN and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to solve the Syrian crisis. The text itself, which puts forward ideas that have been around for months (a step-by-step cease-fire, the appointment of representatives from each side to formulate a roadmap of political transition, Annan's proposal, and humanitarian aid), is not what’s most important. What matters is the creation of a Chinese plan for the Syrians. Not a Russian-Chinese plan, a proper Chinese plan!

The Chinese regime wants to be a global actor, including stepping into a conflict that does not directly threaten its national interests. Unlike Russia, China has no military base in Syria nor does it have military contracts there or an important expatriate community. For the Chinese, Bashar al-Assad's fate is not as important as it is for Moscow, who uses this crisis as a geopolitical “playing card” against the Americans.

Realpolitik and oil supply

China, which is often accused of hiding behind Russia on a lot of international security affairs and works hand in hand with Putin at the UN, suddenly started moving away from its traditional ally.

The question now is whether "lone China" is going to align its course with Western interests. There is no simple answer. The main driving force behind China’s involvement in the Middle East is to guarantee regional stability– in order to guarantee its oil supply: China’s appetite for oil is huge. What’s new is that China now wants to play a more visible role.

Beijing now has four special ambassadors working in the Middle East. China said it wanted to be a member of the Quartet (U.S., Russia, UN, European Union), where the Israel-Palestine issue is being addressed. Its peace plan for Syria is the first step.

According to a Western expert on the Middle East who just came back from Beijing, Chinese leaders are only interested in the Syrian crisis because they are worried about political instability on their home front. 

Are Beijing's top officials starting to realize that the Russian cause in Syria is doomed to failure? Do they believe that a self-reliant China would look better in the eyes of oil-supplying Arab States, whose opinions they are starting to value much more? The conclusion of this Western official is categorical: "The Chinese plan is just a front to get rid of Assad." To be continued...

From world order to multipolar disorder

We are facing a double tipping point: the U.S. is shifting toward Asia, China toward the Middle East, but not in the same way. To understand these evolutions, the last book by American strategic expert Robert Kagan The World America Made provides some interesting leads. If the U.S. does not defend its leadership, the "multipolar world" that commentators are already praising, could rattle the “delicate power equation” that has brought relative peace and growth since 1945.

“If and when the American power declines,” – this is not a fatality for M. Kagan – there is nothing to say that other world powers would be able, or willing, to defend this new world order. America’s predominance was a guarantee of free markets and democracy for many decades, even if it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

In a world where autocratic China would give itself the leading role, it is doubtful that democratic leaders from the Arab Spring would be able to gain any outside support.

Does China want to be constructive on the Syrian issue? Does it want to hold new responsibilities? After reading Robert Kagan's book, it become apparent that China is hinting at the role it believes it can hold in the 21st century. Especially since the United States and its allies keep showing their inability to find solutions to pressing global issues.

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