In recent years China has undergone a new revolution, one that has seen the emergence of a new college-educated middle class with money to spend. One of the immediate side effects of China's new bourgeoisie has been their insatiable desire to own their own vehicles. With the number of private cars being sold in China increasing as never before, and its oil production decreasing, Beijing has developed a strategic new interest in the black gold and is on a charm offensive to woo Middle Eastern leaders.
Today, China imports more Saudi oil than the United States.
As Jon B. Alterman and John W. Carver describe in their new book, "The Vital Triangle: China, the United States and the Middle East," the relationship between China and Saudi Arabia, for example, is simple, "uncomplicated by either country's sense of its global role or its global responsibility. Saudi Arabia has gas and oil; China needs gas and oil. On that basis, agreements were made."
Indeed, a very different approach to conventional politics, with all the usual intricacies of traditional politics left behind in the cloakroom. China's relationship with Saudi Arabia, as with other Gulf countries, is a relationship based purely on trade.
These agreements between China and the oil-producing countries of the Gulf differ greatly from the complex love-hate relationship that currently exists between the desert kingdom and the United States. That relationship began in the 1930s, also based on oil and energy security, but, as the two authors point out, it "has evolved into one that also concentrates heavily on counter-terrorism, radicalization, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Iran and human rights."
Understandably, given the sensitivities surrounding each of those issues mentioned, U.S. and Saudi diplomats must feel at times as though they are tiptoeing through minefields. Adding complexity to the U.S.-Saudi relationship is the fact that "traditionally, each country's ambassador to the other deals directly with the executive of the other state rather than working through foreign ministry counterparts," as is the case with most other nations.
Some feel China can play a positive role in the Middle East, particularly given that, unlike the United States, China comes with no "baggage." Some Middle East analysts see that as an advantage that could be put to good use. That view, however, is not shared by all, particularly the United States, which traditionally has looked at the Middle East as its own private hunting grounds.
China's appearance in the region and cordial relations and exchanges with not only Saudi Arabia but also other U.S. allies such as Oman and Qatar have a number of American politicians looking very carefully at China's every move in the region.
"The U.S. reservations about this are captured by John McCain's statements about the Chinese hindering the U.S., about how China is an obstacle to the U.S. accomplishing its policies, not only in the Middle East but further beyond," Alterman said during a luncheon last week in Washington. He pointed out that the chief advantage for the Arab countries in dealing with China is the lack of political baggage.
"Gone are the days when China has sought to be the reliable friend of liberation movements around the world and thus the foe of most established governments," Alterman and Carver said in their book.
China may well have stopped supporting revolutionary movements around various parts of the planet. However, the accepted foreign policy orthodoxy in China is that the United States is a hegemonic power that aggressively pursues its own interests at others' expense. Many analysts see recent U.S. efforts to reform the Middle East and replace unpalatable rulers as undermining stability rather than supporting it. In this way, they see the United States acting against the interests not only of China, but of the international community more broadly.
China believes it can play a moderating role in the region, and Beijing tries to level the field between Washington and Tehran, said Alterman, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington.
China, said Alterman, will lean against the side seeking confrontation. "The more the U.S. seems to be tipping towards war, the more they will side with Iran. And the more they see Iran being confrontational, the more they side with the U.S. to get the Iranians to back down. It's not a clear policy, it's a subtle policy," he said.
Alterman explained it in this way: "It's a policy where you not only have to look at what they are doing, but the timing of what they do."
(Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.)