China, US jostle in Middle East


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China, US jostle in Middle East

This century has witnessed China's emergence as the main challenger to the superpower status of the United States. In dramatic fashion, China is beginning to establish its foothold in the highly strategic, energy-rich region of the Middle East by forging strong ties with regional powers and gradually challenging US-Israel regional dominance. Thanks to decades of double-digit economic growth and accelerating military modernization, China now has both the need for and the capability of engaging the Middle East.

Confined to the sidelines during the Cold War, the Chinese leadership finally found a window of opportunity to enter the region's politics and expand its military exports. During the 1980s, China increasingly criticized Soviet disinterest in assisting regional "revisionist powers" such as Syria against US allies. Subsequently, it sought regional influence through forging strong ties with leading anti-US powers in the region.

The Middle East was a staging area for Cold War conflicts between the United States and the Soviet Union. Will the region become a battleground in the 21st century conflict between a rising China and a stagnant United States?

Through the 1990s, China provided an increasing amount of ballistic missile technology to Syria. But the key partner to emerge in the region was Iran. During the Iran-Iraq war, China was a key military supplier for Iran. From the 1980s to 1997, support for nuclear programs became a pivotal element of Beijing's effort to forge a strong partnership with Iran.

In the 1990s, Iran embarked on a major program of reconstruction, and gradual increases in oil prices accelerated Iran's hopes for a comeback. The reconstruction program expanded Iran's industrial base and reinvigorated the population and economy. US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan eliminated Iran's enemies to the East and West. Iran was now at a new position of strategic ascendancy and began to step up its rhetoric against the US-Israel tandem. Faced with such powerful adversaries, it sought deeper cooperation with the rising superpower, China. An emboldened Iran also honed its regional influence and consolidated it in Iraq, Lebanon, occupied Palestine, Syria and even in Afghanistan

China's burgeoning ties with Iran are not really surprising. Iran is a host to the second-largest reserves of oil and natural gas. It is also a traditional regional power, with a huge network of allies and proxies across the region. For Iran, faced with increasing investment vacuum and international isolation over its nuclear program, China represents a potential remedy for the development of its vast energy resources and a source for modern military technology. China sees Iran as a counter-force to US allies in the region and has contemplated establishing a naval presence in the Persian Gulf, where 40% of global energy is transported.

China has also been a major source of support against the UN Security Council calls for severe sanctions against Iran. As the Atlantic allies together with Russia pushed for more sanctions against Iran, China consistently sabotaged the efforts. In January, it signaled its disinterest in any sanctions by a sending low-level representative to the "Iran Six" talks (the United Nations Security Council's five permanent five plus Germany). During the February Munich Security Conference, China's foreign minister vehemently opposed any prospects of sanctions against Iran. The position was reiterated during the April meeting of the leaders of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China).

China's trade-investment interests in Iran are deepening alongside the growing strategic as well as ideological alignment between the two powers. In the past five years, China has emerged as the major investor in Iran, with an estimated US$120 billion worth of energy investments. Despite the sanctions already in place, trade between the countries grew by 35% in 2008, to $27 billion. In 2009, China signed over $8 billion in new energy investments. Seemingly, there is an emerging China-Iran tandem.

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One thing that has increased China's popularity on the African continent and the Middle East has come because the word is out that being a friend to China has less strings attached than it does being a friend of the USA!
Funnily enough all the countries which China is investing in are the ones which have mineral and other resources that they need to continue their growth. They are also being forward looking by sewing up the rights to other deposits that they might need, or are in high demand in the West, after all they have the dollars to spend on their future.

Meanwhile we in the West are sleeping on the job, as we have been for the last 3 centuries, as far as Africa is concerned. Still the problem will be for our kids, as they said 5 generations ago.