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China Moves In – Beijing Filling U.S. Power Vacuum in Mideast

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China Moves In

Beijing Filling U.S. Power Vacuum in Mideast

China has been pushing into the region in order to continue its economic growth, secure resources, and expand its global political clout.

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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In the decades since the fall of communist dictator Mao Zedong, global opinion of China has grown gradually more welcoming. While there were setbacks, notably after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the trend was bolstered by the country’s impressive economic growth and supercharged by the dazzling display of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

For some years, the 1.3-billion-strong nation has been seen by Americans, Chinese and outside observers as a global competitor with the United States.

Where does China stand now in the court of public opinion? A July 2013 Pew Research Forum international survey provides insight: “Since the 2008 financial crisis, perceptions about the economic balance of power in the world have been shifting. Looking at the 20 nations surveyed in both 2008 and 2013, the median percentage naming the U.S. as the world’s leading economic power has declined from 47% to 41%, while the median percentage placing China in the top spot has risen from 20% to 34%.”

“…even in many countries where America is still seen as the top economic power, most believe China will someday become the leading overall superpower…This view is more common now than it was in 2008, when Pew Research first asked this question. Today, majorities or pluralities in only six countries believe China will never replace the U.S.”

While this may not be surprising overall, some specifics were unexpected: “This trend has been especially apparent among some of America’s closest allies in Western Europe. Today, for example, 53% in Britain say China is the leading economy; just 33% name the U.S. Roughly six-in-ten Germans (59%) say China occupies the top position, while only 19% think the U.S. is the global economic leader (14% say it is the EU).”

The survey placed hard numbers on the general perception that China is filling the power vacuum left by a receding America. And in all the areas where, not too long ago, the U.S. exerted influence as the lone superpower, China is beginning to displace Uncle Sam.

One such area is the global crossroads of history, resources, religion, conflict and diplomacy: the Middle East.

China: Already Ahead

America has spent half a decade looking inward, slogging through internal crises that sent shockwaves around the globe. In the meantime, The Wall Street Journal reported, “China surpassed the U.S. as importer of Persian Gulf crude several years ago, by some measures. Now it is on track to overtake the U.S. this year as the world’s No. 1 buyer of oil from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, the largely Middle Eastern energy-exporting bloc.”

This is a result of a number of factors such as growing oil demand in China, flat U.S. oil consumption, and America’s advances in shale oil pushing it toward energy independence. And it has upset a long-standing dynamic between the two global heavyweights. The Wall Street Journal continues: “For years, China and other oil-consuming nations have benefited as Washington spent billions of dollars a year to police chokepoints like the Strait of Hormuz and other volatile parts of the Middle East to ensure oil flowed around the globe.”

Feng Li/Getty Images
Walking together: Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) accompanies King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain (right) during a welcoming ceremony outside the Great Hall of People in Beijing, China (Sept. 16, 2013).

“For Washington, China’s oil thirst means justifying military spending that benefits a country many Americans see as a strategic rival and that frequently doesn’t side with the U.S. on foreign policy.

“Signs of tension are surfacing. Beijing has asked for assurances that Washington will maintain security in the Persian Gulf region, as China doesn’t have the military power to do the job itself…particularly as the Obama administration has pledged to rebalance some of its strategic focus toward East Asia, said people familiar with those discussions.

“In return, U.S. officials have pressed China for greater support on issues such as its foreign policy regarding Syria and Iran.”

Chinese foreign policy generally follows a pragmatic, you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours pattern. Thus, with America mulling a reduced Mideast presence, it also risks losing a bargaining chip used to nudge China toward U.S. interests.

Vali Nasr, author of the book The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, told PBS NewsHour in a Web interview that the U.S. “wants to ‘pivot to Asia’ and focus attention on China and away from the Middle East…but ‘the problem is just as we are pivoting East, the Chinese are pivoting West.’”

PBS summarized Mr. Nasr’s comments: “The Chinese are looking to the region—from Pakistan to Iran to Saudi Arabia and Turkey—to help supply their vast need for energy and products…China considers stability in the Middle East important to its own stability, he said.

“The growing relationship might develop further. While the Middle East watches the American role recede, it will look to China for economic, diplomatic and possibly even military purposes, said Nasr.”

Oil supply alone is a huge reason for China’s Mideast overtures. Its automotive market, already the world’s largest, expects sales to roughly double by 2019, intensifying a tremendous thirst for petroleum. The massive weight of its population, which is increasingly urban and aspiring to a middle-class lifestyle, gives the government little choice but to secure agreements from nations at the center of large-scale crude oil production. China inevitably turned toward what Japan’s parliament member Yuriko Koike calls a “post-American Middle East.”

One Chinese trait that will be refreshing to Mideast regimes is its avoidance of getting involved in the internal politics and governance of its trade partners. This is thrown into sharp relief when compared to the American approach. The Atlantic reported: “Unlike the United States, China has good relations with countries across the region, even those who are at odds with each other. For example, China has held bilateral diplomatic and trade relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia—mutual enemies—for decades. Beijing also maintains good relations with and sells arms to Israel, while at the same time endorses Palestinian statehood and right to self-determination. These relationships are consistent with China’s foreign policy approach, which [Liu Chao, chief of political and press affairs at Amman’s Chinese Embassy] says favors ‘equality, mutual respect, and non-interference’ over U.S.-style democracy promotion.”

Mr. Liu told the magazine: “We do not interfere with domestic matters…When there is domestic unrest, we do not comment. This is a diplomatic philosophy based on totally different values from America, who likes to ‘look around in other people’s homes.’ China does not do this.”

Turkey, Lebanon, Iran

China recently agreed to sell a multibillion-dollar missile defense system to Turkey, which chose to look east for this purchase rather than north to Europe or west to the U.S.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported, “China’s likely sale of sophisticated missiles to Turkey over the objections of its NATO allies might have angered Washington and other capitals, but it should not have been a surprise…Even as the U.S. has spent billions of dollars and lost hundreds of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, Beijing has been quietly upping its presence in the Middle East.”

“Beijing’s economic, political and diplomatic clout…is growing fast. China’s Ministry of Commerce said [in September that] China-Arab nation trade now reaches $222 billion a year, 12 times its 2002 level. That would outstrip U.S.-Mideast trade, valued at $193 billion in 2011.

“Militarily too, China’s footprint is rising. As well as maintaining a three-ship antipiracy task force in the Indian Ocean and occasionally sending ships to the Mediterranean, Beijing has deployed UN peacekeepers to Lebanon.”

“China’s interests in the region, [said Christina Lin, a former U.S. official and now fellow at the School for Advanced International Studies], ranged from energy and investment to countering the spread of jihadist militancy, a major worry for Beijing in its Muslim provinces.”

“Beijing has long been a major supplier of small arms to the region—the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute [in October 2013] reported 2006-10 sales to Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Qatar. Still, the Turkish deal is seen as a major breakthrough for its advanced weapon sales.

“China’s soaring energy needs are seen as a major motivator, coming just as the U.S. gets closer to energy independence and budget constraints and public reluctance hit its military presence.

“Already, Chinese national oil companies are amongst the biggest players in Iraq and Iran and Beijing is both Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner and the biggest single purchaser of Iran’s crude.

“That purchasing power has effectively allowed China and other Asian powers to determine how successful U.S. and European sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program can be.”

This has been one of the major sticking points in Sino-American relations: China’s soft stance toward and extensive spending in Iran. “…Iran [is] the third-largest supplier of crude oil to China. The two nations have a bilateral trade volume of over $40 billion, compared to around $8 billion between China and Israel. In early November, China agreed to finance $20 billion in Iranian development projects” (The New York Times, “Sinosphere” blog).

However, with the American administration’s latest increased level of comfort with Tehran, this becomes less of an obstacle for Beijing.


Jordan is considered a pillar of stability in the Mideast region, and even more so in the wake of 2011’s Arab Spring. One of America’s closest allies in that area, the relative peace there gives it an advantage of which China has taken note.

The Atlantic reported, “…Chinese-Jordanian trade has grown at steady double-digit rates in the last decade and China is now Jordan’s 3rd largest trade partner, all while war and political instability have thrown Jordan’s neighbors into turmoil.

“Jordan is ideally located…because of its proximity to Syria, the Palestinian Territories, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq, all countries with market potential but also political instability.

“‘Jordan is a small market, but it can be a gateway to the entire Levant,’ [Binu Pillai, CEO of a Shanghai firm that holds expos promoting Chinese goods in various countries] says, referring to the western part of the Middle East. ‘It’s a hub. It’s also secure, which is absolutely a priority.’”

A Chinese student working in Jordan stated, “The more other countries fight…the better the business is here” (ibid.).


A flashpoint of the Arab Spring, Algeria’s economy continues to struggle. While it holds Africa’s third-largest proven oil reserves, second-largest natural gas supply, and sizeable shale gas deposits, high unemployment and corruption (as described by Transparency International) have hindered progress. However, with a large population (about 39 million) and plenty of space (the 10th-largest nation on Earth), it is still seen as a growing market with great potential.

And China is there, as the following odd-couple account shows: “In 2011, when Algeria’s Religious Affairs Minister Bouabdallah Ghlamallah awarded the contract to build the Grand Mosque of Algiers, the third-largest such structure in the world, it did not go to a homegrown Algerian bidder nor to one based in a fellow Muslim-majority Arab nation like Lebanon, nor even to one in a nearby non-Muslim nation like Spain, with long connections to the Islamic world. The February 2011 contract-signing ceremony officially granted the $1.3 billion mega-project to a farther away and far less likely competitor—a state-owned Chinese enterprise.

“Beijing’s infrastructure giant, China State Construction Engineering Corp. (CSCE), is expected to complete the Algiers mosque project—a complex that will span more than fifty acres with room for as many as one hundred and twenty thousand congregants to bow down in prayer at one time—in just under four years. It would be a follow-up to another CSCE mega-project in Algeria—the country’s $11 billion East-West Highway, a seven-hundred-and-fifty-mile, six-lane freeway stretching between Algeria’s borders with Morocco and Tunisia, built with oil revenues and billed as the world’s largest public works project” (World Affairs Journal).

Saudi Arabia

It may come as a surprise to learn that China is Saudi Arabia’s second-largest trading partner, just behind the U.S. With American crude oil imports declining, China is bound to take the top spot.

Strengthening ties, Saudi Arabia and China signed a “memorandum of understanding…based on the sincere desire to consolidate and strengthen the bonds of friendship and economic cooperation between the two countries…both countries are also seeking to effectively promote and further develop bilateral trade.”

A representative added, “‘From this agreement…we aim to develop means to transfer technology and human resources for the benefit of the project…we also aim to find a real environment for the establishment of joint ventures in the two countries to help achieve a common benefit for all.’”

A Chinese official stated, “‘We aim through this agreement to build together a new bridge of connection and reach higher levels of exchange in the fields of economy, trade, industry, agriculture, construction, and enterprise development. We also aim to increase the exchange of culture, arts, education and vocational training’” (Arab News).

While this is just one example of expanding cooperation, Beijing has a keen interest in continued strong relations with the Saudi kingdom, which controls both the largest oil reserves on the planet as well as the world’s second-largest Sovereign Wealth Fund (not far behind Norway).


As an article in the November edition of The Real Truth made plain, relations between Israel and the United States are hovering near a historic low. The small Jewish nation, the only Western-style democracy in the Middle East, now seeks other giants on whose shoulders it can stand.

The New York Times’ “Sinosphere” blog detailed such developments. “As an Israeli diplomat, Dore Gold has sat down with his country’s prime ministers, United States presidents and Palestinian negotiators, all in search of that elusive solution to the Middle East conflict.

“But the shifting tides of geopolitical power brought Mr. Gold to China…where he found himself hosting a Sabbath dinner with guests not traditionally invited to this Jewish gathering: Chinese officials.

“This push comes at a time when Chinese-Israeli relations are ripe for renewal. Even before the two nations established formal diplomatic ties in 1992, Israel was giving China access to its most lucrative industry: weapons. Israel soon became China’s second-largest arms supplier, but relations collapsed in 2000 when the United States forced Israel to cancel a billion dollar sale to China of its Phalcon early warning aircraft systems. A few years later, Israel agreed to American demands to cease selling arms to China.”

But with frost forming on the America-Israel bond, Israel is taking another look. “Sinosphere” continued, “In pursuing warmer ties with China, Israel hopes to leverage its skills in high-technology and agricultural innovation to win the political support of the Chinese government, which has signaled it wants to play a greater diplomatic role in the region.”

China has also been careful not to take sides in Israel-Palestine disputes. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was the first leader from the Middle East to visit Chinese President Xi Jinping following his taking office in March 2013. During the visit, Mr. Xi outlined a four-point plan to address the question of Palestinian sovereignty. While the plan could be viewed as pro-Palestinian, later in the very same week, President Xi received Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for talks on economic cooperation. He did not feel the need to lecture Mr. Netanyahu on Israeli domestic policy. China was the first country to which Mr. Netanyahu traveled after being reelected, a decision that had strong symbolic value.

China’s Time?

China’s November 2013 Third Plenum governmental conference produced a number of landmark decisions that included a proposal to relax the nation’s one-child-per-family policy and a resolution to continue a market-driven economic model, which further distanced the nation from its state-controlled past.

Another planned change will also have far-reaching effects: The transition of the Chinese president away from the status of a figurehead sitting atop a bloated bureaucracy toward an in-control, decision-making national leader—more like a Western president or prime minister, and, from the Mideast perspective, a bit more like a “king.”

This and other factors will help ensure that China continues filling the post-American power vacuum in the Mideast and many other places. And this trend will not be reversed!

How can this be stated with such certainty?

Ironically, the future of this officially atheist nation can be known by studying a religious text. But this is not one of the ancient Confucian, Taoist or Buddhist writings.

Many who watch world news, including most traditional Christians, are unaware that the Bible foretells the rise and fall of nations and kingdoms. While in many ways it focuses on the nation of Israel, Israelites are far from the only peoples mentioned.

For example, the book of Daniel specifically described the courses of the Neo-Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greco-Macedonian and Roman empires (symbolized by various “beasts”) in some cases centuries before their rises to power. Given the level of detail contained within these accounts, many critics have actually concluded that the book was a fraud—one written after they had risen. But none of these arguments have held up to careful scrutiny. And some of the objections have even been withdrawn by those who originally proposed them!

Nonetheless, there are still those who cannot entertain the possibility that, in a universe 93 billion light-years across—the observable portion—there are other intelligent beings that have involvement in human life. This is where they err and do not understand that all of these events have been preplanned.

Scripture reveals that China will be a major force in an end-time power bloc called the “kings of the East.” This massively populated global power will initially coexist with a revitalized, unified Europe before a final showdown. This dark period, though, will be followed by an unprecedented, unparalleled time of recovery and peace—for China, all of Asia, and the entire world!

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