Gulf region is a model for China-US relations says study

Study suggests Beijing has little appetite for rivalling the US militarily in the region but predicts that as China¿s economic ties with the Middle East grow, 'relations will inevitably become more complex'.

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BEIJING // The Gulf region may offer a model of how the United States and China can cooperate to promote global stability, according to a new study.

Despite the growth of China's economic interests in the Gulf, the report, titled "China and the Gulf: Implications for the United States", suggests Beijing has little appetite for rivalling the United States militarily in the region.

Instead, according to a paper included in the study, China has often tried to avoid disagreement with the US over the region, despite tensions over sanctions against Iran, and both have interests in regional stability.

This suggests a blueprint for how they can cooperate elsewhere to promote common security interests, wrote Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East Programme at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, in the report.

"Such cooperation would have the benefit not only of enhancing security in the Middle East, but also of creating a pattern of security cooperation between the United States and China that would infuse a host of other engagements around the world," he said.

The report, published by the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Centre for Scholars, details how China's need for oil to fuel its economic growth has seen it forge close energy alliances with among others Iran, Saudi Arabia and, increasingly, Iraq.

The UAE is a key player in ties with China, with trade between the two countries expected to reach US$100 billion (Dh367.3bn) a year in 2020. This may be close to 30 per cent of total China-GCC trade at the time.

The report outlines how China has focused on deepening energy ties with Saudi Arabia rather than Iran, which faces increasing international isolation over its nuclear programme. Saudi Arabia is the largest supplier of oil to China and, since 2009, China has been the largest market for Saudi Arabian oil.

The report notes that Chinese oil companies are investing more heavily in the oil sector in Iraq than in Iran, to the extent that Tehran is struggling to meet output targets.

China has "no toxic legacy of colonialism, no unwarranted scrutiny of domestic issues" and Chinese companies make no demands in terms of environmental or labour standards when operating in the region, wrote Emile Hokayem, an author of the report and a senior fellow for regional security at the Bahrain office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Mr Alterman said: "Contemporary Middle Eastern views of China are similar to Middle Eastern views of the United States a century ago, when many in the Middle East looked to the United States to rescue them from European imperialism."

Just as Middle East-US relations are far removed from those a century ago, Mr Hokayem predicted that as China's economic ties with the Middle East grow, "relations will inevitably become more complex".

For the moment, the report indicated China was content to operate in a Middle East reliant on the security umbrella provided by the US.

Although China is developing its naval capabilities, Mr Hokayem said China was not likely to divert resources from the Asia-Pacific to project its capabilities into the Gulf region.

However, Seo Jeong-Min, a specialist on ties between East Asia and the Middle East at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in South Korea, said military links would eventually strengthen.

"China will some day proceed to the areas of political and military alliances," Mr Seo said, but at the moment this was not the focus.