The Middle East Channel

China’s historic return to the gulf


Two Chinese naval warships visited the UAE last week. The warships were refueling and taking on supplies after six months at sea protecting sea lanes from Somali pirates. The visit attracted little attention. But it was the first by the Chinese navy to the Gulf in modern history and, as such, set an important precedent for China's military engagement with the region -- and raises intriguiging questions about the future of the Persian Gulf as an American lake.

Historians will be tempted to draw comparisons with Admiral Zheng He and his visit to the Gulf in the 1400s at the head of a flotilla of treasures ships. Yet, there are important differences. Then, a wealthy and powerful Chinese state was attempting to shock and awe its neighbors. Today's China has far greater insecurities, in spite of its apparent assertiveness.

Oil is obviously a primary concern. China's oil consumption is estimated to grow from 8 to 16 million barrels a day by 2030, and much of the increase will be imported. The gulf is already China's largest oil supplier. But if current trends are sustained, it will supply more one in every three barrels of China's consumption by 2030. It is only natural then that China is increasingly worried about the United States and its strong military grip on the region.

Two recent essays pennned by Chinese Middle East experts illustrate these concerns.  Sun Bigan, a former special envoy to the Middle East, wrote in late 2009 that "clashes are unavoidable" between China and the United States in the Middle East. He also worried that if relations between America and Iran were to improve, then American oil companies will "swarm" Iran, and that Iran, in turn, would strive for its "maximum self-interest." Sun is worth listening to. He is a 30-year veteran of the Middle East, a former Ambassador to Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia and, now retired, able to speak his mind more freely.

His worries were echoed by Dai Songyang, an energy journalist writing for the internet-based China Energy Web. He said, "The United States recognizes Yemen's geographic ability to choke China's oil import life lines." He then hints that the United States may bring the war on terror to Yemen, in order to "strangle China's oil imports and its economy." Dai is not an official. But his views are indicative of a popular suspicion that American intervention in the Gulf is deliberately targeting China's economic security.

Yet, while oil is a primary concern, it is certainly not the only concern. Non-oil trade is also at risk. Much of China's trade with Europe travels through the Suez Canal. Somali pirates, for a period, threatened that trade as they hijacked ships. True, pirates don't find container ships easy targets. But the hijackings risked, at the very least, disrupting China's shipments and sending them on a longer, and more expensive journey around Africa. This matters because Europe is now China's largest export market. If China's exports were to slow, as European buyers switched to cheaper or faster suppliers, it would mean factory closures and job losses.

China's commercial relations with the Middle East itself have grown stronger as well -- indeed, in early 2009 China overtook the United States as the world's largest exporter to the Middle East having earlier overtaken Germany and the United Kingdom. It exported around $60 billion worth of goods that year, mainly clothing and home electronics, but also, increasingly, capital equipment. 

Certainly China's exports are increasing to most regions of the world. But what makes this trade different is the sheer numbers of people involved. In the small city of Yiwu, a four-hour drive from Shanghai, there is a virtual Arab market. The city receives 200,000 Arab visitors every year. They come to buy the cheap consumer goods so popular with households back home. It helps that China unofficially relaxed its visa policy during the past decade. Whereas many Arab traders found themselves locked out of the West after 2001, they found it relatively easy to visit China. Just a few years ago, it took the average Egyptian trader 18 days to receive a visa to visit the United States. It took just one day to receive a visa to visit China. There are also 200,000 Chinese in Dubai, making it, according to the Chinese press, the largest non-permanent Chinese community abroad. There are fewer found in the rest of the region owing to the restrictions on the ability of foreigners to sell retail in the Middle East. But they are present nonetheless, from Algiers to Sana'a, and are contributing to the rise in trade flows.

Islam also plays a role. China has, officially, 20 million Muslim. While relations between the Uyghur and the Chinese government are poor, the Uyghur account for just eight million of the 20 million. The Hui account for 10 million and their relations with the government are far better. Indeed, the Hui are represented at all levels of government, including the Foreign Ministry. The Hui also study Arabic at what are effectively religious schools. Some then use their studies to work as translators for the Arab traders in Yiwu, and other cities across the country. Indeed, there are 1,000 Arabic-speaking translators working in Yiwu alone. Many also work for the Chinese companies in the Middle East.

The lesson is that China's rise in the Middle East is as much about commercial as political interests. And that makes it important to use a different toolkit in analyzing its growing influence in the region. Yemen offers a good illustration of this point. The Western powers are concerned that Yemen is emerging as a base for extremists. China, by contrast, worries that if Yemen imploded, it would mean that China's container ships and oil tankers must squeeze between two failed states -- Somalia to the south and Yemen to the north. Yet, China's interests in Yemen often go unnoticed because they lie outside the usual analytical framework that focuses on politics rather than economics. Indeed, it is rarely observed that China is building offices for the Yemeni Foreign Ministry or that the government recently closed down a series of Chinese massage parlors in the country's capital.

A similar analysis can be applied to Iran. How so? China's web of commercial interests in the rest of the Middle East is a restraint on its support for Iran. In short, a nuclear Iran and regional arms race would be bad for business. And Chinese academics have signalled that Iran's unpredictable behaviour is challenging China's relations with its other regional partners, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia. While China may not agree to sanctions easily, its support for Iran is often overstated, and the idea of a non-nuclear Iran with still strained relations with the United States is not an unattractive outcome for China's leadership.

China's commercial presence in the gulf has grown far more rapidly than its military presence -- it started with traders, but increasingly includes banks and construction companies. It is also inevitable that the country's military presence will also grow. Yet, it was popularly assumed that this required the creation of a blue-water navy and so would take time.  However, Somali pirates appear to have accelerated the schedule and provided the Chinese navy with an excuse to expand its military activities in the region. Yemen might yet offer a similar excuse. The visit by Chinese warships is a far cry from Admiral Zheng He's treasure ships, but it nonetheless point to a new phase in China's relationship with the Gulf.

Ben Simpfendorfer is chief China economist for the Royal Bank of Scotland. He is also author of "The New Silk Road: How A Rising Arab World Is Turning Away From The West And Rediscovering China." He blogs at

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The Middle East Channel

Petraeus wasn't the first

In early February of 2006, I submitted a book proposal about the wartime relationship between Generals George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower to a group of New York publishers. I had worked on the proposal for nine months and believed it would garner significant interest. Two weeks after the submission, I received my first response - from a senior editor at a major New York publishing firm. He was uncomfortable with the proposal: "Wasn't Marshall an anti-Semite?" he asked. I'd heard this claim before, but I was still shocked by the question. For me, George Marshall was an icon: the one officer who, more than any other, was responsible for the American victory in World War Two. He was the most important soldier of his generation - and a man of great moral and physical courage.

That Marshall was an anti-Semite has been retailed regularly since 1948 - when it became known that he not only opposed the U.S. stance in favor of the partition of Palestine, but vehemently recommended that the U.S. not recognize the State of Israel that emerged. Harry Truman disagreed and Marshall and Truman clashed in a meeting in the Oval Office, on May 12, 1948. Truman relied on presidential adviser Clark Clifford to make the argument. Clifford faced Marshall: the U.S. had made a moral commitment to the world's Jews that dated from Britain's 1919 Balfour Declaration, he argued,and the U.S would be supported by Israel in the Middle East. The Holocaust had made Israel's creation an imperative and, moreover, Israel would bea democracy. He then added: Jewish-Americans were an important voting bloc and would favor the decision.

Marshall exploded. "Mr. President," he said, "I thought this meeting was called to consider an important, complicated problem in foreign policy. I don't even know why Clifford is here." Truman attempted to calm Marshall, whom he admired - but Marshall was not satisfied. "I do not think that politics should play any role in our decision,"he said. The meeting ended acrimoniously, though Truman attempted to placate Marshall by noting thathe was "inclined" to side with him. That wasn't true - the U.S. voted to recognize Israel and worked to support its emerging statehood. Marshall remained enraged.

When Marshall returned to the State Department from his meeting with Truman, he memorialized themeeting: "I remarked to the president that, speaking objectively, I could not help but think that suggestions made by Mr. Clifford were wrong. I thought that to adopt these suggestions would have precisely the opposite effect from that intended by him. The transparent dodge to win a few votes would not, in fact, achieve this purpose. The great dignity of the office of the president would be seriously damaged. The counsel offered by Mr. Clifford's advice was based on domestic political considerations, while the problem confronting us was international. I stated bluntly that if the president were to follow Mr. Clifford's advice, and if I were to vote in the next election, I would vote against the president." Put more simply, Marshall believed that Truman was sacrificing American security for American votes.

The Truman-Marshall argument over Israel has entered American lore - and been a subject of widespread historical controversy. Was Marshall's opposition to recognition of Israel a reflection of his, and the American establishment's, latent anti-Semitism? Or was it a credible reflection of U.S. military worries that the creation of Israel would engage America in a defense of the small country that would drain American resources and lives? In the years since, a gaggle of historians and politicians have weighed in with their own opinions, the most recent being Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.Writing in The Washington Post on May 7, 2008, Holbrooke noted that "beneath the surface" of the Truman-Marshall controversy "lay unspoken but real anti-Semitism on the part of some (but not all) policymakers. The position of those opposing recognition was simple - oil, numbers and history."

But that's only a part of the story. In the period between the end of World War Two and Marshall's meeting with Truman, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had issued no less than sixteen (by my count) papers on the Palestine issue. The most important of these was issued on March 31, 1948 and entitled "Force Requirements for Palestine."In that paper, the JCS predicted that "the Zionist strategy will seek to involve [the United States] in a continuously widening and deepening series of operations intended to secure maximum Jewish objectives." The JCS speculated that these objectives included: initial Jewish sovereignty over a portion of Palestine, acceptance by the great powers of the right to unlimited immigration, the extension of Jewish sovereignty over all of Palestine and the expansion of "Eretz Israel" into Transjordan and into portions of Lebanon and Syria.This was not the only time the JCS expressed this worry. In late 1947, the JCS had written that "A decision to partition Palestine, if the decision were supported by the United States, would prejudice United States strategic interests in the Near and Middle East" to the point that "United States influence in the area would be curtailed to that which could be maintained by military force." That is to say, the concern of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was not with the security of Israel- but with the security of American lives. 

In the wake of my March 13 article in these pages (‘The Petraeus briefing: Biden's embarrassment is not the whole story') a storm of outrage greeted my claim that Israeli intransigence on the peace process could be costing American lives. One week after that article appeared, I called General Joe Hoar, a former CENTCOM commander and a friend. We talked about the article. "I don't get it," he said. "What's the news here? Hasn't this been said before?" If history is any guide, the answer is simple: it was said sixty years ago by one of America's greatest soldiers. George Marshall wasn't an anti-Semite. But he was prescient.

Mark Perry's most recent book is Talking To Terrorists. He is also the author of Partners In Command: George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace and Four Stars: The Inside Story of the Battle between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and America's Civilian Leaders