Less Than the Sum of Its Parts: China’s ‘Negative Competition’ in the Middle East

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According to a quote attributed to Otto von Bismarck, fools learn from experience while wise men learn from the experience of others. This adage likely served Bismarck well navigating the highly fractious and hypercompetitive world order in continental Europe of the late 19th century. It also, apparently, influences China’s ambitions to displace and supplant U.S. influence in the Middle East. 

Commensurate with its continued ascendancy as a global superpower, China, through quasi-official statements, leaked international agreements, and contemporary analysis, appears no longer content with a passive role in the Middle East shaped by U.S. policy. Instead, through the twin concepts of “peace through development” and “negative peace,” China is poised to offer an alternative model for investment and influence in the Middle East that displaces American regional influence. 

As a Chinese concept, “peace through development” supposes to offer “bottom-up” development as opposed to U.S. “top-down” efforts that ignore local conditions. Similarly, “negative peace” reflects the Chinese intent to offer unconditional aid without either a requirement for political reform or security commitments to the region (both of which, according to the Chinese narrative, represent criticized hallmarks of the U.S. model). But if China, as the wise man from Bismark’s quote, seeks to learn from the “foolish” U.S. experience in the Middle East, then it must have an accurate understanding of the U.S. experience to draw and apply correct lessons that might offer success. 

As it stands, the Chinese alternative model to Middle East development gravely misinterprets (and indeed underestimates) the U.S. experience and thus aims to apply lessons that are unlikely to succeed. In an era of fierce and re-emerging great power competition (where the efficient use of national resources matters more and more), the flawed Chinese approach represents “negative competition” (i.e. counterproductive competition) which should temper and guide U.S. responses to it. 

Offered as an alternative to U.S. influence in the Middle East, the rationale for China’s “peace through development” and “negative peace” concepts overvalues the role of American idealism while undervaluing American success in the region. As mentioned above, China’s development concept for the Middle East explicitly rejects the U.S. “liberal-peace” development model in the region on the grounds that it rudely (and inefficiently) demands liberal democratic reforms from Arab partners as a precondition to aid and support. 

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However, in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Qatar, U.S. partnerships have been universally marked by support to alternative styles of government with undemocratic modes of operation. Even in Syria, where local opportunity and international demand for liberal democratic reforms exist, American support has been narrowly focused on security interests (versus liberal democratic ideals). Furthermore, when regional democratic movements manifested themselves during the Arab Spring, the U.S. government response was both muted and inconsistent with respect to concerns for liberal democratic values. Finally, its worth noting that internal political debate over U.S. support to Middle Eastern partners almost universally features criticism on precisely the grounds that the support undermines (not advances) liberal democratic ideals. 

Put plainly, the U.S. approach in the Middle East is based far more in realpolitik thinking than idealism. Naturally, China likely bases its claims of American idealistic hubris in the Middle East on the failed U.S. nation-building efforts in Iraq. However, properly viewed in context, the United States’ dismal experience (and grand failures) in Iraq represent the idealistic exception that proves the realpolitik rule of the broader U.S. approach in the Middle East. 

Inherent in China’s offer of an alternate model for Middle East development is the implication of U.S. regional failures. But here, too, Chinese overtures to displace U.S. influence show a striking disregard for American success in the region. 

Of course, success is a relative term and one can almost hear the indignant scoffs of those who recoil at the very suggestion that U.S. policy has produced any success in the region. Their point is valid for, if viewed in terms of providing durable stability in the Middle East and avoiding costly blunders, the U.S. experience has been far from successful. But, if viewed in terms of securing vital security and economic interests while forging long-term stable alliances, the U.S. experience has yielded considerably more success. 

Last year, the United States celebrated the 75th year of its “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia — a partnership that has ensured nearly uninterrupted access to vital energy resources deemed a strategic national interest. Additionally, sustained partnered military operations in the region have brought about the military defeat of terrorist groups and decreased their ability to conduct external terrorist operations on the U.S. mainland. Acknowledging that terrorism and its ideology will always pose a threat, it is also fair to say that the United States’ strategic shift from counterterrorism to great power competition is at least partially made possible by successful security efforts in the Middle East to neutralize violent extremist organizations. 

Despite these realities, China, it seems, would pin U.S. failures in the Middle East exclusively to its inability to spread liberal democratic values in the region. In light of the realpolitik nature of the American approach, this Chinese perception is as insightful as it is irrelevant. 

China’s double misreading of the U.S. approach in the Middle East has important implications for its twin concepts of “peace through development” and “negative peace.” First, by falsely imposing idealistic motivations on the U.S. approach, China fails to recognize the idealism of their own approach. “Peace through development” in the Middle East hinges on bottom-up development sensitive to local conditions. Yet in the top-down, hierarchical regimes in the Middle East, it is hard to imagine a more idealistic (and hence less-likely to succeed) approach. Neither is China likely to be able to apply the exploitative development methods that they have employed elsewhere, in the Middle East. Bluntly, wealthy Arab regimes are not the pliable and development-starved partners that China is perhaps used to dealing with in its efforts to extend its global influence on other continents. 

Additionally, China’s failure to draw the correct lessons from U.S. successes employing a realpolitik approach in the Middle East also appear to doom the prospects for its “negative peace” concept.” If one accepts that America’s realpolitik approach has provided the basis for its successes and enduring influence in the Middle East, and, as mentioned above, one also accepts that the persistent instability in the Middle East makes security concerns an integral part of any Middle Eastern partnership, then it is unlikely that Arab partners will accept the “hands off” approach to conflict that “negative peace” requires. 

Like the United States, China will discover that security commitments in the Middle East are a prerequisite for influence and partnerships that trade security for economic access and development. Not only that, but China’s Islamic baggage stemming from their persecution (and alleged genocide) of Muslim Uyghurs ensures that their very presence in the Middle East disrupts and aggravates the cultural and religious conflicts and tensions endemic to the region — precluding the prospects of “negative peace.” China cannot even get to the bargaining table in the Middle East without adding to the motivations and passions driving much of the regional strife. 

In short, the seemingly rational calculations driving China’s approach and initiatives for development in the Middle East quickly become irrational when placed in a context aligned with the principles and patterns that influence the decision-making and interests of potential Middle Eastern partners.

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Regardless of the prospects for their success, China’s initiatives and approach to development in the Middle East warrant attention from the United States. China’s ambitions in the Middle East reflect its growing interest and ability to project power and influence and should thus be monitored on those grounds alone. 

Even so, the military leader who, after surveying the battlefield, assesses his forces to be sufficient to repel an enemy attack in a given area will scarcely commit and divert extra resources to reinforce an area already deemed secure. Likewise, the United States should not hasten to confront China in the Middle East while U.S. interests and influence remain relatively secure. If great power competition requires anything it is the ability to triage and discern the degree and nature of competition and then shrewdly commit the appropriate resources to meet the challenge. There are other areas and other domains where Chinese actions are both more urgent and effective at challenging U.S. interests. 

China’s approach to development in the Middle East is aspirational and deeply flawed. Because it is aspirational, the United States’ response should be confined to simple (but vigilant) observation. Because it is flawed, the United States should amplify its flaws to would-be Arab partners whenever appropriate and convenient to short-circuit and undermine it. Because it is both aspirational and flawed, it represents “negative competition” that should be exploited and shaped to preserve and extend U.S. influence in the region.

Scott J. Harr, U.S. Army, is a Special Forces officer with over three years of cumulative time serving in the Middle East. He holds an undergraduate degree from the United States Military Academy at West Point in Arabic Language Studies, a Masters degree in Middle Eastern Affairs from Liberty University, and is currently a PhD candidate in Foreign Policy at the Helms School of Government, Liberty University.

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