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China Looks to the Middle East By: Frederick W. Stakelbeck Jr.
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, September 12, 2006

In late July, Qiushi, a state-controlled publication and recognized mouthpiece of the ruling Chinese communist party, released an essay stating that China should strengthen its military to safeguard against “instability and threats to national security.” More important for China’s neighbors, the essay said, “At present, the political and military environment on China’s periphery is quite complex, and unpredictable factors are clearly rising.” The Pentagon’s most recent Quadrennial Defense Review, a military forecast delivered to Congress, confirmed Beijing’s change in thinking, saying, “China’s military modernization has taken on an “extra-regional” capability, which will allow Beijing to project military power far beyond its immediate perimeter.”  

As China’s needs have evolved, so too has its foreign policy. Although still critical to Beijing, the country’s foreign policy is no longer based entirely on Taiwan reunification. Rather, Beijing’s foreign policy has become more complex and increasingly global in nature, driven primarily by the country’s insatiable need for energy to fuel its economic and military expansion.  

With a 2.3 million-man standing army, the world’s largest, and a defense budget estimated to be US $90 billion by most Pentagon experts, China is rapidly positioning itself to address not only the unresolved issue of Taiwan, but also energy security issues located far beyond its borders in the Middle East. Today, 58% of China's oil imports come from the Middle East region. By 2015, that figure will stand at 70%.  

A recent report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that by 2030, Chinese oil imports will equal imports by the U.S. Unless dramatic changes are made by Beijing in the areas of conservation, energy exploration and hybrid technologies, China’s future will rest beneath the sands of the Middle East. 

Beijing recently increased its presence in energy-rich Iran, where a joint agreement was announced in July to develop the Khustan province, home to 90 percent of Iran’s strategic oil reserves and a border province with Iraq. In early August, Tehran announced a US$2.7 billion oil refinery deal with China’s state-controlled Sinopec that will help the Tehran regime expand its rationed gasoline supply. China has also increased its energy and defense relations with U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt.  

Make no mistake; Chinese President Hu Jintao and the country’s communist leadership would like nothing more than to divest themselves entirely from Middle East energy and the uncomfortable dependence it creates. But like the US and its Western allies, Beijing remains heavily dependent on Middle East oil for its survival.  

To address the issue of Middle East energy dependence, Beijing has agreed to cooperate with countries in Africa, North America and South America regarding production, exploration and pipeline projects. But in many cases, hopes for a quick remedy have been dashed, with state-owned energy conglomerates meeting organized resistance from local populations who view China as an energy “exploiter,” not energy “explorer.”  

Indeed, the likelihood of a U.S.-China confrontation in the Middle East over energy is increasing. To meet this challenge, the Bush administration should broaden the ongoing “China threat” discussion to include more than just Taiwan. Previous statements by U.S. national security experts dismissing China as merely a “regional threat unable to project power beyond Asia,” are shortsighted.  

In addition, the belief that economic empowerment alone will eventually force Beijing to embrace democratization, thus eliminating the growing China threat, is based on wishful thinking, not fact. Ironically, economic empowerment has had the opposite effect, giving Beijing a means to project economic, political and military influence well beyond Asia.  

While recent U.S. naval exercises to improve rapid response capabilities in the Pacific are prudent at this time, they should be made in conjunction with an upgrade of Middle East military forces. Of course, selling this idea to the American public and Congress will be no easy task. The development of a bifurcated China threat strategy focusing not only on the Pacific, but also on other areas such as the Middle East will require a revolution in U.S. foreign policy. Under such a scenario, China would be identified not only as a regional threat, but a global threat as well.  

The Bush administration needs to revise its “Taiwan-centric” foreign policy strategy and identify other emerging threats to U.S. national security, namely, China’s increasing presence and influence in the volatile Middle East. An emerging China presents profound challenges for the world. It is Washington’s responsibility to recognize this changing environment and prepare, otherwise, the result could be catastrophic for future generations of Americans.

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Fred Stakelbeck is a Senior Asia Fellow with Washington-based Center for Security Policy. He is an expert on the economic and national security implications for the U.S. of China's emerging regional and global strategic influence. Comments can be forwarded to Frederick.Stakelbeck@verizon.net.

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