Will the Chinese Rise Destroy Pax Americana in the Middle East?

By Timo Kivimäki

China has started to make its presence felt in the Middle East. Most commentators assume this to lead into the destabilisation of the already fragile region. This article will show, however, why China’s economic interests and identity will prevent it from dangerous intrusive political manipulation in the Middle East.


Competition for power and global dominance that often comes with it have often been belligerent in world history. This is particularly true during times of power transitions. Jia Qingguo and Richard Rosecrance1 have reminded that out of seven such hegemonic competitions,2 only the US-British hegemonic competition in the 1940s was peaceful. This makes many political scientists worried about the rise of China,3 not the least in the Middle East. Chinese new investments for 2017 in Saudi Arabia alone were worth more than US$70 billion. Furthermore, the country finished the construction of a major naval base in Djibouti. Should we be worried? Will China challenge US dominance in this precarious and dangerous region? Will the Chinese rise destroy Pax Americana in the Middle East?

China’s increasingly globalised economic interests has made it more interested in developing its global power. On 7 September 2013, President Xi Jinping initiated an ambitious global infrastructure plan later dubbed “One Belt, One Road”. The plan aims to create a physical infrastructure to support China’s economic interaction with the world. This vast infrastructure project has merged with the development of financial infrastructure that in turn supports the financing of global economic activities crucial for China’s growth.  China has also started ensuring, through military means, that its assets and trade routes are secure. The Chinese “logistics and fast evacuation base” in Djibouti is the first clear example of this tendency.

By competing China will undoubtedly challenge US commercial interests, and its growing financial infrastructure may eventually challenge the dollar’s position as the world’s reserve currency. But how will this affect politics and security? The United States will not intend to disrupt Chinese trading routes or harm Chinese investments.  Chinese security infrastructure is not there to attack US military interests. So, Chinese military installations should not be a direct threat to US security interests or US security order in the Middle East. Will Chinese political power turn US allies against the Pax Americana that harm the US interests in the expansions of democratic peace?

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Will China Turn the Middle East Against Pax Americana?

China’s increasing activity in the region may change some of the rules of international relations, but many of the threats in current world politics literature stem from the fallacy of repeating history. The threat of China directly negatively impacting the expansion of the zone of liberal democracies is one of these unwarranted perceived threats.

When the US globalising economic interests in the 1940s required a more active international role, theorists pondered how the enhanced engagement of the US would affect the Pax Britannica. However, US globalising economic role did not require colonial expansion. Therefore, the US wanted to dissociate communism and anti-colonialism so that the anti-colonial popular sentiment would not push the third world into communism. Communist third world was not compatible with US economic interests, as the US needed the third world to engage in liberal economic interaction with the US and the West. History did not repeat itself: the US leadership did not turn out to be similar to the UK leadership.

Today, the world expects China to use its hard and soft power to influence the political system, culture, and world view of developing countries. This was what the US leadership required.

In the most recent presidential speech at the end of the party congress, President Xi Jinping repeated China’s anti-hegemonic stance: “no matter what stage of development it reaches, China will never seek hegemony or engage in expansion.”

China has strong global economic interests and especially its need for energy resources affects its international role. China has vast energy resources on its own, so the share of energy it imports is not particularly high (it was 15% in 2014 according to the World Bank). What makes China dependent on foreign energy, though, is the fact that its economy despite a slowdown is still growing rapidly – and its government is obsessed with continuing on this path. However, a trading partner does not need to be led by a communist party to trade with China. An open liberal state would probably be more open to economic interaction with China. Thus, while the United States needed to control domestic political developments in the world there is no reason why China should need that. Specialists of world politics that think this is necessary, are victims of the fallacy of repeating history.

If we interpret Chinese diplomacy and soft power from this angle, China’s policies seem to make much more sense than if we assume that China wants to repeat the American model of hegemony. The fact that China mainly needs energy resources and markets for its products means that its diplomacy is tuned to convincing the world, and especially energy producers, of the benefits of economic relations with China rather than convincing others of the virtues of Chinese political system. As a result, China has little soft power, that is power to attract, but there is still a generally favourable attitude towards trading with China. On average, China is 17% more popular in oil-exporting countries and 11% less popular in oil-importing countries. Clearly China has selected its friends, and made them willing to trade rather than change their political systems.4

Chinese rejection of intrusive influence into countries’ domestic policies is also in line with China’s policies as an anti-hegemonic power. The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence from 1954 emphasised this, while the Principles of Foreign Aid emphasise the same commitment to non-interference. Unlike the expectation of the global media, this has not changed even slightly in the recent years. In the most recent presidential speech at the end of the party congress a few months ago President Xi Jinping repeated China’s anti-hegemonic stance: “no matter what stage of development it reaches, China will never seek hegemony or engage in expansion.” Since China does not need to manipulate Middle Eastern political systems, and since doing so would contradict its international interest and identity, we should not assume Chinese intrusive hegemony in the Middle East. The world has changed, and China is not in the same position against the communist bloc as the United States was. Thus, we should not think China would repeat history and try to turn the Middle East against Pax Americana.


Will China Sabotage the Expansion of the Zone of Liberal Democratic?

Indirectly however, China’s increasing economic role in the Middle East will affect US economic power. China will not join US efforts to democratise the Middle East. Instead it may offer no-strings-attached economic options for the regional autocrats. In fact, this may be the appeal China has in the region. China may be popular exactly because it differs from the United States since it does not set political conditions to its cooperation. As Western critique against Saudi Arabia’s authoritarianism grows, high-profile visits and trade deals between Saudi Arabia and China tend to get more frequent. Could China, then, become a spoiler of Western pro-democracy critique, sanctions and interventions? Could this hamper democratic and peaceful progress in the Middle East and prevent the expansion of the liberal democratic peace there?

Sanctions are more effective in absence of countries that refuse to join them,5 and thus the rejection of interference in domestic politics does reduce the effectiveness of US-led democracy support. However, in a region with a lot of strategic interests, support of democracy has not been effective even without countries that sabotage such efforts. If we look at the post-World War II record of US support of governments, and compare the democracy scores by using Polity IV data, we can see that an average enemy of the United States in Muslim Middle East has been more democratic than an average US ally. Using the same data we can also see that changes towards democracy have more often reduced than increased US support while changes towards autocracy have more often increased than reduced US support.6 Furthermore, US’ military means to fight autocracies and protect civilians have neither helped the region or its democracy. Strong motives related to oil, support of Israel and resistance of communism and Islamism have pushed the interests of democracy to a secondary priority, and this, not Chinese respect of sovereignty of authoritarian states, has sabotaged progress.

China is therefore not a direct threat to Pax Americana in the Middle East. However, by offering an alternative, China may still challenge the American rules of diplomacy in the Middle East.

Counting from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program data on conflict fatalities and Systemic Peace Project’s State Fragility Index data, it is possible to calculate that also military interventions in autocracies have weakened state structures and increased the number of fatalities of conflict and autocratic repression. While democracies have been peaceful with each other, externally forced democratisation has not improved the state of democracy or contributed to liberal democratic peace. Disrespect for national sovereignty of Middle East states has not served the interests of peace or people in the region. The lack of respect for sovereignty of autocratic states has meant that in addition to national autocracy there is now a tendency to international autocracy, where operations are conducted regardless of the preferences of people who are affected by them. This is why not just Middle Eastern despots but ordinary people too, seem to consider relations with the sovereignty-respecting China more beneficial than with the United States. Opinion polls about civilians in countries like Iraq tend to show strong resentment to foreign military presence.7 External threat that ordinary people recognise and fear is one of the most effective ways for autocrats to consolidate their powers. In face of external aggression, there is a perception that the country needs national unity under a strong leader.  Hence, Chinese economic relations with no political strings attached may hamper some democracy-promoting projects in the Middle East, but not the progress of democratic peace itself.

China is therefore not a direct threat to Pax Americana in the Middle East. Its economic needs drive its policies in the region. Those needs do not require the manipulation of other countries. Thus, China is not going to intentionally turn the region against the United States. However, by offering an alternative, China may still challenge the American rules of diplomacy in the Middle East. The region is not used to a very strict adherence to the principles of sovereignty. This may change once China becomes more prominent in the region. Yet, the change of rules may not negatively affect the process towards democratic peace, in fact it may do the opposite. Not offering an external threat to consolidate authoritarian domestic order may be exactly what is needed for the natural process of democratisation and pacification of states.


Featured Image: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) review troops during a welcoming ceremony in the capital Tehran. Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived on January 22, 2016 in Iran on the third leg of a Middle East tour aimed at boosting economic ties with the region. © AFP


About the Author

Timo Kivimäki is Professor of International Relations, and Director of Research at the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at University of Bath. In addition to purely academic work, he has been a frequent consultant to the Finnish, Danish, Dutch, Russian, Chinese, Indonesian and Swedish governments.



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2. Spain versus Holland in the 16th century, Holland versus England in the 17th century, Britain versus France in both the 18th and 19th centuries, France and Britain versus Germany in the 20th century, Germany versus Russia in 1914, Soviet Union vs. Germany 1941, US vs. Great Britain 1940s, The Soviet Union versus the US 1950-1990.
3. John J. Mearsheimer, 2001, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. (New York: W.W. Norton).
4. Andrew Kohut, June 23, 2014, “America’s Global Image Remains More Positive than China’s,” Pew Global Attitudes Project, July 18, 2013, http://www.pewglobal.org/2013/07/18/americas-global-image-remains-more-positive-than-chinas/; Timo Kivimäki, “Soft Power and Global Governance with Chinese Characteristics,” The Chinese Journal of International Politics 7, no. 4, 421-47, https://doi.org/10.1093/cjip/pou033.
5. Thomas J. Prusa, 2007, “Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, 3rd Edition, Gary Hufbauer, Jeffrey Schott, Kimberly Elliott, Barbara Oegg. Peterson Institute for International Economics”, September 2008, Journal of International Economics 76, no. 1,135-37, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jinteco.2008.06.002; Gary C. Hufbauer et al., 2007, Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, Third Edition: Database (Washington D.C.: Peterson Institute for International Economics)
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