Exploring Avenues for China-U.S. Cooperation on the Middle East

CAP, CUSEF, and SIIS Dialogue

A boat carrying tourists and locals sails in the Nile River at sunset in Aswan, Egypt, April 2015.

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In early 2014, after presenting a paper on U.S.-China Relations titled “Toward A New Model of Major Power Relationship,” the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation in Hong Kong, and the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies initiated a comprehensive exchange of ideas on areas of potential cooperation and common interest between the United States and China on the topic of the Middle East.

For more than 12 months, scholars at these institutions conducted an exchange of both ideas and papers. The exchange included several videoconferences between Washington, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Beijing; papers reflecting the views of each side; and a joint exchange in Beijing in April 2015.

As two leading global powers, the United States and China have worked together over the past few years to build channels for constructive collaboration between the two nations. Most notably, in 2014, the two countries came together in an historic agreement on climate change—an effort that pragmatically recognizes climate change as a leading global security challenge and builds a framework for cooperation between the United States and China that could have broader global implications. This September, a major bilateral summit that brings the leaders of both countries together in the United States will offer another opening to deepen bilateral ties for the mutual benefit of both countries, as well as the rest of the world.

One area China and the United States should discuss in greater detail is identifying opportunities for cooperation in order to advance shared interests in the Middle East. The two countries recently worked quietly together on efforts to enhance stability and progress in Afghanistan, and these efforts could serve as a model for how the United States and China might work together throughout the Middle East and South Asia. The Middle East is fraught with major internal divisions and conflicts, and key countries in the region are in a period of intense competition for power and influence. The United States and China should avoid picking sides in these conflicts and should instead work together to help the countries of the Middle East create the building blocks for greater prosperity, enhanced governance, and increased linkages to the global economy. One long-term strategic goal that both the United States and China can articulate is to help the Middle East move away from being an arc of crisis and a source of instability and toward becoming a bridge of opportunity that connects major regions globally.

The set of papers that follow offer detailed recommendations on several topics:

  • The steps that can be taken toward sustainable security and prosperity—an essential cornerstone for overall regional stability—in Egypt, the Middle East’s most populous country.
  • The generational challenge of countering violent extremism and reducing the threats posed by terrorist groups requires a multifaceted strategy that includes helping produce the building blocks for economies that create jobs.
  • The opportunity to connect the Middle East with the rest of the global economy through the New Silk Road initiative offers a possible new frame of hope and progress, as the Middle East faces daunting challenges in the early years of the 21st century.
  • Finally, the secure flow of energy resources from the Middle East to the rest of the world remains at the core of global security.

In all of these areas, the United States and China can explore more detailed ways to expand cooperation, and these papers are aimed at continuing the conversation.

China and the United States have distinct views and histories with the many parties of the Middle East, and those perspectives are reflected in the individual papers presented here. The P5+1 negotiations with Iran were ongoing throughout this period and were therefore not included in this exchange.

But, in other areas, common interests were identified and joint recommendations are presented. Those joint recommendations include objectives with Egypt; responding to the threat of extremism and counterterrorism; a joint response to enable the success of the U.S. and Chinese Silk Road initiatives, which can unlock key trade routes and enhance regional stability in Asia and the Middle East; and movement toward energy conservation and energy security. Indeed, these areas overlap and provide a range of collaborative opportunities.

The authors offer our thanks to all the participants for this valuable exchange: the Center for American Progress; the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation and its executive director, Alan Wong; and the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.

Rudy deLeon is Senior Vice President of the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress. YANG Jiemian is the President of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.