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The new Middle East peacemaker


WORLD Radio - The new Middle East peacemaker

China is seeking to replace the U.S. as referee

Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang speaks during the forum titled Chinese Modernization and the World held at The Grand Halls in Shanghai, Friday, April 21, 2023. AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: While China signals aggression towards the West over Taiwan, Beijing is behaving differently with the rest of the world. Back in January, China’s Vice Premier Liu He said at the World Economic Forum that China is opening up to the rest of the world and making it better.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Just speechmaking? Maybe not. Last month, China brokered a deal to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Two countries from rival branches of Islam that have been enemies for years.

And then last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said China is willing to facilitate talks between the Israelis and Palestinians amid a recent escalation of conflict there.

BROWN: So where is the U.S. in all of this? And what does China’s charm offensive mean for America’s foreign policy in the Middle East?

Well joining us now is WORLD Opinions contributor William Inboden. He was a member of the National Security Council under President George W. Bush and currently serves as associate professor of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

REICHARD: Good morning, Professor.

WILLIAM INBODEN: Thank you, Mary. Great to be with you.

REICHARD: Professor, what happened to America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, and how did the Saudi-Iran deal come to pass as China’s big win?

INBODEN: Yes, well, a lot there to unpack, Mary. So in short, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, he is trying to increase Saudi Arabia's influence and do that by playing off China and Russia and the United States against each other. So he, he wants constructive relations with each of those countries, including including our own. And when he feels like he's not getting what he wants from the United States, he is more than happy to deepen his ties with China and Russia. And so that's, I think, partly why he is playing along with China's the brokered reproach model between between Riyadh and Tehran, that that China that China did, and that's also why he's defying the United States on energy policy and other important equities that we that we have. So there's no love lost between him and President Biden.

REICHARD: What was China doing in the Middle East before the U.S. created this vacuum?

INBODEN: So China's interests in the Middle East are really threefold. The first and most important one is oil. You know, China doesn't have a name of its own oil and gas supplies, and for their growing economy and you know, still one of the world's largest populations, they are desperate to maintain secure oil supplies, and so China is the largest oil purchaser from both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Second Ghin. With its growing economy, China wants to maintain open shipping routes from Europe through the Middle East to to Asia, of course, the Suez Canal is key there and so China wants to have influence in exerting its own leverage over over the Suez Canal and other maritime shipping shipping routes. And third is China's very open about its desire to displace the United States as the main global power and most influential global power. And as they they see the Middle East as a key region to do that. So as the United States is partially stepping back, China is stepping in.

REICHARD: What could the U.S. do to reassert itself as peacemakers so that Middle Eastern countries would trust us over China?

INBODEN: So yeah, apparently in the Middle East, many Middle East countries are very frustrated. The United States, they just see us as in constant and vacillating. We're in we're out we're in route, right. So that's that's part of it. Not that we let them dictate our policy, but we need to be aware of how we are perceived there. Certainly, as we've significantly reduced our military presence, especially in Iraq and Syria, there may be some some good reasons for that. But that also leads to diminished political influence. And then second is a lot of the middle a lot of politics in the Middle East is about just showing up. But it's about keeping up those relationships, those dialogues with the key leaders in the region. Talking to them doesn't mean we liked them. There's a lot of things I find loathsome about MBS, the Saudi leader, but we need to keep those dialogue channels open, and at least hear their concerns and be responsive where we can.

REICHARD: Well, you've been thinking about these things for a long, long time. What else do you think our listeners need to know about us China relations going forward?

INBODEN: This is a truly global competition, I have reluctantly, but recently come to call this we are in a new cold war with China. And just as with the previous Cold War, which President Reagan course led us to a peaceful victory, and that after after 40 years, it is a global competition. So it's not just bilateral between the U.S. and China in the western Pacific, it is taking place on every continent. And we need to be aware of how our main adversary China sees that and we need to respond accordingly doesn't mean that we let them dictate all of our actions. There are some good reasons that we should at least dial back some of our precedents in the Middle East, but we need to be aware that there's going to be real real trade offs there. And we do not need we should not cede that entire very strategic region to our main adversary.

REICHARD: Will Inboden is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin and a Contributor to World Opinions. Thanks for joining us today.

INBODEN: Thanks, Mary. It's been great to be with you.

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