Beijing can 'help bring stability' in Middle East

US 'pivot towards Asia' opens opportunity for China to become mediator in region outside traditional sphere of influence, scholar says

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 September, 2013, 11:28am

China stands a good chance of becoming an effective mediator in Middle East conflicts but its increasing importance in the region threatens America's interests , a leading Middle East scholar and former adviser to US president Barack Obama has told the South China Morning Post.

"China has played a constructive role in East Asia. It has used its relations with North Korea to manage tensions," said Dr Vali Nasr, who is dean of Johns Hopkins University's school of advanced international studies and a member of the US State Department's foreign affairs policy board. "China could similarly help bring stability to the Middle East through its relationships, such as with Iran, that the US does not have."

The Middle East has not traditionally been in China's sphere of influence. But since the US began a strategy in 2011 to disengage from the Middle East and "pivot towards the Asia-Pacific region", Nasr said this had given China an opportunity to fill the void.

"China's [diplomatic] style is different and might prove effective, but the absence of the US does not serve America's own interests," Nasr said.

While the US says it doesn't regard China's rising power in Asia as a threat, and has found it difficult to distance itself from conflicts such as the one in Syria, China has shown an ability to build relationships with nations that are rivals, such as Israel and Palestine, outside of East Asia.

In July, Beijing saw rare back-to-back visits from the Pakistani prime minister and Indian defence minister. China discussed building trade links with Pakistan, and agreed to boost military exchanges with India.

In May, Beijing simultaneously hosted visits by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, although the two didn't meet. "The Middle East is turning to Asia, too," Nasr told the Asia Society yesterday.

In his new book The Dispensable Nation , Nasr is highly critical of the Obama's administration's foreign policy. Nasr was a former senior adviser to the president's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2009 to 2011.