- China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom by James M. Dorsey
In recent years China has come to be perceived as the likely challenger to the United States’ global dominance and also as a leading extra-regional power in the Middle East and North Africa. Its economic strength and ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) signal a rising power with strategic interests in the region; and leaders there are receptive to denser ties to a state that places a premium on [End Page 510] development assistance without political interference. As China’s footprint deepens, we are beginning to see more analyses explaining this transition and offering predictions about what this will mean at the regional and international levels.
James Dorsey’s China and the Middle East is one such attempt. Drawing upon a wide range of journalism, academic research, and official documents, it takes a deep dive into the economic, political, social, religious, and security implications of China’s engagement with the Middle East. The result is a book somewhere between an academic work and long-form journalism. Without theory framing the analysis, this book is a descriptive account that may not satisfy readers looking for a traditional work of political science. In its depth of details, however, it provides a high-resolution, wide-angle snapshot of transition across Eurasia, and those working in this field will find much to consider or argue with.
As the subtitle indicates, political uncertainty is a central focus of this book. Here, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran dominates. Dorsey writes frequently and extensively on the Persian Gulf and provides a good account of the region that China is willingly inserting itself into. His analysis also considers the challenge of managing the US relationship at both the bilateral, regional and international levels, describing Beijing and Washington as being in “competitive cooperation” with each other in the Middle East (p. 2). His prognostications for how these tensions may play out at times veer towards the worst case: “China and the United States could find themselves competitively complementing each other in accelerating the arms race in the Middle East and fueling a nuclear race that could significantly escalate tensions and take hostilities in the region to a whole new, more dangerous level” (p. 95).
Beyond the Persian Gulf, there is relatively little about the Levant or North Africa, and domestic-level pressures are less a consideration than those at the international level. This fits with the theme of the book, which is ultimately more about the points between the Arabian Peninsula and Xinjiang, but readers looking for a treatment of China in the Middle East may be unsatisfied.
The maelstrom of the Middle East extends to South and Central Asia in the analysis. This is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, it rightly emphasizes the interconnected nature of the ideological, security, and religious challenges facing many states across Eurasia. These challenges are certainly relevant to China’s foreign policy considerations, with Xinjiang’s Uyghur population and the issue of political Islam featuring significantly in China’s relations with Eurasian states in general and Muslim-majority states in particular. Dorsey does a good job of bringing this to the fore. On the other hand, the emphasis on the Middle East occasionally is lost. A full two chapters — of nine — are focused primarily on Pakistan, with one chapter dedicated entirely to the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The latter project is a crucial component of the BRI, and Pakistan is an important theatre of Saudi-Iranian rivalry. At the same time, one reading a book titled China and the Middle East would expect to see a deeper analysis of the framework of the BRI that China is developing in Middle East.
One mild criticism regarding style is that each chapter is essentially one long section. Given the volume of detail and data, the reader might have benefited from subsections in order to more easily digest all of this information.
In sum, Dorsey has provided a...