Gulan Media Interview: Tensions and Alliances in the United States-China Power Struggle - Insights from Bernard A. Haykel
In a thought-provoking interview with Bernard A. Haykel, an esteemed historian and expert in Middle Eastern politics, Gulan Media explores the intensifying tensions between the United States and China. Haykel sheds light on the delicate balance of power, potential alignments of middle powers, the influence of China in the Middle East, and the impact of technological advancements. Gain valuable insights into the dynamics shaping the global landscape in this insightful conversation.
Bernard A. Haykel is an accomplished historian specializing in political and social tensions related to religious identity and authority. He holds a doctorate in Oriental Studies from the University of Oxford, focusing on Islam and history. With a strong interdisciplinary approach, he combines anthropology, politics, history, and philology in his research. Haykel's expertise lies in the modern Middle East, particularly the Arabian Peninsula, and he has a keen interest in the influence of energy resources on politics and society. He is a dedicated educator, teaching undergraduate courses on Middle Eastern history and Islamist politics, and has supervised numerous Ph.D. dissertations. Haykel also directs the Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, organizing conferences and lectures on Middle Eastern politics and culture.
Gulan Media: The tensions and disputes between the United States and China are intensifying with each passing day. China's continuous threats of invading Taiwan and expanding its presence in the South China Sea contribute significantly to these growing tensions. Furthermore, China has made its support for Russia in this conflict no secret , a stance that differs from that of the United States and Western countries. The question arises as to what extent these problems will lead to a scenario where global superpowers align themselves with either the United States or China?
Professor Bernard A. Haykel: I think what you mean is middle powers, with how they will align themselves You know countries like Saudi Arabia or India. I think what we're seeing is that with the exception of strategic allies of the United States in the West and in South Korea and Japan and Australia; other countries are trying to remain neutral in this conflict. They see it as a, as a conflict between the United States and Russia. And, you can see, for instance, India is importing very large quantities of Russian oil at a discount and then refining it and re exporting it. So they're taking full advantage of the Crisis in Ukraine, the Indian government, that is. The Saudis also are still cooperating very closely with the Russians on oil production, quotas through OPEC Plus, and preferring not to take sides, they've also given 400 million, that is the Saudis, to the Ukrainians in humanitarian aid. So they're trying to remain neutral. And I think most countries, let's say those in the Global South, and, middle power countries are choosing to remain neutral, but there's, there's no question in my mind that we're heading towards a multi polar world in which You essentially have two superpowers. I this is a repeat of the previous Cold War except now the Soviet Union is replaced by China , but there are also differences between, this Cold War and the previous Cold War. In the previous Cold War between the U. S. and the Soviet Union, the economic exchange between the Warsaw Pact countries, the countries that were dominated by the Soviet Union and the West, was minimal. There was no economic exchange except the export largely of Russian oil and gas, and there was little else. However, in the case of China today, that's not the case. I mean, the two countries US and China, and the global economy more generally is much more interdependent and interconnected and you know, America and China are much more mutually dependent on each other economically than was the case earlier with the Soviet Union.
"Most countries, let's say those in the Global South and middle power countries, are choosing to remain neutral... but we're heading towards a multi-polar world in which you essentially have two superpowers." - Professor Bernard A. Haykel highlights the neutrality of many countries while acknowledging the emergence of a multi-polar world with the United States and China as the key superpowers.
Gulan Media: do you believe that like this constant provocation by China could have severe outcomes?
Professor Bernard A. Haykel: I think actually to be fair; I think the provocations are not just by China. The Americans are also provoking the Chinese, in a variety of ways. I mean, for instance, since the time of President Obama, there's been talk in America of the so-called Pivot to the East policy, which means that the main challenge is from China and the Indo Pacific and not from the Middle East. So the Americans have also been signaling that the Chinese are quote unquote “the new enemy” , and the Chinese also talk about America as being an enemy. Thus, the provocations are coming from both sides. I tend to think that an actual war or a military engagement between the two is unlikely. And in fact, less likely than was the case before the Ukrainian invasion. And the reason I say this is because I think China looks to the poor performance of the Russian army and Russian military equipment in the invasion of Ukraine. And you have to remember that most Chinese equipment is almost identical to the Russian. and that means that the Chinese will be much more reticent, much more reluctant to invade Taiwan, for example. given the poor performance of the Russians. so the Ukraine war has had, in my opinion, a silver lining or at least one positive effect, which is that it has made the Chinese much more cautious and prudent and careful, about engaging in a military exchange with Western armed, Western trained, Western backed countries such as Taiwan.
Gulan Media: The United States has consistently shown a strong interest in the Middle East and Gulf countries, and it has historically been unwilling to allow other nations to establish a presence in the region comparable to its own. However, China has recently made significant strides in both business and politics, successfully establishing itself in the region. This is exemplified by China's role in brokering a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This development raises the question of whether China has effectively solidified its influence in the region, potentially resulting in a gradual decline of United States' influence?
"China's influence in the Middle East is largely based on commercial exchange and trade... they don't have the capability for force projection like the United States does." - Haykel emphasizes that China's influence in the Middle East is primarily driven by economic ties, while highlighting the military dominance of the United States in the region.
Professor Bernard A. Haykel: you're absolutely right that the Chinese have increased their influence in the region, but it's largely an influence that's based on commercial exchange and trade and imports and exports. It's not based on, for example, force projection, the ability of the Chinese to project military power in the region. They don't have that capability. Unlike the United States, which does. So I think the way the countries in the region, for example Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, see the situation is that they perceive the Chinese as very valuable Trade partners and center of technology, the source of technological transfer. So for instance, let's take the 5G network of communication. Yes. the Saudis and the Emiratis are very keen on Chinese 5G technology because it's important for their economic transformation and the diversification of their economies. The West at the moment doesn't have this technology for sale, that is America doesn't have this 5G technology yet. And so they're strongly tempted to buy the Chinese technology, which will have a serious effect on their relationship with America. For instance, America does not want these countries to import 5G Huawei technology from the Chinese. But, I think the way the countries of the region think of the world is they think that America is a military strategic ally. To do mostly with security. And China is a commercial trade ally because China is the country that imports the most oil and to some extent gas from the Gulf region. And, it's also the major exporter of goods to the Gulf region. and I don't think the Chinese are likely to replace the Americans strategically anytime soon, although there's no question that their influence is, rising, is increasing, and also their soft power, interestingly enough, is also increasing. As we see from this deal that was brokered, for a detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran. I think the way to think about this Chinese brokered deal is that the Saudis essentially looked to find a way to contain Iran's influence and activities in the region, which is mainly through Iran’s proxies and militias, non-state actors like the Houthis in Yemen or Hezbollah in Lebanon, etc. And they want to Contain Iran and they felt the United States was not able to do that so they thought maybe the Chinese can do that instead. They are testing the power of the Chinese or the influence of the Chinese over the Iranians and so it's a very much an experiment of sorts, and the Saudis are not sure yet whether the Chinese have sufficient influence over Iran to contain its destabilizing activities.
Gulan Media: China's economy and manufacturing industry have been experiencing significant growth, resulting in Chinese products becoming widely available worldwide. This expansion has led some experts to proclaim the 21st century as the "Chinese century." to what extent will the United States accept and tolerate China's economic success?
Professor Bernard A. Haykel: I think that the United States is worried about China's dominance in certain key areas. So for instance, China has a virtual monopoly over solar power technology and production. It has also a virtual monopoly over certain rare earth minerals, certain basic industrial materials. It also has a very important and powerful role in the drugs and chemical industries. So, the United States is trying to lessen that dependence mainly by creating new supply chains outside of China for some of these products. So, from India, from Vietnam, and bringing some of that production back into the United States. This is a major concern. I don't think the Americans are concerned about China becoming what the French call a hyper power, a sole dominant superpower in the 21st century, because they think that the Chinese have very significant structural weaknesses. So, let me tell you about some of the weaknesses of China, vis-a-vis the United States. China has a very old population and a declining demography. Its population is declining, and aging. So, the Chinese are not able to maintain the same number of young people in employment as for example India can. The Chinese have a demographic problem. There's another problem, which is that the way in which the Chinese Communist Party dominates China's economy and China's politics; this leads to less entrepreneurship, less innovation, less productivity. And we can see this now in the decline of the productivity and growth of China; China grew for many decades at the rate of 7, 8, 9% a year. Now the growth is much closer to 3. 5% or 4% at most. So China is declining economically as well. Also, China is hugely dependent on energy imports. It does not have enough domestic energy sources to maintain and sustain itself and its economy. So that's why the Middle East is extremely important for China, for importing crude oil and gas and petrochemicals. So America is much stronger in that respect. America has much more oil domestically. It's energy abundance is quite considerable. I mean, America's energy endowment is very considerable and it produces nearly as much as Russia and Saudi Arabia combined. America's innovation is still extremely strong. It doesn't have the population and demographic problem that China has because America constantly imports immigrants with an extremely high education. So structurally the Chinese are not really as strong as they seem, and America is well aware of that.
Gulan Media: China has taken the lead in technological advancements, particularly in the development and deployment of 5G internet, surpassing Western countries. This 5G technology is expected to have a significant impact on the Chinese army, enhancing their capabilities. The question arises as to what extent China's increasing strength in technology will affect the safety and security of the United States?
"Structurally, the Chinese are not really as strong as they seem, and America is well aware of that." - Haykel points out the structural weaknesses of China, including demographic challenges, lack of innovation, and energy dependency, indicating that the United States recognizes these factors in assessing China's long-term strength.
Professor Bernard A. Haykel: So, the United States, in particular, when it comes to 5G, it will not tolerate any of its allies to deploy this technology because that technology effectively means that the Chinese have a capability of controlling the technological space of the country where 5G is deployed, whether to extract information or to shut down systems and so on. Let's take, for example, the case of when the United Kingdom, Great Britain, tried to import 5G from the Chinese. The Americans were very categorical with the British. They told them: if you import 5G, this will mean the end of the special relationship that we have when it comes to intelligence sharing, military coordination, and we the Americans will not allow our military systems to be deployed in a country in which these systems are plugged into a 5G network because the Chinese would have access to our technology. So they gave an ultimatum to the British and the British eventually said, okay, we will not buy 5G from China. They did not. They stopped engaging and dealing with Huawei, the company. Yes. I think the same will happen with, Israel, with Saudi Arabia, with the United Arab Emirates. The Americans will tell them, look, if you do this, we will not sell you high technology military equipment, because we don't want that equipment to be plugged into your network. And they will have to make a choice. The British choice was very clear in the end. They chose to remain allies of the United States, coordinating, collaborating with the United States over importing this technology. The same will happen throughout the Middle East with America's allies and they will just wait another year, or year and a half when America develops and deploys its own 5G or 6G technology and will sell it in the Middle East
Gulan Media: Professor, could we say with America neglecting to address its issues and problems with the Middle East? That could lead some Middle Eastern countries to actually go and ally with China and import the 5G technology
Professor Bernard A. Haykel: I think in some cases that's possible but it would come at a cost and at a risk of destabilizing their relationship with the United States. So, they'll have to make a choice. I think most of the countries have had to do this. Let's take the example of Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. What they've done is said, okay, we will deal with China in those areas where America refuses to engage with us. So, for instance, the Chinese are helping the Saudis develop their mining of uranium in the country because that's something the Americans will not do so far. The Americans also will not develop or help develop Saudi long-range missiles. So that's something the Chinese are helping the Saudis with. The Americans won't sell the UAE or Saudi Arabia, certain types of armed drones. So they're buying these from the Chinese of lower quality to be sure. So I think you see a kind of selective relationship with the Chinese, but it's not a wholesale replacement of the United States by China.
Gulan Media: The push for the upcoming presidential elections has already begun, and as we witnessed in the 2016 election, Russia had a significant impact on the outcome by revealing Hillary Clinton's emails, contributing to her defeat. Similarly, in the 2020 elections, the global spread of the COVID-19 virus, which was referred to by then-President Trump as the "Chinese virus," played a role in his election loss. Considering these past events, it raises the question of how much Russia and China will attempt to influence the upcoming presidential election in your opinion?
Professor Bernard A. Haykel: I think that the Russians and the Chinese will try to influence the election largely through social media technologies, and tactics of disinformation and propaganda type campaigns. Yes. As we saw earlier. But, you know, the world has become much more sophisticated because of the attempt to do this in 2016. So, I think many internet companies like Twitter and Facebook and Google, and Microsoft have developed experience, have developed tools, and a set of procedures to block such campaigns. To identify propaganda, to identify misinformation, to try to shut it down. And I think the population also in the United States is more aware of it as well, more conscious of this possibility. the attempts will continue, whether they'll have the same dramatic impact as in 2016, I'm not at all certain. I'm quite skeptical, actually, not least because in the United States you have highly polarized media landscape. So for instance, people who are conservative or republican will only listen to conservative and republican news outlets. And those who are liberal and democrat side tend to listen to other news outlets. So what you have in the United States right now are these information bubbles or these silos where people consume only the information that they already want to consume and reinforce existing points of view. They're not really willing to listen to other points of view.
Gulan Media: What impact does China's voice support for Russia has after the recent military coup posed on the strategic alignment between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin in their push for a new world order and their mutual distrust of the West?
Professor Bernard A. Haykel: I think that the Chinese, when the Chinese say that they are supportive of Russia, they're supportive of a centralized Russian state. They’re not supportive of a paramilitary group that seeks to destabilize the state or to take over the state, like the Wagner Group. I think, though, what the Chinese will have realized from this attempted coup by the Wagner group and its leader in Russia is that Russia is much weaker and much less stable than they probably thought it was, and that, in addition to what I said earlier, which is that Russian military equipment is performing very poorly on the battlefield, will make the Chinese realize that their alliance with Russia, while perhaps valuable in some ways, for energy products and energy imports into China. Russia is a very weak country today. It's not the country that is necessarily an asset for China in the world. And I suspected what you’ll see with the Chinese, because they're very pragmatic that they'll eventually try to distance themselves a little bit from the Russians and not make themselves appear like such close allies of a weak and potentially failing state.