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China's economic influence in the Middle East could potentially help it broker peace


The war between Israel and Hamas has highlighted the limits of U.S. influence in the region. It has also shown what country does hold sway in the Middle East - China. The country the U.S. views as an economic and security threat has hundreds of billions and billions of dollars in investments and partnerships with almost every country in the region. And the U.S. hoped that China's role in the Middle East could be used to do with the U.S. has not been able to do - bring peace in the region. Dawn Murphy is associate professor of national security strategy at the National War College, joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAWN MURPHY: Thank you for having me today.

SIMON: This is going to sound naive, but what is China's interest in the Middle East?

MURPHY: China's interest is mostly economic and political. For decades, it's been building its presence through investment and trade and acquiring energy. And increasingly, it really wants support from countries in the region in a number of different institutions.

SIMON: And what kind of investments has it made?

MURPHY: It's a wide range of sectors. There would be kind of the traditional oil sector, but then you also have artificial intelligence and digital and health and other areas. So pretty much any type of investment that could occur, China's engaged in in the Middle East.

SIMON: And help us understand its relationship with Iran because, of course, Iran has been the focus of a lot of attention. Its militias have been supporting attacks on U.S. and Israeli targets.

MURPHY: China has very positive relations with Iran, very robust economic and political relations. But that said, I think we shouldn't overemphasize the relationship with Iran because China also has very strong partnerships with Arab Gulf countries as well as Egypt and in other countries throughout the region.

SIMON: It has played a role in brokering a kind of agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, hasn't it?

MURPHY: Yes. Last year it brought together Iran and Saudi Arabia to renormalize their relations.

SIMON: What kind of policy is China practicing, or not, as regards the current conflict?

MURPHY: When we talk about the current conflict with the Israel-Hamas war, China's stance is very consistent with its stance for decades that it does not want it to spread into a broader regional conflict, but its behavior tends to be relatively Palestinian leaning. So in the longer term, it sees the current conflict as part of the broader Palestinian-Israeli conflict and, until that is negotiated, that peace is not possible.

SIMON: And we should underscore, although China tends to be more pro-Palestinian in its sympathies, it still endorses a two-state solution which would not entail the destruction of Israel.

MURPHY: Absolutely. I mean, its stance has been that there needs to be a two-state solution, that parties need to get together and negotiate, that it's important to have an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as the capital. But - I emphasize the relationship with the Palestinians, but China also has very robust state-to-state relations with Israel, as well as with every other country in the Middle East. So it doesn't want to pick sides in general.

SIMON: How tricky is it for the United States to ask China for help?

MURPHY: So I think - the way that I look at it is that China and the U.S. have shared interests in the Middle East. They have a shared interest in stability, in resolution of the Israel-Hamas war, not having that conflict erupt into the broader region, being able to protect shipping, etc. So I think there is a lot of shared interests that although there is a competitive dynamic on the global stage, the Middle East in particular is an area where - given the current scenario, where it could really metastasize into a much broader conflict - both sides have an interest in the end of hostilities and keeping it from spreading.

SIMON: From the U.S. point of view, what could China do that might be helpful?

MURPHY: From a U.S. perspective, China could encourage Iran, and I specify encourage because I think there's an unrealistic expectation that China would be able to coerce Iran into changing its behavior. But China does have positive relations both with Iran as well as the other countries in the region, as well as non-state actors. So I think that would be constructive. I also...

SIMON: How would China to do that, though, exactly?

MURPHY: I think a lot of it will occur more through back channels. And part of why I say this is that this is a very delicate balancing act right now for China, not wanting to pick sides in the Israel-Hamas conflict, also not wanting to pick sides between the Saudis and the Iranians and the Israelis, right? So it's not wanting to deviate from that. It also doesn't want to be seen as taking the U.S. side too much because of the broader dynamic of competition.

SIMON: Is this an interest that the U.S. could begin to regret if China begins to play an overwhelming role in the region?

MURPHY: I think - the way I look at it is, right now, the dynamic in U.S.-China relations has become quite adversarial and quite competitive in many regions and in many functional areas. And I think a region like the Middle East, or potentially sub-Saharan Africa or some other regions, are areas where we have more shared interests than differences and that in the Middle East, for example, China is not wanting to play the military role that the U.S. does. There's no indication that they want to play that security role. So I think it is a space where the two could coexist and that cooperating on select issues in this region or others would provide some stability in the broader U.S.-China relationship at a time when the primary dynamic is competitive.

SIMON: Dawn Murphy is associate professor of national security strategy at the National War College. Thanks so much for being with us.

MURPHY: Thank you so much for having me.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.