Speech by Minister Chan Chun Sing at Middle East Institute Annual Conference

Speech by Minister Chan Chun Sing at Middle East Institute Annual Conference

ESM Goh Chok Tong

MEI Chairman Bilahari Kausikan


Distinguished guests

1 A very good morning. Let me firstly wish everyone a happy, healthy and successful lunar new year.

2 Thank you for the invitation from the Middle East Institute to speak at today’s conference. I am keenly aware of the number of distinguished Middle East experts in the room.  I hope to share another “outside in” geopolitical perspective on the region and add to the conversation today.

3 I will make some observations on the complexities of the Middle East and discuss how China and the US will add to the complexities.  Then we can have a deeper conversation after this during the discussion.

Middle East complexities

4 First observation.  The intra-Middle East rivalries and contests for power, ideology and religion will intensify in the foreseeable future.  

a. Since time immemorial, this area often referred to as the cradle of civilisation, has seen attempts at domination from people as diverse as the Egyptians, Persians, Arabs, Romans (Byzantine Empire), Ottomans, British, French and many others.

b. In the last century alone, we have seen Arab-Israeli conflicts, the Kurdish-Turkish conflict, Iran-Iraq war, Gulf war, Syrian and Yemeni civil wars, Iraqi insurgency, the rise and fall of ISIL, but to name a few.

5 Even by most conventional and historical standards, the region today is seeing unprecedented levels of instability and fluidity. Many commentators attribute the heightened uncertainties today to two main forces.

a. One, the collapse of the old order – the Iraqi Saddam regime, the Iranian Revolution and the fragmentation of the Arab core - in the region have all contributed to the current state of flux and instability.  The rise of competing ideologies - like ISIS - is but a symptom of the wider lack of stability and leadership – a symptom rather than just a cause. 

b. The other reason being the lack of a clear regional or global geostrategic heavyweight that is able to keep things in check. While external powers have often added to the potent Middle East concoction, they have at times also provided the stabilising force amidst the shifting power relativities in the region.  We do not have that clear heavyweight at this point in time. 

6 Secondly, the Middle East remains a platform for proxy power contests. The Middle East has always been part of a bigger global chess board. The region has been a place of real and proxy contests in areas ranging from religion, energy to pure power play.

7 Religion is an inescapable part of the Middle East reality. We know that religion is not always the most important factor. Often, it is only a cover for other interests like energy and geopolitical power contests.

8 Geo-strategically, the Middle East biggest challenge is because it is “Middle”.  It is middle between Europe, Asia and Africa.  It controls the critical strategic lines of communications (SLOC) in air, land, and sea. So if you come from Europe to Asia, you would have to pass through the region, particularly after the Suez Canal. In the air SLOC, the Middle East is within a six hour-radius that will cover the bulk of Europe, West Asia and almost reaching Southeast and East Asia. Thus, many if not all, global and regional powers in history desire to secure their interests in the region – lines of communications, energy and even religious authority.  Since the Middle East has seldom been unified, it has also become a convenient proxy battleground for wider geopolitical contests. The more unstable the region is, the greater the potential for it to become a proxy for external powers.

9 Thirdly, the Middle East, blessed with abundant energy resources, combined with its ideological power, has the potential to influence the rest of the world.

10 We have seen different strands of Islamic and other religious teachings emanating from the region to other parts of the world, powered by energy money. Other regions, such as Southeast Asia, are recipients of this global proxy ideological contest.

11 With this ideological power play, the Middle East is no longer just a passive receiver of external power play. It can now also export its own power play.

The Middle East and China

 12 With this context, let me now move on to China’s interests in the Middle East. For a long time in recent decades, China has not been a significant player in the Middle East. 

13 However, as China resume its historical global weight, we should not be surprised by the growing China’s interests in the Middle East.  Like any global power in history, China will have its fair share of interests in the Middle East, ranging from the same security of its SLOCs, resources (oil and gas) and even religion, particularly the influence of Islam on China’s Muslim minorities.  Hence, we should certainly expect China’s interests in, as well as efforts to engage the region, to continue to grow. China’s physical presence in the region is just one part of the equation. Its economic and ideological presence must be factored in the wider outreach plan.

14 Historically, Western powers moved and stayed in the Middle East as part of eastward push. Now, China is increasingly an important player there with its own westward push.  If the region is “Middle East” to the West, then the same region can be argued as the “Middle West” to China.  

15 Scholars have and will continue to debate if China has the same colonialist or expansionist intent towards the Middle East.  Some scholars interpret China’s recent moves to establish its physical and military presence in the Middle East as a sign of China’s expansionist tendencies.  Yet other scholars have cited China’s innate inward looking continental mentality as suggesting China’s aversion to interference of other countries.  

16 I am not sure if there are anything innate about the ways countries try to secure their interests with all dimensions of power – military, economic, informational and diplomatic.  Perhaps, China, the US and many other global powers in history have more in similarities than differences.  What is more important is to understand a country’s interests in any particular region and how it seeks to achieve its interests in the least costly way to itself.  This applies equally to all global powers, throughout history.  Force is always a last resort, but nevertheless a recourse, when all else fails.  

Belt & Road Initiative as the tool?

17 We can view China’s moves in the Middle East through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) –its ambitious effort to improve regional cooperation and connectivity on a trans-continental scale. 

18 The BRI is often viewed with both suspicion and positivism. Some observers see the BRI as a push for Chinese dominance in global affairs with a China-centered trading network. Others label it as a form of neocolonialism, moving countries and states closer to China’s orbit. These observers point to the reports of white elephants and crippling debts afflicting some participating members, as proof of China’s ill intent. 

19 But if conducted with prudence and financial discipline in an open and inclusive manner, the BRI is also a major opportunity to fill infrastructure gaps in regions, including those in the Middle East. With BRI, China has the capacity to undertake large infrastructure projects, and the appetite to do so in risky regions where others may be reluctant.  So can Middle East countries benefit from the BRI?  Yes, if each and every project is evaluated according to economic principles and executed with market discipline, keeping non-economic considerations farthest away possible.  This is a responsibility not just of China but each and every recipient partner country.  

20 However, the Middle East is also one of the most complex regions in the world. No major power has been able to avoid getting entangled in the region’s complex geopolitics.  Will China have the capacity to navigate the Middle Eastern politics without being entangled like many which came before it?  

21 Or does China have the desire to replace the US as big brother in the Middle East?  I do not believe so at this point in time. China’s focus on trade and infrastructure thus far is more defensive than offensive.  It is one thing for China to want to secure its interests in the Middle East.  It is another for China to contest other powers in the Middle East, as part of the wider global geopolitical chess game.

As China steps up, will others (especially the US) step off?

22 Various people have suggested that shale gas, the misperception that the global war on terrorism as largely over, and the waning American public appetite for foreign interventions and global constabulary responsibilities have combined to diminish the US’ interests in the Middle East.

23 The US will certainly recalibrate its posture in the Middle East as its interests evolve.  But to then conclude that the US is no longer interested in the region, is premature and exaggerated.  The US still have plenty of interests in the Middle East.
a. Geostrategic presence
b. Strategic lines of communications
c. Religion

24 As such, both the US and China have interests in the Middle East that are sometimes shared and, at other times, contested as part of a wider global backdrop of cooperation and contest.

25 Russia, Turkey and Iran or others will be watching this US-China relationship closely.  Nature abhors a vacuum. Geopolitics more so.  Like elsewhere in the world, a vacuum left by the US and China will always be contested and filled by other powers.

26 Already, we are seeing unprecedented levels of contests by key regional states such as Turkey and Iran. This is perhaps fuelled by strategic uncertainty with the fracturing of the Arab core. 

Going forward

 27 As the intra-regional dynamics and the proxy contests by extra-regional powers intensify, the changing demographics and shifting aspirations of the Arab core, particular the youths, will further complicate the stability of various countries and the region as a whole.  

28 The Middle Eastern youths have seen new possibilities with the 2011 Arab Spring. Will they push for Revolution 2.0? Or will it be a false dawn, having seen the disastrous consequences in revolts in places such as Libya and Yemen?

29 Let me end my sharing here, and I will be happy to hear your views too at the discussion. Thank you.

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