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Beijing makes progress in the Mideast

By Michael Barris in New York | China Daily | Updated: 2013-06-19 11:23

China is making economically vital deals in the Middle East by maintaining contact with the region's parties and outside powers such as the United States without becoming embroiled in conflict, says US foreign policy adviser Vali Nasr.

"They're doing it with cooperation, they're also doing it with bilateral relationships," Nasr said in an interview following a talk he delivered Monday at the Asia Society. "They generally have avoided antagonism and they have avoided conflict, and that's what gives them the ability to expand despite all the conflicts that go on in the region."

Nasr's remarks on the US and China in the Middle East repeated ideas advanced in his new book, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat. In the book, the dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and the former senior adviser to the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan criticizes President Barack Obama's administration for failing to help new governments in the Mideast move toward democracy and reform their economies.

Asked if China's good relations in the troubled region would continue, Nasr, who also is a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution and a member of the US Department of State's Foreign Affairs Policy Board, said, "There's no reason why it wouldn't."

Since 2009, China has been stepping up its Mideast trade missions, tourists and investments - particularly in petrochemicals - as it pursues the region's fuels for its growing economy.

China has so far been able to balance its support for the Palestinian cause and heavy reliance on Saudi oil with its pursuit of Israeli high-tech imports and know-how in areas from paramilitary training to water management. It is expected to assume a more important role in Mideast politics as its economic stake in the region increases.

Nasr spoke on the eve of a UN-sponsored conference in Beijing that is part of China's quest for greater diplomatic influence in the Mideast. At the Beijing forum on Tuesday, the Palestinian envoy to the UN praised China's growing involvement in the Mideast peace process, saying it enhances efforts of other nations and should continue to expand.

In his remarks to the Manhattan-based Asia Society, Nasr said the Obama administration's well-publicized "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region actually is undermining the US's standing instead of bolstering it because the administration's "hands-off" policy regarding Asia runs counter to the need to establish democracy in the region.

"The Obama administration, and I think the president himself, is very happy to wash his hands of the Middle East and downgrade the Middle East in global strategy," Nasr said. "But the Middle East refuses to play ball. That actually is producing crisis after crisis."

His book explains this claim in more detail, arguing that "the Obama administration has neither come up with a strategy for capitalizing on the opportunity that the Arab Spring presented nor adequately prepared for potential fallout in the form of regional rivalry, the explosion of sectarian tensions and deep-rooted economic crises".

As a member of the State Department's foreign affairs policy board, an entity founded in late 2011 and hand-picked by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Nasr serves the US government in a "solely advisory capacity", according to the agency's website. The board's function is to provide the secretary of state and high-level staff with "independent, informed advice and opinion concerning matters of US foreign policy" while meeting three times a year, according to the website.

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