06/07/2012 06:51 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2012

Time for a Different Way of Thinking About National Security

When most Americans think about national security, they consider wars abroad and fighting terrorists. National security is perceived to be the responsibility of the military and intelligence forces.

In the Middle East, however, any enduring notion of American security hinges more on mundane matters such as long-term energy security, adept exercise of soft power and preventing the erosion of political capital and legitimacy rather than on military might and operations. All of these broad constituents of national security are evident in U.S.-China rivalry over the energy resources of the Middle East. It has also become abundantly clear that the true contest for national security is increasingly a diplomatic one. If the diplomacy goes well, there is real potential for a more peaceful world. If it goes badly, tensions will surely rise.

As China continues to rise on the global stage, a great power realignment in the Middle East is already underway. The key factor in expansion of Chinese influence in the region is its energy strategy, which has four elements:

  • Cultivate as many Middle Eastern "dance partners" as possible by helping energy-producing countries develop infrastructure;
  • Pursue a policy to "offend no one" and "non-interference" in cultural and governance matters;
  • Never miss an opportunity to highlight the differences between China and the United States.
  • Capitalize on Anti-American sentiments due to U.S. military involvement and imperial over-reach in the region.

China's rivalry with the U.S. over the energy resources of the Middle East is based on the understanding that it cannot go it alone in acquiring energy for the most populous nation with the fastest rate of economic growth in the world. It must be a friend to all and that means navigating the choppy political waters in different nations such as Iran and maintaining simultaneously relations with the two antagonists such as U.S. and Iran; but also closely courting and expanding ties with such U.S. regional allies as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar. As a consequence of its skillful diplomacy, China has had success at creating joint infra-structure-building ventures with developing nations, including the Middle East. This "win-win" strategy recently caused the Saudi Aramco CEO Khalid Al-Falih to say, "We don't consider ourselves simply as sellers of oil to China, but rather strategic partners."

Beijing has stated its desire to cooperate with energy producers in ways that are mutually beneficial. And it has gone about its business without the use of force and without imposing its ideology on the region. At the same time, most Middle Eastern states value China's willingness to pay premium prices for their oil and gas and to sign long-term contracts, thus providing them with security of demand. So far as oil-producing nations are concerned, energy relationships with China come with significantly less political baggage than dealing with the United States or the European Union.

On the political front, China finds ways to distance itself from the United States and exploit American vulnerabilities. After the death of Osama bin Laden, for example, tensions were high between the U.S. and Pakistan. Washington was critical of Islamabad for not doing enough to combat terrorism. China, by contrast, praised Pakistan's efforts at fighting terror and announced it was providing 50 additional fighter jets to the Pakistan Air Force. Beijing seeks opportunities such as these to exploit frayed U.S. relations in the Muslim World and present itself as a more reasonable alternative to Washington.

As global demand for energy rises and supplies become tighter, the United States may seek more oil and gas from the Middle East. When that time comes, China's position may be even stronger which will result on one of three scenarios. The U.S. could look elsewhere for oil and gas; Canada, Mexico and Venezuela are the top exporters of oil to this country, and as the US volume of import from these countries has expanded since 2009, it may indicate that this trend has already begun. Or the U.S. and China could cooperate in the Middle East to deliver greater quantities of energy to the global market, thus, curbing the upward pressure on the price of energy that may hamper the fragile and slow economic recovery in US and Europe. Or competition between the two major energy consumers could intensify to the point of conflict.

Fortunately, there are several factors that could lead to better U.S.-China cooperation on energy issues. For one thing, China benefits from the U.S. Navy safeguarding the Persian Gulf shipping lanes, thus ensuring the security of energy supplies that China needs to sustain its impressive economic rise. For its part, the U.S. likes stability in the oil and gas market and the increased Chinese investment in global energy capacity helps to prevent sharp price hikes. The U.S. also benefits from the output of China's energy acquisitions in that countless products exported from China are mainstays of the U.S. lifestyle.

Thus, despite rivalry, conflict is not inevitable. And with skillful diplomacy, cooperation is possible. It is time to begin thinking of national security not just in military terms but in economic and political terms, as well. How judiciously US deals with the dramatic rise of China on the global stage, including the Middle East, is going to be one of the most significant issues that would determine the future of political order that governs our world.

Manochehr Dorraj is professor of political science at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. He is the author of a scholarly article on this topic titled " China's Strategy for Energy Acquisition in the Middle East: Potential for conflict and Cooperation with the United States" in the spring issue of Asian Politics and Policy Journal.