The Doorstep: China in the Middle East & U.S. Foreign Policy, with Asha Castleberry-Hernandez

July 9, 2021

Map depicting China's Belt and Road Initiative. CREDIT: Lommes (CC).

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Hello, everyone, and welcome to another edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, senior fellow here at Carnegie Council, Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow here at Carnegie Council, very excited today to welcome Asha Castleberry-Hernandez, senior advisor for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department, here today to talk to us about China and the Middle East, a topic that we don't hear enough of and need to hear more about.

Asha, previously served as a Kuwait desk officer at U.S. Army Central and worked on security cooperation with the Office of Military Cooperation and the Kuwait Ministry of Defense. She served as senior key leadership engagement officer for the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Kuwait, and during the Obama administration she previously served at the U.S. Mission at the United Nations working peacekeeping operations in the African Continent. She current serves as a major in the U.S. Army Reserves.

Clearly, she knows what she is talking about, and best of all, she is with us today as a former member of the U.S. Global Engagement team, so Asha worked with Nick and myself previously. What we are doing here today is bringing our audience—you all listening today—information that you need to know in your daily life from around the world that is going to impact your daily life.

Today we start off with China, and what is China doing in the Middle East, Asha, that we need to know about and we need our audience to know about?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY-HERNANDEZ: Yes, thank you so much, Tatiana, for the wonderful introduction, and thank you so much, Nick and Alex, for having me again. I am so excited to join everyone.

Yes, it is very important that we share this topic with Doorstep to learn about the impacts or developments of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in the Middle East and North Africa.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Now China just recently celebrated its hundred-year anniversary of the Communist Party on July 1, so this is such a timely topic as well. Some of our audience may have heard about the celebration and heard about what President Xi is doing, but what is China doing in the Middle East to increase its footprint specifically? What are some of the things that you are looking at specifically?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY-HERNANDEZ: The PRC is primarily increasing its footprint in the Middle East through growing economic ties with the region. The Middle East remains one of the top destinations of PRC foreign investment and is one of the few areas where investment continues to grow as China scales back in other less-profitable regions.

Also, energy dominates the PRC's economic ties to the Middle East. China imports nearly three-quarters of its crude oil, and six countries in the Gulf—Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Iran—accounted for nearly half of China's 2019 crude oil imports.

Also, China is rapidly becoming the top consumer for Middle East oil. For instance, in 2020 Saudi Arabia sent 25 percent of its crude oil to China, which is up 13.6 percent from 2014 to 2019. Saudi exports to the United States were only about 6 percent of its 2020 total.

Lastly, beyond energy, countries across the Middle East are eager for capital and investment to build infrastructure, mainly involved with the Belt and Road infrastructure Initiative (BRI) to increase job growth and provide economic growth and opportunities for the region. So the BRI pretty much enables a lot of China's economic, technological, energy, and infrastructure activities in the region.

TATIANA SERAFIN: For sure. I think our audience and we all know about oil and energy. We can see that.

I wonder if you believe also this Belt and Road Initiative is an activity of most concern to the United States. China began it in about 2013. It is going to take trillions of dollars, and if you look at the map, what China wants to do is increase infrastructure, so both land and sea from China all the way to Europe and Africa across the Middle East. I think that we need to look at the map more often to see the scale of this initiative and the fact that you are also raising it as an area that the United States might be interested in looking at.

We know that when the G7 met they created this whole big infrastructure plan, the Build Back Better World (B3W), so clearly we're trying to tackle infrastructure plan with infrastructure plan. Where is China, and is that an activity of the most concern to the United States in terms of this big infrastructure project across the entire Middle East?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY-HERNANDEZ: That is a good point. When you look at again their energy ties, China has a high demand to meet when it comes to energy consumption, so when you look at their ties or the deals that they have with a lot of our partners in the region, it is mainly to build a lot of coal plants all throughout the region. What they do with that is they continuously pump exports and imports involving when it comes to coal production.

Why is that a concern? Over time it doesn't help us meet the standards when it comes to the Paris Accord, where you are keeping a lot of the countries locked in when it comes to coal production, and you are moving them away from renewable energy, which we have in the Paris Accord that by 2060 we want to significantly reduce our carbon emissions, but it is very hard when you are locked into these high-demanding coal production programs that they have going on with our partners.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Do you think that the coal production is the most significant concern for the United States in terms of the Paris Agreement, or are there other aspects of the infrastructure development that are something that you are looking at?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY-HERNANDEZ: You have that point, and also too with some of the infrastructure developments that we are seeing in the region they tend to not necessarily meet the environmental standards, like not really taking into account biodiversity and water infrastructure that is located in these areas, or the terrain. There tends to be less sensitivity about building on top of those types of biodiversity, water, and terrain areas that you have to take into account when you are building something.

So sometimes the environmental standards tend to be a little bit off, and we are seeing a lot of that when it comes to the BRI program in Africa, where there were some complaints from different BRI recipients or from African nations where, over time, these infrastructure developments associated with the BRI did not necessarily meet environmental standards. There was just a disregard for the biodiversity to other terrains, especially when it came to water supplies, where they were kind of locking out some of the flow of water. We are also definitely concerned with that as well.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: What you are talking about there, Asha, about also governments kind of leads into the next question, which is: You have already painted a picture that Middle Eastern energy producers are selling more to China, they are looking to China for investment, but then there is what the Chinese do, the strings that they attach. Of course, we have a number of security partners in the region, in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and others.

How receptive are you finding the Middle Eastern states to these Chinese proposals? Are they embracing the Chinese? Are they concerned? Are they looking to us and asking, "What can you do?" What is your sense of how the Chinese proposals are being received by the governments of the Middle East?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY-HERNANDEZ: Thank you for the question.

The truth is, it varies. Like all countries pursuing their own national interests, the Middle East states are receptive to PRC proposals when they perceive it benefits them. The PRC's infrastructure projects can be helpful to countries needing low-cost development. Also, the PRC remains a major trading partner for many Middle Eastern and North African countries, and it is logical to expect them to build upon neutral profitable relationships.

We want our partners to be clear-eyed about the risks of doing business with the PRC and its companies, so we believe investment in any country should occur within strong regulatory structures and not undermine the host country's national security. So governments and the people in the region know that partnerships with the United States bring tangible benefits to the people of the region.

Another example: The PRC always, even in their constitution, emphasize non-interference in domestic affairs of states, which is used to justify the human rights abuses in the name of the regime security. It can be enticing to governments who commit to human rights abuses to remain in power. However, our partners know that only the United States is capable of building effective regional security partnerships and bringing stability to the region.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think that is a great point that you have highlighted there, that the United States is the one with the track record but also frankly, if I can borrow the infrastructure word from Tatiana, we are the ones who can develop sustainable regional security infrastructures.

This leads I think into the next question—and perhaps you have already anticipated it—which is: Do we see some of these Chinese efforts as a problem for us? I guess in a way you have already alluded to this, that if the Chinese efforts are designed to disrupt those regional partnerships and disrupt regional security, certainly we would have an issue. But are there other things of concern that we look at and say that this would be a problem, that China's activities are disruptive rather than constructive in how we see the region? Is this a problem for us?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY-HERNANDEZ: That is a good question. It is a problem for the United States. First and foremost, it undermines the rules-based international system that has enabled our security and prosperity for over 75 years. When you are talking about restoring human rights and also being a transparent and genuine player with international organizations we are seeing that sometimes the PRC tends to erode or chip away those principles involving the rules-based international system. That is very, very important to note.

Also, it undermines our commitment to human rights and democratic values, which I said before. The PRC's emphasis again on sovereignty and non-interference is designed to undermine the universality of human rights and international law. One example of that clearly is what you are seeing with the Uyghurs. When you have an issue involving Uyghurs, that is a discussion all the time when you look at the UN Human Rights Council, and other countries, especially countries in the Middle East and North Africa, are paying attention to those developments. Because China is a growing influential player in the international system and they are not necessarily communicating effectively on what exactly is going on with the Uyghurs, it tends to provide some not-genuine messaging about the issue involving genocide in their country, and that becomes influential when it comes to many countries around the world, especially in the Middle East and North Africa.

TATIANA SERAFIN: That's so interesting. We have to really look also at this issue from the implications for what is going to go on for the U.S. domestic audience. How does this part of the world impact what we do here, and how will what China is doing in the Middle East impact us here?

Their efforts in the energy department, in the infrastructure department that we talked about, or their human rights, do you find that people are talking about it here? How should we be talking about it with our audience? What are some of your thoughts?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY-HERNANDEZ: I would say for the most part definitely talk about it with the audience, especially when you can connect it to us domestically.

A perfect example of it is definitely when it comes to our health security involving COVID-19. As you can see with the early developments involving COVID-19, there was a lot in terms of what China was communicating to the World Health Organization, and right about now that is under investigation. But we always have to remember: Where did COVID-19 come from? It came from abroad.

We have to always remember that we are not in this world alone. We are interconnected. Our national security threats could come from outside of our country and go beyond into our borders and hit us hard, like COVID-19 did. When we are talking about our health security or global health overall, that definitely connects the involvement of foreign policy and national security and how that drives at home with us when it comes to impacting our health. A great example of that is COVID-19.

Now you are also seeing the production of vaccines, and a lot of them are coming from the Chinese as well as from the United States, and you are seeing vaccine distribution or diplomacy happen throughout the world, so we also want to make sure that we are monitoring how that impacts us at home where we are not only receiving vaccines at home, but this administration has also been able to provide distribution around the world as well. It is important that we communicate these types of issues to the audience in the United States.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think that's a great point again about how something that happens overseas has the domestic impact. Of course, we would be remiss at The Doorstep if we didn't mention, Asha, that you were one of the progenitors of this concept in talking about these issues back at the Carnegie Council in 2018, about how important you saw it to communicate how national security impacted people in their day-to-day lives, and I think certainly the pandemic has brought that message home.

Tatiana, please.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Following along that, you have mentioned vaccine diplomacy, and I am wondering what is China doing in your area, and what are you monitoring in terms of vaccine diplomacy, because I think that is one way they are trying to increase connections in the region. Is that correct?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY-HERNANDEZ: Yes. They are aggressively conducting vaccine diplomacy activities throughout the region, and they are also trying to set up or establish production centers in several countries. The Sinopharm right now they are aggressively trying to offer to most of the Middle East and North African countries. It is definitely interesting to see how aggressively they are actually trying to implement the vaccine diplomacy approach. It is almost coming off as if they know that the coronavirus was an issue that came out of their country, so they are trying their best to address the issue by being engaged in the vaccine diplomacy approach.

TATIANA SERAFIN: One of the things that directly relates to what we are doing here and to what you are working on, and we can look at it with vaccine distribution—are Chinese foreign policy and U.S. foreign policy in vaccines and in other areas important as you mentioned and as we talk about on The Doorstep for the middle class, for the people here who are part of our economy and driving our economy here and will drive the recovery here? What are you following in terms of the connections between our recovery here and the recovery in the Middle East and how China is trying to drive the recovery and how what they are doing in the Middle East might impact what is happening here?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY-HERNANDEZ: I can definitely comment about what we are doing. We are definitely scaling our vaccine production for the world. We are working with manufacturers to increase vaccine supplies both at home and abroad. We had agreed upon the administration to make sure that certain countries, especially developing countries, receive these vaccines. It has been driving the aggressive actions that have been taken to accelerate manufacturing production lines in the United States. So Pfizer and Moderna have already been increased in their capacity to product vaccines for the world.

Also, we are investing in local vaccine productions. I mentioned before that we are working with partners from the pharmaceutical companies and other manufacturers to expand local vaccine production investments globally. So the Quad vaccine partnership—I am not sure you guys are aware—between the United States, India, Japan, and Australia is committed to expanding local production for at least 1 million safe and effective doses of COVID-19 vaccines in 2021 and 2022, and now that we are engaged with both local and abroad distribution, we are seeing with our partners that they are definitely more inclined to want to use our vaccines.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I was actually reading that the UAE is offering a booster with the Pfizer vaccine to its people after the Chinese vaccine. I thought that was really interesting, speaking of vaccine diplomacy.

We talked about energy, we talked about infrastructure, and we talked about vaccines. What other doorstep issues should we be considering or looking at from your region that you are seeing, maybe issues bubbling up. I don't know. We talk a lot here about tech and space. Are there other issues you are looking at following?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY-HERNANDEZ: I just want to be very clear that the president has made it clear that the United States views the PRC as a competitor that challenges the existing international rules-based order.

Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be. So the common denominator is the need to engage the PRC from a position of strength. That requires working with allies and partners and not denigrating them, because our combined weight is much harder for the PRC to ignore.

So when you see other activities like you mentioned, for instance, the Iran nuclear program negotiations, that is where we work also with cooperating with China to make sure that we and Iran are committed to nuclear nonproliferation commitments. That is really important where we cooperate with them.

We also cooperate with them when it comes to the Paris Accord. They have been pretty instrumental as far as trying to bring peace and security in Yemen. Again, this relationship can be cooperative, but it can also be adversarial and competitive, so it is in three different buckets.

It also requires engaging in diplomacy and international organizations, so I definitely want to underscore that, because where we have pulled back, the PRC has filled in. It is very important in this administration that we are engaged with strategic engagement around the world. It requires us standing up for our values when human rights are abused, like what we are seeing when it comes to the Uyghurs and when democracy is trampled in Hong Kong, because if we don't stand up for that, that is going to create a bigger problem in terms of human rights abroad.

I just want to make sure that it is very clear that when it comes to human rights as a doorstep issue not only are we addressing it at home, but we are also very engaged abroad. So there is no hypocrisy here. The United States is engaged on what we are trying to do at home is the same thing we are trying to do abroad. I think that is also a very important doorstep issue, ensuring that we are restoring our human rights.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: We know from the surveys we have been doing that human rights matters to people, both that we are trying and that we are trying to help others in that regard, so I think that is a great point to stress.

As you also have noted, we are dealing in a very complex environment in the Middle East and around the world, where we are dealing with a competitor. In areas where we can collaborate, as you said, we can, but at the same time where we need to stand up and enforce certain things, we are prepared to do that as well.

It definitely means that you are staying very busy. You are also, of course, as you have pointed out before, talking about allies and partners, you are dealing in that region of the world where our Euro-Atlantic and our Indo-Pacific partners both have roles to play as well as our allies and partners in the Middle East region, so in some ways you are in a keystone part of the world that connects these different areas, these global partnerships that the United States, as you had noted, constructs for the benefit of the world community, so certainly a lot on your plate, and you have given us a real overview of what is going on and what is occupying your time there.

Definitely we appreciate the time you were able to take from your schedule today to speak with us and to speak with our listeners. If there are any last points, anything else that we need to address, but I think you have given us a lot of things to discuss and to think about.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Absolutely.

ASHA CASTLEBERRY-HERNANDEZ: This was a great discussion, and I really enjoyed discussing the several topics that we went over, but for the most part it is very important that when we look at the international system overall we have a lot of emerging topics, but for the most part great-power competition is reshaping the international system, and the United States is engaged, and we will respond effectively when it comes to near-peer competition.

But for the most part, our overall message to everyone is to make sure that we achieve international stability, peace, and security. That is part of our international rules-based order. That is part of our principles, and for the most part everybody needs to be aware of this, especially when you look at it where we are engaged in competition involving research and development.

When it comes to the American people, we have to makes sure that they are also involved in this competition as far as making sure that we invest a lot in R&D, and I think that is important to understand as well. Over on the Hill Senator Schumer recently introduced a piece of legislation known as the Innovation and Competition Act, where we are going to be pouring a lot of money into R&D to ensure that the United States invests a lot when it comes to science, technology, engineering, and math education. That not only makes us stronger at home but also more competitive abroad. That is really important, especially when you are looking at the technological domains as far as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and cloud computing, so we definitely when it comes to this administration and also we are seeing a lot of bipartisan spirit in Congress where we want the American people to not only be more updated at home but competitive abroad as well.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think that's a great way to sum it up, that in the end the goal is to be stronger at home and to be competitive abroad.

ASHA CASTLEBERRY-HERNANDEZ: Yes.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I love it. Thank you.

ASHA CASTLEBERRY-HERNANDEZ: You're welcome.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you very much again for taking the time out and for walking us through these issues. Again, whenever your time or schedule permits, we always would love to have you back on a future edition of Doorstep, but again we thank you for your time today.

ASHA CASTLEBERRY-HERNANDEZ: Thank you so much.

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