Podcast: Michael Doran on China’s Drive for Middle Eastern Supremacy

The foreign-policy expert joins us to explain how China seeks hard power and not just economic influence in the region.

Iraqi Minister of Defense Najah al-Shammari, right, and Chinese Ambassador to Iraq Zhang Tao, left at a joint press conference in Baghdad on April 22, 2020. Xinhua via Getty Images.

Iraqi Minister of Defense Najah al-Shammari, right, and Chinese Ambassador to Iraq Zhang Tao, left at a joint press conference in Baghdad on April 22, 2020. Xinhua via Getty Images.

Aug. 6 2020
About the authors

A weekly podcast, produced in partnership with the Tikvah Fund, offering up the best thinking on Jewish thought and culture.

Michael Doran is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East at Hudson Institute. The author of Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East (2016), he is also a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council. He tweets @doranimated.

This Week’s Guest: Michael Doran


Last year, a former Obama-era Defense Department official testified before Congress about Chinese strategy in the Middle East, saying “China’s strategy in the Middle East is driven by its economic interests. . . . China . . . does not appear interested in substantially deepening its diplomatic or security activities there.” This view certainly neatly sums up conventional foreign-policy wisdom, but, write the foreign-policy analysts Michael Doran and Peter Rough, it couldn’t be more wrong.

In an extended essay published in Tablet, Doran and Rough demonstrate that “China is very actively engaged in a hard-power contest with the United States” in the Middle East. The outcome of this great-power competition will have tremendous implications for the global economy, human rights, and U.S. interests in the region and around the globe.

In this podcast, Doran joins Mosaic editor Jonathan Silver for an extended conversation on the subject. They explore China’s goals in the region, how it uses Russia and Iran to advance its goals, the military implications of its Belt and Road Initiative, its persecution of the Uighurs, and much more.

Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.

Excerpt (10:42-12:48)


The Chinese feel like they were not parties to the creation of this system and that the system is totally rigged against them, and they are aiming―in my view―to overturn the system and create a Sino-centric system. They want the whole world system to be focused on them. They think that they are the leading civilization in the world, not just one country among many. They believe that our intention is to dominate them and they feel terribly embattled on the political front, because they are tied to this single-party rule. Hong Kong is a dagger aimed at their heart, democracy in general is a dagger aimed at their heart, and there’s no doubt that the international system, as we have developed it, is prejudiced in the favor of democracy and human rights. And they think that all of those things are aimed at overturning their system. 

So now they have this enormous economic power, and they are using that to develop a sphere of influence. They’re not admitting, openly, that the goal of this sphere of influence is to overturn the world system or to transform it. Nor are they admitting that it’s a traditional sphere of influence, because they say that they have no military allies. Their sphere of influence is a “community of common interests” as they call it, based on economics. 

The reason they emphasize the economics and not the military is that the military is the area in which they are weaker, outside of the Western Pacific where they are quite open about having a military contest with us. They claim that that’s a contest over a limited area, which they depict as their territorial waters (with no historical justification of course). So they know that if they proclaimed a global military competition, that then they would excite in us opposition, and they would also threaten a lot of other actors around the world, and they would create the coalition against them (which is actually now kind of forming). So they emphasize economics all the time. But we shouldn’t be fooled by that―what they’re trying to do is overturn the whole system. 




For more on the Tikvah Podcast at Mosaic, which appears roughly every Thursday, check out its inaugural post here.

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More about: China, Middle East, Politics & Current Affairs