Global Power Competition: Strategic Implications for the NESA Region

Gawdat Bahgat, NESA

With more than a billion people and abundant natural resources, the NESA region (the Middle East, South and Central Asia) enjoys tremendous geopolitical and geo-economic advantages. Furthermore, the NESA region occupies a strategic location, connecting different cultures and civilizations. Little wonder that, since the dawn of history, global powers have been interested in the NESA region. European powers dominated most countries in the region until almost the mid-twentieth century.

In the last few decades, global power competition has taken a different path. Most political analysts and scholars focus on Russia, China and the United States. Moscow had close relations with several NESA countries under the Soviet regime. In the early 1990s, the then newly born Russian Federation needed sometime to reestablish itself and find its footing. Under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, however, Moscow has become more assertive on both domestic and foreign policy. Its policy in the NESA region is not driven by ideological orientation, i.e. promoting communism. Rather, Russian leaders pursue what they perceive as their nation’s national interests. These perceived national interests diverge from those of China and the United States. Furthermore, there is a huge disparity between Moscow’s ambitious agenda and its limited financial capabilities.

China, on the other hand, holds massive financial resources. The Chinese economy has been one of the fastest growing economies in the world since the late 1970s/early 1980s. In the last several years, Beijing has sought to use these massive financial resources to boost its strategic ambition in the NESA region and elsewhere. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is probably the clearest illustration of this policy. Within this context, China has emerged as a key trade partner and major investor in almost all NESA countries. Beijing, however, has intentionally avoided taking sides in regional disputes and refused to bear security responsibilities. Consequently, some American policymakers and analysts have accused China of free-riding.

Unlike European powers, the United States has never occupied any country for a prolonged period. Washington became actively involved in most NESA countries during the early 1950s. American foreign policy, like that of other countries, is largely driven by both values and perceived national interests. In other words, American foreign policy, on the one hand, seeks to promote freedom, rule of law and respect of basic human rights. At the same time, the policy aims to enhance U.S. national security and economic prosperity. Most of the time, there is no contradiction between American values and perceived national interests. However, some foreign leaders do not appreciate Washington’s insistence on democratic values like transparency, freedom of assembly, and good governance. Still, these values define what the United States is all about and are considered major drivers of American policy under any administration.

A close examination of global powers’ agendas in the NESA region reveals major differences. However, two important conclusions can be drawn from the intense rivalry between Moscow, Beijing and Washington. First, this global rivalry should not be seen in zero-sum terms. It is not a Cold War. Rather, some strategic and economic goals do overlap. Second, despite the important role foreign powers play, the future of the NESA region will be shaped more by decisions made by the peoples and leaders of the region, not by any foreign power.

The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.