Opinion | Looming large: The Middle East braces for fallout of US–China divide

Written By: James M Dorsey
Washington, United States Published: Jan 14, 2021, 05.27 PM(IST)

File photo Photograph:( Reuters )

Story highlights

With relations with the United States rapidly deteriorating, China’s primary focus is on what it views as its main battleground: the Asia–Pacific. China is nonetheless realising that remaining aloof in the Middle East may not be sustainable

China would like the world to believe that the Middle East and North Africa region does not rank high on its totem pole despite its energy dependence, significant investment and strategic relationships with the region. In many ways, China is not being deceptive. With relations with the United States rapidly deteriorating, China’s primary focus is on what it views as its main battleground: the Asia–Pacific. China is nonetheless realising that remaining aloof in the Middle East may not be sustainable.

It was only in 2016 that China published its first and only Middle East-related white paper, devoted to the Arab states rather than the region as a whole. Apart from rehashing China’s long-standing foreign policy principles, the paper highlighted opportunities for win-win cooperation in many areas.

 

Investment figures tell a similar story. Of the US$2 trillion in Chinese overseas investment between 2005 and 2019, a mere US$198 billion or under 5 per cent went to the Middle East and North Africa.

Half Full Rather Than Half Empty

What turns the glass half full is the fact that the Middle East fulfils almost half of China’s energy needs. Moreover, some of China’s investments, particularly in ports and adjacent industrial parks in the Gulf, Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean, are strategically important. What was once primarily a Belt and Road “string of pearls” linking Indian Ocean ports has evolved into a network that stretches from Djibouti in east Africa through Oman’s port of Duqm and the United Arab Emirates’ Jebel Ali port into a near dominant position in the eastern Mediterranean and onwards into the Indo–Pacific.

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China already exerts influence in the eastern Mediterranean region through its involvement in ports in Greece, Turkey, Israel and Egypt. It has expressed interest in the Lebanese port of Tripoli and may well seek access to the Russian-controlled ports of Tartus and Latakia.

Asserting the importance of the Middle East, Niu Xinchun, director of Middle East Studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), wrote back in 2017: “The politics and security of the Middle East [are] inextricably related to China. This is the first time in history that China has possessed political, economic and security interests in the Middle East simultaneously." CICIR is widely viewed as China’s most influential think tank.

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Recently, however, Niu has apparently taken an antipodal position, maintaining that the Middle East doesn't feature prominently in China’s strategic calculations. 

This shift was part of a game of shadow boxing to subtly warn the Gulf, and particularly Saudi Arabia, to dial down tension with Iran.

To ensure that its message is not lost on the region, China could well ensure that its future investments contribute to job creation, a key priority for Middle Eastern states struggling to come to grips with the economic crisis Middle East political economy scholar Karen Young noted that Chinese investment has so far focused on a small number of locations and had not significantly generated jobs.

Subtle Messaging

Subtle Chinese messaging was also at the core of China’s public response to Iranian leaks that it was close to signing a 25-year partnership with the Islamic republic that would lead to a whopping US$400 billion investment to develop the country’s oil, gas and transportation sectors.

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China limited itself to a non-committal on-the-record reaction and low-key semi-official commentary. 

Writing in the Shanghai Observer, a secondary Communist party newspaper, Middle East scholar Fan Hongda was less guarded. Fan argued that the agreement, though nowhere close to implementation, highlighted “an important moment of development” at a time that US–Chinese tensions allowed Beijing to pay less heed to American policies. 

Diplomacy with “Chinese Characteristics”

Nonetheless, China’s evasiveness on the Iran agreement constituted a recognition that the success of its Belt and Road initiative and its ability to avoid being sucked uncontrollably into the Middle East’s myriad conflicts depends on a security environment that reduces tension.

Reflecting what appears to be a shift in China’s approach to regional security, Chinese scholars Sun Degang and Wu Sike suggested that Chinese characteristics would involve “seeking common ground while reserving differences” 

A Blunt Rebuke

But China’s conflict management diplomacy may not go down well with the Gulf Arabs, notably Saudi Arabia, judging by what for Saudi media was a blunt and rare recent critique of the People’s Republic. In a game of shadow-boxing in which intellectuals and journalists front for officials who prefer the luxury of plausible deniability, Saudi Arabia responded bluntly in a column authored by Baria Alamuddin, a Lebanese journalist who regularly writes columns for Saudi media.

Alamuddin warned that China was being lured to financially bankrupt Lebanon by Hizballah. She suggested in a column published by Arab News that Hizballah’s seduction of China was occurring against the backdrop of a potential massive 25-year cooperation agreement between the China and Iran. 

A Hair in the Soup

Further complicating Chinese efforts to nudge the Middle East towards some degree of stabilisation are China’s technology and military sales with no constraints on their use or regard for the potential geopolitical fallout. The sales include drone and ballistic missile technology as well as the building blocks for a civilian nuclear programme for Saudi Arabia, which would significantly enhance the kingdom’s ability to develop nuclear weapons.

These sales have fuelled fears, for different reasons, in Jerusalem and Tehran of a new regional arms race.

Washington’s indifference may change, assuming that the recent rejection by the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi of an offer by the UAE to donate hundreds of Covid-19 test kits for screening of its staff was a shot across the Gulf’s bow. A US official said the tests were rejected because they were either Chinese-made or involved BGI Genomics, a Chinese company.

A Major Battlefield

Digital and satellite technology involving Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei’s 5G cellular technology rollout is set to be a major battlefield. US officials have warned that the inclusion of Huawei in Gulf networks could jeopardise sensitive communications.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said the US had advised its Middle Eastern partners in the region to take “a careful look at investment, major contracts and infrastructure projects.” 

Schenker warned that agreements with Huawei meant “basically all the information and your data is going to Huawei, property of the Chinese Communist Party”. 

The rollout of China’s BeiDou Satellite Navigation System (BDS), which competes with the US’ Global Positioning System (GPS), Russia’s GLONASS and Europe’s Galileo, sets the stage for battle. Countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Turkey have signed up for what is known as China’s Digital Silk Road Initiative. So far, Pakistan is the only country known to have been granted access to BeiDou’s military applications.

The successful launch in July of a mission to Mars, the Arab world’s first interplanetary initiative, suggested that the UAE was seeking to balance its engagement with the United States and China in an effort not to get caught in the growing divergence between the two powers. The mission, dubbed Hope Probe, was coordinated with US rather than Chinese institutions. It launched from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center.

You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide

A continuously deteriorating relationship between USA and China is a worst-case scenario for Middle Eastern states. It would progressively reduce their ability to walk a fine line. 

Ironically, the US desire to recalibrate its engagement with the Middle East and a realisation on the part of Saudi Arabia and Iran that their interests are best served by a reduction of tension could serve as a catalyst for a new Gulf security architecture.

None of the parties are at a point where they are willing to publicly entertain the possibility of such a collective security architecture. Nonetheless, such a multilateral security architecture would ultimately serve all parties’ interest.

James M Dorsey

James M Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and commentator on foreign affairs who has covered ethnic and religious conflict and terrorism across the globe for more than three decades.
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