The rise of China as a peer competitor to the US is the most significant geopolitical process of our time. The effort by the US with its allies to prevent the advance of Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific region is, in turn, the most fateful strategic project under way in the world.
This turn of global focus to the Indo-Pacific region is having important ripple effects in other strategic theatres. Nowhere is this more true than in the Middle East.
In that ever tense and volatile region, the drawdown in US involvement is leading to the emergence of new power alliances. Enemies of the US, sensing advantage from the decline of the hegemon, are seeking to push forward.
US allies, meanwhile, are drawing closer together to meet this challenge.
Both allies and enemies of the West in the region have sought to maintain robust relations with Beijing. China appears now to be tilting towards the latter group. Yet this is not a simple picture. The trend in the coming period will largely depend on China’s own decisions in this regard.
China is emerging as an increasingly significant source of power and influence in the Middle East. There are no vacuums in global strategy. Where one power departs, another will seek to move in.
The Middle East region is a vital hub in Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road initiative, intended to create a series of interlinked, China-dominated trade routes across the globe. Consequently, China is investing heavily in ports and infrastructure in the region. Of 95 Chinese owned/operated ports abroad, 20 are in the Middle East and North Africa. These include the new terminal at Haifa port in Israel, operated by the state-owned Shanghai International Port Group, which was inaugurated in September.
The United Arab Emirates, too, is a key hub for the export of Chinese goods. The port of Jebel Ali, south of Dubai, is a vital node on the Maritime Silk Road, intended to run from the Chinese southern coast via Dubai and the Red Sea to the Suez Canal and through to the Mediterranean.
Alongside port and infrastructure projects, Chinese trade with the region is growing. Beijing needs energy sources, technological dynamism and know-how. The first exists in profusion in the Persian Gulf region. The second is in ready supply in Israel.
China is Israel’s third biggest trading partner, after the US and the EU. And it is the UAE’s second biggest – in 2019 Abu Dhabi and Beijing signed .4bn worth of deals directly related to the Belt and Road Initiative.
Rising Chinese involvement in the Middle East is affecting the region. But this is not resulting in a cold war-type situation analogous to that developing in the Indo-Pacific. There is at present no Middle Eastern equivalent of AUKUS, the new alliance intended to face Chinese ambitions in the Indo-Pacific. Nor, exactly, does the Middle East have an equivalent of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the emergent gathering of loosely West-aligned states, again organised to provide unity against Chinese ambitions.
Such alliances are absent in the Middle Eastern context because pro-Western powers in the region do not (yet) share the zero-sum, cold war view of Chinese ambitions prevailing in Washington, Canberra, Tokyo, Seoul and New Delhi.
Key West-aligned Middle East powers, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are major trading partners with Beijing. The desire of these countries, and other traditionally US-aligned governments, has been to “walk between the raindrops”, to hedge their bets on the US-China issue. They want to continue to ally strategically with the US while benefiting from the substantial advantages of a flourishing trade relationship with China.
This inclination is of concern to the US. Noting China’s doctrine of “civil-military fusion”, US strategists consider that infrastructure built ostensibly for commercial purposes also may serve military goals, now or in the future. These could include intelligence collection at the present time, and perhaps in certain locations in the future the projection of military power by the Chinese navy.
But US future concerns have failed to deter regional allies from involvement with China. As a recent study by the US Naval War College noted, “US failure to roll back the concession won by Shanghai International Port Group at the Port of Haifa in Israel should be a cautionary tale. If a close security partner such as Israel is not persuaded that the security risks outweigh the commercial benefits, it is highly improbable that other states will forgo Chinese involvement in their critical infrastructure.”
This tendency of key Middle Eastern states to hedge between Washington and Beijing has been exacerbated by the growing feeling in recent years of US absence.
Regional states don’t want to pay the cost of losing economic opportunities with China, only to then fail to recoup this through the advantage of strategic links with the US because of the declining American interest in direct involvement in the Middle East.
On several key occasions over the past decade, the US notably has failed to come through on backing allies and keeping commitments in the Middle East.
In 2010-11, two long-serving pro-Western leaders, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, were abandoned by the West and allowed to fall. In 2013, the Obama administration failed to enforce its own red line regarding chemical weapons use by the Assad regime in Syria. In 2018 and 2019, Donald Trump twice abruptly ordered a US withdrawal from Syria before partially walking back the decision. In September 2019, the US failed to respond to Iranian drone attacks on Saudi oil processing plants at Abqaiq and Khurais. Finally, in August, the Biden administration’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan confirmed the prevalent impression that the US was simply no longer centrally committed to projecting power in the neighbourhood.
This desire to hedge on the part of US allies in the Middle East has been exacerbated because China has not appeared in recent years to be seeking to ally in the region with the enemies of the West. Rather, Beijing trades with states both aligned with and hostile to the US.
It is questionable, however, as to whether the Middle East will continue to remain outside of the emergent reality of the US-China cold war. Cold war systems between global powers tend to end up shaping strategic realities in all significant parts of the world. The Middle East is unlikely to remain immune to this reality. There are signs, indeed, that this may be happening. An emergent alliance between Beijing and Tehran would be perhaps the only element that might change the pattern of hedging by regional powers.
China and Iran on March 27 signed a 25-year strategic agreement, intended to lead to ($556bn) of Chinese investment in the Iranian economy. Beijing, by continuing oil purchases from Iran during the period of US “maximum pressure” on Tehran, arguably made the major contribution to Iran’s ability to ride out this period. In 2019, at the height of the maximum pressure campaign, China was purchasing half of all Iranian oil exports. This provided an insurance policy for Tehran. In September, Iran was accepted as a full member of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation.
Iran clearly sees China as the strategic partner it wants. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, addressing the SCO, said “the world has entered a new era – hegemony and unilateralism have failed”.
It is not yet clear, however, that China entirely shares Raisi’s enthusiasm for the partnership. China needs stability and security for the advancement of its trade ambitions. Iran favours and fosters chaos in a variety of Arab countries to advance its own power. China likes strong central governments whose word can be relied on. Iran is the main agent in weakening central governments and strengthening its own proxies in the resultant vacuum.
In Israel, the emerging area of deep concern is increased military co-operation between Iran and China. In a recent article published at the INSS think tank in Tel Aviv, retired Israeli brigadier general Assaf Orion noted: “The strategic agreement between China and Iran, to the extent the draft reflects the final version, outlines a zone of agreement on co-operation in intelligence, cyber warfare, precision navigation systems, weapons research and development, and military training and instruction.” He described the prospect of the further advance of this trend as alarming for Israel.
This factor – increased direct Chinese assistance to Iranian efforts to develop military capacities – more than all others will determine the future course of events. If Beijing prefers the path of continued ambiguity, then the extent of economic potential and the US desire to avoid commitments to the Middle East are likely to preserve the current situation.
Further moves by Beijing in the direction of strategic alliance and military assistance to Iran, however, are likely to force the issue. Such moves would be likely to produce the “Middle East Quad” the US desires. In the Middle East, as elsewhere in the world, the ball is in Beijing’s court.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Middle East Forum