The United States’ approach has been to push China out; however, it can apply pressure on its allies to repel Chinese engagement. But this approach is not sustainable. The U.S. cannot keep trying to regulate the Middle East, nor is it to the benefit of Middle Eastern countries. Instead, the U.S. and China should cooperate by leveraging their comparative advantages to make grand strategy gains in their Middle East foreign policy. Both countries share interests in beating terrorism, containing Iran’s nuclear capabilities, preventing Iran from causing chaos in the region, stable oil prices and access to oil, opening up opportunities for economic investment and engagement with Middle Eastern allies, and regional stability.
Background: How the U.S. and China Interact with the Middle East
China offers soft power to Middle Eastern countries in economic opportunities such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or investment in technology. China’s non-interventionist philosophy per its 1953 “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” and focus on win-win opportunities in economic spheres allows it to maintain looser, positive relations and partnerships even with rival states in the region.[i] On the other hand, the U.S. maintains bilateral relations described as “zero-sum” since partnerships are often military alliances that require a more precise definition of commitment, especially as it pertains to conflict.[ii]
In March of 2021, China released its five-point plan for achieving peace, security, and stability in the Middle East: 1 – Stopping geopolitical rivalry in favor of dialogue in political hotspots such as Syria, Yemen, and Libya (most likely referring to Saudi-Iran proxy wars); 2 – Recognition of Palestine in a two-state solution; 3 – Iranian commitment to non-proliferation; 4 – combat terrorism and advance deradicalization; and 5 – developing the region through economic cooperation (China-Arab state summits, Belt and Road initiative, investment in new technologies and free trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council).[iii]
The U.S. offers both soft and hard power in the form of military assistance and security cooperation, development aid, and projects through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The U.S. also attaches ethical obligations to its partners and its’ support by advocating for democracy and human rights, which China avoids. The U.S.’s military assistance in the Middle East is unmatched and crucial to providing stability and order to the region, ultimately allowing for China’s economic and political activity and engagement. However, Degang Sun, Professor of Political Science at Fudan University, Shanghai, China, has called China’s security the “weakest dimension of China’s diplomacy in the Middle East.”[iv] As the U.S. resizes its commitment to the Middle East and China becomes more involved, Middle Eastern allies have wondered whether China will take on the security demands of the region. Yet, China is not looking to fill the U.S. ‘s shoes as it focuses on economic and political partnerships to side-step involvement in disputes.
At the same time, however, the U.S.’s financing of expensive military operations in the Middle East only to continue encountering conflict in a turbulent region has led China to criticize the U.S.’s defense-heavy, “zero-sum” approach to the Middle East. Instead, China upholds a principle of conflict stabilization through development. Essentially, Chinese leadership believes that the region’s troubles are rooted in underdevelopment and can be solved through industrialization and modernization. Unlike the U.S., China does not mention democratization as an element of stability. In fact, China’s first Arab policy paper outlines a “1 + 2 + 3” policy for economic development that starts with energy cooperation as its core, flourishes into construction and trade/investment as its “wings,” and finally branches into emerging technologies in nuclear energy, aerospace (satellites) and new forms of (clean) energy.[v]
What would US-China Cooperation in the Middle East look like?
Along with others in the region, China benefits from the U.S.’s stabilizing military presence in the Middle East. In addition to troop presence, this also means the U.S.’s arms sales to Middle Eastern countries. The U.S. needs to actively utilize this point of leverage as a way of getting China to comply with other interests/requests or the U.S could threaten to pull military aid. It is currently an unspoken arrangement that Beijing likes and that the U.S. does not leverage enough. While China could offer troops to serve alongside U.S. forces in missions to stabilize the region when it pertains to terrorism, this may diminish U.S. leverage in the region. The U.S. should encourage its Middle Eastern partners and China to promise that Beijing is not using economic footholds as an entry point for building offensive military activities.
For example, China recently attempted to build military bases in the United Arab Emirates, which were only stopped due to U.S. intelligence discovering the project and the U.S. utilizing arms sales leverage.[vi] The recent example of the UAE highlights this point of converging economic and clandestine military activities. Therefore, the U.S. should actively work with China on security to avoid confrontation because China will most likely want to increase its security presence to protect its BRI projects. At the same time, and in exchange for the U.S.’s efforts in fighting non-state terrorist groups such as ISIS, China could leverage its friendly relations with Afghanistan[vii] and work with the U.S. to pursue a stable transition with the Taliban in power.
The U.S. should complement and match China’s investment in the Middle East’s diversification away from oil to the benefit of Arab countries by providing monetary incentives to American businesses to pursue ventures with emerging companies from the region. China sees the Middle East as an economic outlet to export its goods and invest in. For example, China invested hundreds of millions of dollars per year in the Israeli tech sector.[viii] On the other hand, the U.S. is already a significant provider of humanitarian and development aid to the region and should encourage China to contribute due to the mutual goal of regional stability.
The U.S. and China should have a friendly competition in the Middle East on technology. The U.S. should encourage and provide incentives for U.S. and allied Israeli technological firms to compete with Chinese technological engagement in the Middle East. Trying to keep Chinese technology out of the Middle East is an unsustainable goal that does not often work and comes at the detriment of Middle Eastern country goals. Despite U.S. pressure to resist, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait still hired Huawei to build their 5G telecom infrastructure.[ix] Another example is China helping Saudi Arabia develop its ballistic missile capability and surveillance capacity.[x] So, instead of forcing Middle Eastern countries to ignore China, the U.S. needs to play into the competition and keep itself and its allies competitive with Chinese offerings. A U.S. tech company recently made real estate NFTs possible for an Emirati real estate firm.[xi] This approach allows the U.S. to have an active hand in the technological transformation of the Middle East.
The U.S. and China should work together on diplomatic discussions to stabilize conflict in the Middle East. China frames itself as a neutral “friend” to all Middle Eastern countries, thus acting as an intermediator. The Chinese government plans to invite Israelis and Palestinians to hold talks in China, a conflict the U.S. has a lengthy history with and to which it sees itself as central. China most likely cares about the Israel-Palestine conflict to protect investment in Israeli technology firms, Israel’s involvement in BRI, and the belief in Palestine’s right to state sovereignty.
China recognized Palestine in 1988 as a way of gaining popularity in the Arab world, maintaining positive relations since, and has outlined its support for a two-state solution in its 2016 Arab Policy Paper. The Biden administration donates to The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East’s mission in Palestine while supporting Israel’s national security objectives, thus making the U.S. an essential partner to both parties. In addition, Israel recently formed a new quad in the Middle East/Central Asia with the U.S., India, and the UAE to highlight Israel’s growth since the Abraham Accords. The Trump administration’s work with the Abraham Accords gives the U.S. leverage over Israel, which could be crucial in these negotiations given Israel’s relative strength over Palestine.
Similarly, the U.S. and China should work together on containing Iran, which is something to both of their benefit. While China benefits from Iran for discounted oil, China’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is essential too. Simultaneously maintaining relations with both countries is risky for China due to their rivalry; Saudi’s oil is still important to China[xii]; buying Iranian oil amidst U.S. sanctions only empowers Iran’s nuclear weapons programs and further supports Iran’s ability to support Shiite militias that contribute to the destabilization, terrorism, and chaos that China ultimately wants to avoid.[xiii] China was a staunch supporter of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Still, Beijing circumvented U.S. sanctions to trade directly with Iran amidst its economic insecurity following the Trump administration’s abandonment of the deal.[xiv]
In March of 2021, China signed a 25-year agreement with Iran to ensure Chinese access to Iranian oil in exchange for infrastructure projects in Iran[xv]. Of course, China could align itself with U.S. sanctions on Iran’s nuclear weapons development, but this may be unlikely given China’s recent public commitments to Iran. At the very least, China should leverage its friendly relations with Iran by threatening to cease oil importation and planned investment ($400 billion) in transportation, ports, and telecommunication until Iran complies with restrictions on its nuclear program.[xvi]
Why does China want to work with the U.S. on the Middle East?
China needs Middle Eastern oil reserves to power its oil and coal-dependent economy. This is a similar need to the U.S., which, despite recently decreasing dependence on Middle Eastern oil, still preserves its access to oil as a resource allocation diversification tactic. This prevents terrorists from gaining control of oil reserves for funding, preserves ally access to Middle Eastern oil, and, most importantly, plays a direct role in stabilizing oil prices.
For example, the ISIS presence in Iraq jeopardizes Chinese access to Iraqi oil–being the top importer of Iraqi oil and investor in Iraqi oil fields–and access disruption could mean an undesirable need for China to replenish more than 10% of total oil imports.[xvii] Energy security is a priority agenda item for both the U.S. and China –it is at the core of China’s Middle East foreign policy–and yet it is the U.S. that has the military capacity and bandwidth to protect oil access. Moreover, the U.S. military presence in the Middle East is an essential factor in the region’s oil price stabilization, which China currently depends on free-of-cost, thus meaning it is bargaining for the U.S. that could incentivize Chinese cooperation.[xviii]
China has several Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects at stake in the region, such as a maritime component in the Suez Canal, China-Pakistan railway routes through Iran, the Red Sea to Mediterranean Sea connection through Israel, and the Kuwait Silk City project. In addition, China has other investments in emerging Middle Eastern markets.[xix] However, chaos, conflict, and destabilization threaten China’s BRI infrastructure, personnel, and investments. For example, ISIS presents a serious security challenge to China’s BRI projects in the Middle East. Moreover, although China may involve its military, the U.S. military has a more robust presence and tighter grip on Middle Eastern security, thus offering more stable and expansive defense capabilities.
Drawbacks and Limitations
Letting Middle Eastern countries freely utilize China’s technological offerings (5G, Huawei, etc.) could create Middle Eastern dependence on Chinese technology, which acts as a getaway for political power and leverage and thus increasingly expands China’s sphere of influence. This could mean a potential authoritarian geopolitical bloc. At the same time, it is worth noting that history has shown that forced democratization of the Middle East has resulted in corruption in Lebanon, Tunisia, and Iraq.
Another consideration is that, without ethical restrictions, the application of China’s technology could be dangerous to global civil liberties. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are turning into surveillance states to control their citizens with the help of Chinese technology.[xx] The U.S. attempts to police this may prove unsuccessful, as they currently have been where Biden administration calls for humanitarian considerations fell aside to national security concerns of driving authoritarian Middle East allies away and towards China instead. Human rights are a significant concern for the United States but are yet an issue that angers Middle Easter leadership. Instead, the U.S. should listen to and make way for Middle East citizenry calls and attempts to hold their leaders accountable. If there is success in holding the Middle East leaders accountable for human rights, it is a change that must come from below, by the citizenry, whose voices have recently started to boil once more. A tipping point must occur where the citizenry feels that authoritarianism is no longer worth the economic benefits and their efforts beat the state’s capacity to silence dissent.
In addition, China is still an unpredictable state actor and could exploit American trust in areas where China holds the leverage or take advantage of access to American leverage for personal gain. Therefore, safeguards for accountability on both sides are necessary. Finally, The U.S.’s historical reputation in the Middle East is not unforgotten, continuing to color the U.S. unfavorably in the eyes of the Middle East–citizens and leaders alike. Recent polling suggests Middle Eastern citizens are more favorable to China.[xxi] This may be dangerous as it gives Arab leaders an incentive to pursue a relationship with China over the U.S. in the future. As of right now, the U.S. maintains its presence because it is still seen as a necessity to Arab leaders. Continuing to reassure Middle Eastern allies of U.S. commitment to the Middle East is crucial, alongside active efforts to maintain a presence not just militarily but also economically, technologically, politically, and diplomatically.
[i] Ceren Ergenç, “China’s relations with the Middle East: a perspective from the region,” International Institute for Asian Studies, (2018).
[ii] Gordon Lubold Nancy Youssef, “White House Nominates Airborne Officer to Lead Central Command,” Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2022.
[iii] Ruike Xu and Degang Sun, “Sino-American Relations in the Middle East: Towards A Complementary Partnership?,” Asian Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, 13:2, (2019): 143-161. DOI: 10.1080/25765949.2019.1605563
[iv] Ibid Sun.
[v] Ibid Sun.
[vi] Umar A Farooq, “UAE’s China Ties Cast Doubt on Purchase of US F-35 Fighter Jets,” Middle East Eye, December 14, 2021.
[vii] Katarzyna Sidło, “The Role of China in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Beyond Economic Interests?” EUROMESCO Joint-Policy Study, European Institute of the Mediterranean, July 20, 2020.
[ix] Ibid Freymann.
[x] Jared Malsin, “Saudis Begin Making Ballistic Missiles With Chinese Help,” Wall Street Journal, Accessed April 13, 2022.
[xi] Entrepreneur Middle East Staff, “US-Based Property Technology Company Propy Enters Into A Joint Partnership With Saood Al Ghurair To Create Propy MENA,” Entrepreneur, Accessed April 13, 2022.
[xiii] Ashley Rhoades and Dalia Dassa Kaye, “China Does Not Have to Be America’s Enemy in the Middle East.” War on the Rocks, April 19, 2021.
[xiv] Ibid Sun.
[xv] Laura Zhou, “China to Host Iranian Foreign Minister amid US Pressure over Nuclear Talks,” South China Morning Post, January 10, 2022.
[xvi] Will Green and Taylore Roth, “China-Iran Relations: A Limited but Enduring Strategic Partnership,” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, June 28, 2021.
[xvii] Ibid Sun.
[xviii] Ibid Green and Roth.
[xix] Jonathan Spyer, “Beijing’s Belt and Road Buys Influence in the Middle East,” Middle East Forum, Accessed April 13, 2022.
[xx] Thomas Blaubach, “Chinese Technology in the Middle East: A Threat to Sovereignty or an Economic Opportunity?” Middle East Institute, Accessed March 2, 2022.