Look more closely at China’s aggressive engagement in the Middle East
International relations are changing on a global scale, with the Middle East serving as a particularly glaring example. Long pursuing a conventional strategy of economic engagement in the area, China has reaped significant rewards. China has increased its trade and investments exponentially in Middle Eastern nations over the past 20 years, outpacing its longtime development partner, the United States.
China strategically exploited the US security presence in the area while maintaining a neutral economic stance, avoiding direct involvement in regional conflicts, and refraining from meddling in domestic affairs.
In the days following the US Secretary of State’s visit to Riyadh in June, Saudi Arabia hosted a business conference between China and the Arab world.
A flurry of business deals was signed at the conference, with 30 agreements totaling more than $10 billion. In contrast, the US and Saudi Arabia or any other member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have not been involved in any reported economic agreements or discussions. The Chinese conference’s timing was crucial in its attempt to make a big statement to the US.
In recent years, China has become the US’s closest rival, but the two countries have different strategies. While the US has been reactive in its policies, China has adopted a proactive approach. Washington’s involvement in the Middle East has decreased as it concentrates on the Indo-Pacific region. The US has made significant investments in developing and bolstering military capabilities in East European nations, including Ukraine, to counter China’s ally Russia.
China has focused its efforts on the Middle East, a crucial area connecting Asia, Europe, and the US, after significantly strengthening its military position and offering moral support to Russia. China has established strategic ties with the Middle Eastern nations, which span diplomacy, the military and strategic sphere, technology, energy, and health. These ties already exist on an economic basis. China has carefully exploited the lack of a significant challenge from the former regional power, the US, which previously had the final say in Middle Eastern affairs.
The Middle Eastern players have shown a noticeable shift in attitude.
They are working to defuse protracted conflicts among themselves through diplomacy and negotiations as they continue to strengthen their defenses. They have come to the realization that maintaining an “always-attack-ready” state is detrimental to both national development and the economy. The improved relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, efforts to make peace with Syria, and some developments in the Yemeni civil war are examples of this change. Although they have benefited dramatically from US economic cooperation and security protection, they now want to make their own decisions.
China has closely followed US policy in the Middle East, especially in Gulf states, and has noted a serious lack of trust between these nations and the US. Countries in the Middle East have expressed skepticism about American ability to resolve their problems. Iran’s nuclear program has also raised doubts, which have hung over the area. Due to increased domestic production, the US has also decreased its imports of Gulf crude. China, which is the world’s largest crude oil importer, seeks to secure its supply from the Middle East.
Due to the US presence declining and the US turning its attention to other regions, China has discovered a gap in the Middle East. It has begun working concurrently on several strategic domains. The People’s Liberation Army Support Base is being run by China at the port of Doraleh in Djibouti, which is strategically placed close to the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which divides the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden. To support its “One Belt, One Road” initiative and offer an alternative route for importing crude oil from the Middle East, China has also built a port facility at Duqm in Oman.
With the major Middle Eastern nations, China has strengthened its defense ties.
Dealing with China for the purchase of defense products offers a clear benefit. Scheduling the supply becomes the main concern once contracts are signed with government-owned defense equipment manufacturing firms in China. Contrarily, buying from the US has several drawbacks, such as restricted access to the most recent models of products and the need for Congressional approval, which can result in protracted delays. China is frequently chosen over the US and EU due to its quicker adaptability in the rapidly changing world of defense technology.
Due to the uncertain future of their hydrocarbon resources, Middle Eastern nations are refocusing their efforts on developing technology-based economies. They do, however, insist that the US cannot fulfill their expectation of technology transfer as the foundation for this shift. Because China is currently outpacing the US in high-tech manufacturing, particularly in industries like artificial intelligence, semiconductors, renewable energy, biotechnology, telecommunications, and quantum information science, they see China as their ideal partner.
China has been working with Middle Eastern nations in these fields, furthering its relationship with the oil-rich countries in the area. With joint development projects in cloud computing, cybersecurity, and 5G technology, Huawei has been instrumental in this effort. The majority of GCC members have agreements with Huawei for 5G technology already. Due to China’s significant investment in upcoming technological companies, bilateral relations between the two countries have also improved. China has contributed significantly to solar energy projects in Iraq.
China and the Middle Eastern nations have primarily worked together on health-related projects since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Before the US and other countries made their vaccines available, China gave these nations its Sinovac vaccine. As a result, China has emerged as a significant trade and investment partner in the region’s healthcare industry, aiming to upgrade healthcare facilities and produce pharmaceuticals for potential export and long-term economic gains.
The Saudi-Iran agreement represents a significant shift in the Middle East, where nations act more independently and seek to put an end to a costly and toxic conflict. This deal’s brokering was greatly assisted by China, which has since expanded its role to include the Palestine-Israel peace talks. During Mahmoud Abbas’s visit to Beijing, China, and Palestine established a “Strategic Partnership”. As a sign of its expanding trade and economic ties with Israel, China has also extended an invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for additional discussion on this issue. To handle diplomatic negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian dignitaries, China has appointed a Special Envoy.
China’s crucial role in the political economy of the Middle East is vital to its interests, and the oil-rich Middle Eastern nations, who are heavily dependent on crude oil exports, demand China’s acceptance. As the largest importer of crude oil in the world, China now has a lot more clout in the region than the US. The same holds for areas such as technology transfer, health care, and energy.
However, there are three significant areas where China’s relationship with Middle Eastern nations is still unclear. The first is whether China can be a reliable strategic partner, ready to send troops into combat or join international military operations against threats like ISIS. Due to unproven aspects of China’s strategic commitments, Middle Eastern nations have maintained their relations with the US despite engaging with China.
Second, China’s success in mediating the Saudi-Iran agreement and its participation in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks present serious diplomatic difficulties. Chinese diplomacy will be put to the test by the ultra-right Israeli government’s stance and the complexity of the various Palestinian factions. Last but not least, there are questions about Iran’s dedication to the Saudi-Iran agreement and China’s capacity to effectively mediate if Iran meddles in the political unrest of other Middle Eastern nations.
Unavoidably, China is expanding its presence in the Middle East, and the Chinese leadership is aware of the dangers. China’s capacity to keep a firm foothold in the region will depend on its ability to navigate the region’s complexities and exert influence over the now-aggressive Middle Eastern powers.