Home / OPINION / Analysis / The Middle East between Washington and Beijing

The Middle East between Washington and Beijing

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Dr. Shehab Al-Makahleh

Nobel Prize winner Bertrand Russell, a British historian, philosopher and mathematician, proved himself a prescient pithily visionary when he penned “The Problem of China” by assessing the republic ahead of his time. “All the world will be vitally affected by the development of Chinese affairs, which may prove a decisive factor, for good or evil, during the next two centuries,” he projected.

A century ago, it was not palpable to many that China would develop and take the second largest economy in the world. Nowadays, China has truly become the second largest economic power after the United States, and American policymakers are grappling with this new geopolitical reality. It has become arguable that no foreign policy issue facing US policymakers is more important than managing the rise of China. It is apparent that the whole world will be momentously affected by the development of Chinese affairs in the forthcoming decades.

In this regard, the strategic significance of the Middle East region throughout history cannot be unheeded. The strategic location has made the region vulnerable to the ambitions of super powers. American policymakers frame the Chinese giant as a central challenge to American foreign policy and warn America’s allies about China’s intentions and actions.

China has presented its vision for the relationship with the Middle East countries by focusing on the so-called “1 + 2 + 3 strategy” where number 1 symbolizes energy cooperation, number 2 stands for building infrastructure and facilitating trade and investments and number 3 denotes the trio of new high technologies in the fields of nuclear energy, satellites and new sources of energy.

For its part, Russia found space for itself to revive the old role of the Soviet Union by playing a role in Syria, and China believes that the United States has entered a stage of decline, albeit a long-term one, and sees itself as the rising global power.

Strategists believe that China has a five-point plan “to achieve security and stability in the Middle East, by providing constructive impetus for the Palestinian-Israeli dialogue, sealing a nuclear agreement with Iran, and building a framework for security in the Middle East. Arab countries can choose to line up with the US as a dominant power, or China as an emerging and promising power, or to be pragmatic by being neutral in this political and economic world rivalry.  What is important to the region is that they should line up into one coalition with their priorities of national interests as first option.

It can be realized that some American decision-makers regard Chinese expansion in the Middle East region as more than just economic cooperation with regional powers; others view the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative as a quiet and gradual mode to boost Chinese influence abroad without creating a clash or tension with other international powers. China has been trying to augment cooperation with the countries of the Middle East as China signed documents related to the said initiative with 19 countries in the region. As a result, China has become the largest foreign investor in the Middle East by building infrastructure worth billions of dollars in many of these countries.

Even if Washington accepts the Chinese logic that depicts this expansion as economic cooperation that is beneficial to all, American business intelligence mindset reveals that economic supremacy is followed by military power, which means that China’s competition with the US in on the Middle East chessboard and the Chinese bid to dominate the whole scene would lead to friction between the two powers either in the region or in the Far East. The US can exercise pressure on these countries to limit their flash dash towards China, especially the states that are deemed US allies, such as the Gulf states.

For its part, Beijing is trying to involve Arab countries in China’s economic plans, and to grant them financial, political and infrastructure dispensations. China has established a comprehensive strategic partnership with both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. China has signed a comprehensive strategic agreement for a period of 25 years on economic and security cooperation with Tehran. The agreement includes expanding the scope of military assistance, training and intelligence information exchange.

The change in the American position towards the Middle East region can be elicited from the 2018 National Defense Strategy. James Mattis, the then defense secretary stated “competition between great powers, not terrorism, is now the main focus of America’s national security”. Mattis unveiled the strategy by saying that the US has been facing“growing threats from revisionist powers as different as China and Russia”. Russian ambitions in the Middle East are ultimately limited by the constraints of its financial resources and plans unlike the Chinese who have associated their plans in the Middle East long term economic and military objectives.

While most countries in the Middle East enjoy strong security and political relations with the United States, they share strong and growing economic relations with China. The rivalry between Beijing and Washington over interests in the Middle East gives room for maneuver that may benefit countries, mainly in telecommunications technology, military equipment, infrastructure projects such as seaports as well as technology transfer.

Contrary to the bipartisan consensus in Washington that perceives China as a threat, some Middle Eastern capitals are courting Beijing, and many American allies have seen rapid growth in their trade and diplomatic ties with China while continuing to be wary of rapprochement in military and security affairs.