China at the Crossroads

A version of this article appeared in the Australian Newspaper, in December, 2021.

Will the US-China Cold War reach the Middle East?

The rise of China as a peer competitor to the United States is the most significant geo-political process of our time. The effort currently under way by the United States with its allies to prevent the advance of Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific region is in turn the most fateful strategic project currently 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 toward  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.

The Chinese Are Coming

China  is emerging as an increasingly significant source of power and influence in the Middle East itself.  There are no vacuums in global strategy. Where one power departs, another will seek to move in.

The Mid-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.  China is consequently investing heavily in ports and infrastructure in the region. Of 95 current 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 (SIPG), inaugurated in September, 2021. 

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 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.  It is the UAE’s second biggest – Abu Dhabi and Beijing in 2019 signed $3.4 billion worth of deals directly related to the Belt and Road Initiative.

Rising Chinese involvement in the Middle East is impacting the region. But this is not currently resulting in a ‘Cold War’ type situation analogous to that developing in the Indo-Pacific. There is at present no Mid-Eastern equivalent of ‘AUKUS,’ the new naval alliance intended to face Chinese ambitions in the Indo-Pacific. Nor, exactly, does the Mid-East have an equivalent of the ‘Quad,’ the emergent gathering of loosely west aligned states again organized to provide unity against Chinese ambitions. 

Such alliances are absent in the Mid-Eastern context because  pro-western powers in the region do not (yet) share the zero-sum, Cold War view of Chinese ambitions now prevailing in Washington, Canberra, Tokyo, Seoul, and New Delhi. 

Key west-aligned Mid-East powers, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, 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 USA, while at the same time benefitting from the substantial advantages of a flourishing trade relationship with China. 

US Concerns, and concerns about the US

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 may also 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 Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

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 Mid-East 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 US interest in direct involvement in the Mid-East. 

On a number of key occasions over the last decade, the US has notably 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 al Abedine Bin 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, President 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, 2021, 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 neighborhood. 

China-Iran alliance?

This desire to ‘hedge’ on the part of US allies in the Mid-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 deeply questionable, however, as to whether the Middle East will continue to remain outside of the emergent reality of 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 Mid-East is unlikely to remain immune to this reality.

There are signs, indeed, that this may already be happening. An emergent alliance between Beijing and Teheran would be perhaps the only element that might change the current pattern of ‘hedging’ by regional powers. 

China and Iran on March 27, 2021 signed a 25 year strategic agreement, intended to lead to $400 billion of Chinese investment in the Iranian economy.  Beijing, by continuing oil purchases from Iran during the period of US ‘maximum pressure’ on Teheran, arguably made the major contribution to Iran’s ability to ride this period through.  In 2019, at the height of ‘maximum pressure,’ China was directly purchasing half of all Iranian oil exports.  This provided an ‘insurance policy’ for Teheran.  In September this year, Iran was accepted as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. 

Iran clearly sees China as the strategic partner it wants.  Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, addressing the SCO, said that ‘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 favors and fosters chaos in a variety of Arab countries, in order 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 cooperation between Iran and China.  In a recent article published at the INSS think tank in Tel Aviv, Brigadier General (Res.) Assaf Orion noted that ‘The strategic agreement between China and Iran, to the extent that the draft reflects the final version, outlines a zone of agreement on cooperation in intelligence, cyberwarfare, precision navigation systems, weapons research and development, and military training and instruction.’ Orion 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, will more than all others 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’ that the US desires. In the Middle East, as elsewhere in the world, the ball is currently in Beijing’s court. 

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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