Is the Middle East becoming a flashpoint between the US and China?

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Earlier this month, eighteen months into his term in office, US President Joe Biden made his first visit to the Middle East — a region once central to his country’s foreign policy.

But even with these long-standing allies, the subject of China was not far off.

“We need to put ourselves in the best position possible to beat China,” Biden wrote before embarking on the journey.

There is a growing narrative within the US foreign policy community that often sees the Middle East as a potential focal point for global competition between the US and China as China’s footprint has become more visible.

From traditional areas of cooperation, such as oil and gas, to the new so-called “health silk road,” where China is using the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to provide healthcare to countries in need, the world’s second-largest economy has expanded its economic portfolio with the region and made it clear that it is here to stay.

This lays the groundwork for more intense competition between China and the US, which see the Middle East firmly under its global security umbrella.

“As China’s footprint has grown, there has been a romanticized orientalism toward China and this [conception of] China as a potential alternative to the US, as a rich power to tackle the problems in the region in a substantive way,” said Mohammed Turki al-Sudairi, head of the Asian Studies Department at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in China. Saudi Arabia.

Yuan to replace the dollar?

Some argue that this could bring the Middle East closer to China as the US gradually shifts its foreign policy focus away from the region and its focus on energy away from oil.

In March, it was reported that Saudi Arabia is considering accepting the Chinese renminbi (yuan) in place of US dollars for Chinese oil sales – a significant departure from the current dollar-based international oil trading system.

Saudi Arabia is China’s largest exporter of crude oil: In 2021, for example, China imported 87.58 million tons of crude oil from the kingdom, topping the list of China’s crude oil import partners, according to China’s General Administration of Customs.

Both Saudi Arabia and China see benefits from such an arrangement, according to analysts.

For China, yuan trading would essentially protect the country from currency fluctuations and potential sanctions. On Saudi Arabia’s side, China is an important trading partner, and such a move could “show its understanding of China’s concerns,” said Dawn Murphy, an associate professor of national security strategy at the US National War College, who examines China’s relations. with the Global South, including the Middle East.

However, many analysts believe that competition between these two superpowers in the region will not necessarily be within the energy sector, despite the Middle East’s automatic association with oil and gas in recent decades.

China’s growing authoritarianism, in stark contrast to what Biden has described as “American values,” has sparked another round of more intense ideological competition between the US and China in the Middle East.

By treating its Uyghur Muslim population and cracking down on dissidents in Hong Kong, China is promoting “support in the era of emerging multipolarity” as it becomes more likely to be able to compete on an equal footing with the US, Murphy said.

“China ensures internal security by ensuring that there is no support for activities in Xinjiang from other countries, including Saudi Arabia,” she said.

Mutual Benefits

However, the crux of the zero-sum competition between the US and China could end there: The idea that the US would lose its dominant role in the region to China could be exaggerated and the presence of China and the US in the region could easily could be beneficial to both parties, according to analysts.

“The idea that the ‘US is at risk of losing the Middle East to China’ is too simple,” said Guy Burton, adjunct professor at the Brussels School of Governance, who has expanded relations between China and the Middle East. studied.

“China was already there [in the Middle East] and its economic footprint has expanded beyond the energy sector and moved towards digital, healthcare and real estate,” said Burton. “But that doesn’t mean they… [Middle Eastern nations] leaving the US: they have good relations with the Chinese, but they do not expect the Chinese to replace the Americans.”

As Biden’s attempts to form a security alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia to fight Iran show, the US is still much more heavily invested in the security aspect of the region than China is, and that won’t change anytime soon, experts said.

“China’s footprint in the Middle East is economic, not security,” Murphy said. “It’s not going to be that way to provide that kind of engagement.”

China has historically benefited significantly from the US security presence: from Iraq to Kuwait, the premise of China’s increasing investment rests on that country’s security and stability. In that sense, American and Chinese interests converge in certain areas, says Burton.

Meanwhile, China has long praised its ability to develop strong relations with several countries that are themselves sometimes adversaries, most notably Saudi Arabia and Iran – two of China’s biggest partners in the region.

So far, China has been very successful in sticking to its balanced foreign policy and maintaining positive relations with countries in the region.

Beijing has signed agreements with Israel and Saudi Arabia while embarking on a 25-year cooperation program with Iran, and is well positioned not to get involved politically in a region embroiled in conflict.

But as the US and China both become more determined to engage in competition, it’s unclear how long China can continue to implement its purely economics-based foreign policy in the region.

China’s previous success in maintaining a relatively neutral position has gained support. Saudi Arabia appreciates that China is not interfering with the human rights situation in Riyadh, and Iran is not treated as an international pariah and has some respite from sanctions.

Still, some analysts have expressed doubts about the likelihood that China will strictly enforce that policy.

“Economically, the more you invest, the more tied to the region and the more locked in, and eventually you’ll be sucked in politically,” explains Burton. “At the same time, you have Americans trying to push this new ‘Cold War story’ by forcing their allies to make decisions now.”

The world is now entering a phase of greater uncertainty, and for many countries in the region it is impractical to choose between some of the biggest players.

“In a region that is in transition, people don’t think in binary terms, namely the US or China,” al-Sudairi said. “They need both.”



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