04.03.2021 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

How China is Outsmarting the US in the Middle East


Competition between China and the US for domination and influence in the Middle East is intensifying in the wake of Chinese resurgence and a US return to the politics of interventions and confrontations under the Joe Biden administration. The US Secretary of state Antony Blinken recently announced that the US is going to place “democracy” and “human rights” at the centre of its foreign policy. “Democracy” and “human rights” have, for decades, been used to legitimise US interventions and its politics of confrontation with its rival countries. US officials, following this discourse, are often seen referring to “human rights violations” in China and Russia. Blinken announced that

“President Biden is committed to a foreign policy that unites our democratic values with our diplomatic leadership, and one that is centred on the defense of democracy and the protection of human rights.”

A return to this form of politics is a strategic requirement, one that is rooted in a thinking that sees Trump’s “America First” policy as the reason for US decline and Chinese resurgence.

While China’s rise is not simply a result of US decline or Trump’s “America First”, there is no gainsaying that China’s rise is massively contributing to US decline. This is especially evident in Middle East, a region that has historically remained under the US domination.

At the heart of China’s Middle East policy is the idea of seeking common ground while reserving differences. China’s quest for a common ground is centred on a strategic turn to a form of engagement that does not eschew a role in conflict management and resolution. This turn is based upon a growing thinking that the Middle East cannot return to stability without a multinational political, economic and security structure of which China should also be a part.

China’s growing interest in conflict management through multinational structures is premised on the fact that the US, despite its long history of relations with the Middle East, has failed to resolve its core issues. On the other hand, the US has directly intensified these conflicts. This is evident from the rising confrontation between the US and Iran and Israel and Iran. Were the US to contribute to peace in the Middle East, it would have realised this goal through a strict adherence to JCPOA. As it stands, the US has done quite the contrary.

While Western analysts continue to point to the “complex” Middle East landscape that defies all prospects of a common political, economic and security infrastructure, it also remains that China has made some crucial gains in recent years in developing direct ties with some of the US’ oldest allies. This, for instance, is evident from China’s deep engagement in the UAE and its growing role in building its ports.

Even during the pandemic, China’s footprint in the Middle East has continued to grow, and that too at the expense of US. The UAE, with China’s help, opened the largest COVID-19 testing facility outside of Beijing in Abu Dhabi. The UAE, shortly followed by Bahrain and Morocco, were the first countries to approve a Chinese vaccine made by a state-owned company Sinopharm. It is also important to note that all of these countries are very close to the US and are part of the Abraham Accords — an August 2020 declaration for maintaining peace in the Middle East — along with Israel and the US.

And, whereas the US has been able to block the use of China’s 5G technology in the US and somewhat in Europe, China has already made some very crucial strides in stretching its digital silk roads to the Middle East. One crucial reason for Chinese success in the Middle East is the way it has been able to leverage its oil dependence on the Middle East to its advantage for expanding its access to the Middle East’s US$162 billion market for information and communication technology products. The Chinese, in simple words, have been successful in turning their dependence into mutual dependence by leveraging oil for 5G.

In January, Saudi Arabia, one of the largest suppliers of oil to China, announced it would open the largest Huawei store outside China in Riyadh, a few months after a deal with the company on developing artificial intelligence to support public and private sector growth. In the summer of 2020, a Saudi investment firm Batic secured a deal with Huawei to work on “smart city” projects in the kingdom, where it is already a main partner in the Yanbu Smart Industrial City project on the Red Sea. These developments have directly helped China off-set US led blockades elsewhere. “By gaining the trust of our partners in the Middle East, we have been able to mitigate external political pressures like those pursued by the US,” said Charles Yang, Huawei’s Middle East chief, in a recent interview.

China’s strategy of finding common grounds has allowed it to build a geography of trade that is mutually beneficial. UN figures show its 2019 trade with Saudi Arabia reached about US$36.4 billion, while with the UAE it exceeded US$50 billion. “Digital infrastructure has become a key pillar of (Gulf states’) national transformation strategies,” Yang said further.

China’s increasing economic, political and digital footprint in the Middle East is a big reason to worry for many policy makers in the US, especially the Pentagon. Some former Pentagon officials have argued that:

“It remains an imperative for the United States to counter China in the Middle East…. We must continue to work to transform and pursue innovative solutions to ensure we do not cede critical strategic relationships…. If the Biden administration continues to dismiss the threat that China poses, it will do so at the cost of America’s global leadership.

Antony Blinken’s above quoted statement in this behalf shows that the Biden administration has already decided to return to a form of politics that primarily seeks to preserve US global domination and pushback against China in the Middle East and elsewhere too i.e., Europe and Africa. Whether the US can really do this is far from certain. Indeed it is unlikely given that China is developing fast enough to become the world’s largest economy within a decade or so. It presents the US with a fait accompli that it can hardly reverse.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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