China in the Middle East

China in the Middle East
Remarks to a Panel of the Middle East Policy Council

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr., (USFS, Ret.)
Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
By video link to Washington, D.C., 21 January 2022

The gods of war in Washington have decreed that the international situation is now being shaped by two transcendent forces: great power rivalry (especially between our country and China) and authoritarian efforts to dismantle democracy.  But trends in the Middle East clearly contradict both this worldview and the U.S. policies that flow from it.  To those in the region, the U.S. seems to be combating the China of its nightmares, not the China they observe.

Let me begin by spending a couple of minutes reviewing trends and events in West Asia and North Africa over the past year or so.  As I run through these, ask yourself what impact, if any, contention between China and the United States had on them.

In my view, these are the most notable recent developments in the region.

  • The constraints on Iran’s nuclear program, imposed by the nuclear deal[1] that the U.S. first hammered out with Iran and then unilaterally abrogated, have largely withered away.
  • The UAE has become a major politico-military actor and astute practitioner of Realpolitik, as evidenced in its rapprochements with Iran, Israel, and Turkey.
  • Saudi Arabia is undergoing an astonishing cultural opening and liberalization even as its de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, remains persona non grata in most of the West.
  • Qatar and the other GCC states are reconciling.
  • Saudi Arabia is seeking an honorable exit from its military misadventures in Yemen and failing to find one.
  • The humanitarian disasters and political impasses in Yemen are worsening, while the suffering in Gaza, Libya, and Syria remains intense but selectively ignored by the West.
  • Invasive Turkish and U.S. troop presences in Syria persist amidst an appalling lack of international attention to Syria’s need for reconstruction.
  • The Arab League is reincorporating Syria, and GCC members are gradually normalizing relations with the Asad government.
  • Turkey has distanced itself from Europe and the United States and seeks to assert both Middle Eastern and pan-Turkic identities.
  • Indigenous defense production capabilities are beginning to take root in Saudi Arabia.
  • The US-brokered “Abraham Accords” have so far survived, despite the failure of the U.S. to make good on its promised military gifts to the UAE, Israel’s resumption of aggressive ethnic cleansing and settlement activity in the Occupied Territories, and the growing divergence of Emirati views of Iran from those of Israel.
  • Jordan’s monarchy has once again surmounted severe internal and external pressures and Oman has made a successful transition to rule by a new sultan.
  • Efforts by the countries of the region to diversify their politico-military relationships have accelerated in the wake of America’s bungled wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and its passivity in the face of Iranian challenges to Arab states’ security.

None of these developments was driven either by China or Sino-American contention.

The reality is that Arab states are both responding to the opportunities engagement with China affords them and reacting to the perceived unreliability of American protection and the fecklessness of U.S. Iran policies by hedging their bets.  Israel has its own interests and is resisting American efforts to ban projects with Chinese companies.  Iranian decisions are largely reactions to the U.S. policy of “maximum pressure,” an approach with a well-established historical record of both futility and catastrophic failure and no record of success.

U.S. dollar-based sanctions have compelled Iran’s decoupling from the West and driven it toward Central, South, and East Asia.  Faute de mieux, Iran is betting that, with European and U.S. companies out of reach, it can leverage China’s rising prosperity to its own.  It is simultaneously pursuing ties to the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union, which is itself increasingly integrated into China’s “Belt and Road” (BRI) initiative.

The developments I just listed are the consequences of the end of Euro-American hegemony in West Asia, longstanding rivalries between the region’s various polities (large and small), and disparate internal political evolutions.  “Great power rivalry” is not the major dynamic reshaping the region.  Meanwhile, claims that “America is back” are belied by its visible retrenchment.

And, if democracy is not faring well in the Middle East, this reflects local factors exacerbated by the tarnishing of America as a model rather than predatory authoritarianism.  For instance:

  • Egypt’s military dictatorship is more absolutist than ever.
  • Tunisia has lost its democracy to its government’s perceived mismanagement of COVID.
  • The Lebanese state, economy, and democracy are at death’s door, with life support only from Iran and Syria, itself enfeebled.
  • Sudan is subject to on-again, off-again military rule.
  • The’ democratic freedoms of Israeli Jews are contracting, and the Zionist state’s heartless mistreatment of its conquered Arab populations is ever more unapologetic.
  • In Turkey, Erdoğan has overthrown Kemalism and is busy eroding democracy.
  • Iraqis have tired of being martyred while they wait for democratic governance.
  • The Islamic Republic of Iran’s ’s electoral processes have lost credibility with its citizens.

These are, without exception, locally generated developments.  As in the United States, the authoritarian trend is home-grown, not imported.  It does not involve China.  After ousting governments in Iraq and Libya failed to democratize them, America too – for now, at least – does not seek to impose its values and system of government on the states of the region.

In short, in the Middle East, the Washington narrative that Chinese rivalry with the United States or predatory Chinese authoritarianism account for the way the new world disorder is evolving does not compute.  On inspection, China’s increasing presence in the Middle East seems driven more by local demand than by a diplomatic or ideological push from Beijing.  This raises a question.  If Beijing is not pursuing a zero-sum anti-American game in West Asia and North Africa or striving to undermine democracy there, what is it doing?

The answer is that China is behaving very much as America did in the first half of the 20th century.  Back then, Britain dominated the Middle East.  Americans thought that what was good for American oil companies was good for the U.S.A., that we should focus on the energy trade and avoid taking sides in foreign disputes, and that the region’s political cultures were something we should study and learn to live with rather than denounce or subvert.

American influence gradually displaced British hegemony. Still, for decades Washington carefully avoided any implication that it sought to supplant London as the guarantor of regional stability.  But, when London pulled out, it had little choice but to do so.  Now Beijing is following a similar path: seeking to promote the exchange of goods and services for energy supplies without levying any political or cultural demands and keeping as aloof as it can from entanglement in local disputes.

Of course, China is now so big economically that it cannot help but be a growing factor in the regional worldview.  Between 2000 and 2020, China’s GDP quintupled in size.  Its industrial economy is now twice as large as America’s, though its services economy remains much smaller.  China has become the world’s largest consumer market and its biggest importer of hydrocarbons.  It is an emerging technological superpower in an increasing number of fields.

One-third of China’s energy imports are from the GCC, with the largest portion from Saudi Arabia.  Chinese companies buy one-sixth of GCC oil exports, one-fifth of Iran’s, and half of Iraq’s.  China has become the region’s largest foreign investor and trading partner.  The states of the region want more, not less Chinese engagement.  As China takes a lead in global technological innovation, it has become a significant collaborator and customer for Israel’s high-tech companies and a partner in Saudi Arabia’s efforts to develop a domestic armaments industry.  Seventeen Arab states have joined the Belt and Road Initiative.  Last week, the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain as well as the Secretary General of the GCC were in Beijing to discuss the expansion of their relations with China.  They were followed by the foreign ministers of Iran and Turkey.

Meanwhile, Americans seem determined to evade further politico-military involvement in West Asia.   But, as we do this, we create both a vacuum and a real possibility that, just as the United States reluctantly succeeded Britain as the dominant power in the Middle East in the last century, China will end up eclipsing America in this century.  China’s interests echo those that first drew America into engagement with the Middle East:

  • China has a compelling interest in securing reliable access to the uniquely rich energy resources of the Persian Gulf.
  • It sees the region as a crucial entrepôt and crossroads for trade and travel between Asia, Europe, and East Africa, making its stability a matter of strategic interest.
  • There is rapidly growing demand for Chinese companies’ engineering services, construction capabilities, automotive and telecommunications equipment, armaments, and consumer products.
  • China’s citizens and entrepreneurs are establishing an ever-larger presence in the region. (There are now more than 200,000 Chinese resident in the UAE alone.)

Like America a century ago, China has no apparent imperial or ideological agenda in the Middle East.  Unlike today’s United States, China\ does not ask countries in the region to change their political systems and values, punish them for failing to do so, or demand exclusive relationships with them.  It has yet to profess opposition to continuing American involvement in the region.  Instead, it has suggested the formation of a multilateral dialogue on security issues and, when the time is ripe, a regionally managed “collective security mechanism for the Gulf.”  In short, China proposes to help bridge Iranian and Gulf Arab views rather than impose its own or take sides.

But the logic of China’s interests in the new world disorder suggests future evolution in Chinese policies:

  • With the U.S. Navy preparing for war over Taiwan and no longer protecting global interests in the Persian Gulf, the Chinese navy will sooner or later have to assume responsibility for securing China’s access to the region and its resources.
  • Chinese civilians in the Middle East will expect and demand protection from natural or human disasters (including terrorist attacks) and, if necessary, emergency evacuation and repatriation.
  • Supporting Chinese interests in a region so distant from China will generate requirements for Chinese naval access to local ports and facilities. This means more installations like the logistics base in Djibouti that supports China’s anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Oman and its UN peacekeeping operations in East Africa.
  • China will find it increasingly difficult to avoid the inference by its customers that its arms sales imply defense commitments.
  • Aggressive U.S. opposition to Chinese involvement in infrastructure and other projects in the region will stimulate Chinese efforts to undercut or dislodge U.S. influence in the region.
  • Sino-Indian naval contention has already begun to focus both countries on being able to impede each other’s oil and gas trade with the Gulf.

Unlike the United States, China has cordial contact with all parties to the numerous disputes in the region.  The former head of Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, recently suggested that China was the only country that could conciliate Iran and other countries in the Middle East.  He may be right.  For better or ill, China is likely to become an increasing force in efforts to manage peace and security in the Persian Gulf.

The question is whether China will choose to accept an active role in stabilizing the region.  “Great power rivalry” or a putative Manichean struggle between China and democracy will not drive this decision.  On the evidence to date, it will instead reflect the broadly overlapping national interests of China, Europe, India, Japan, and Korea, the fractious states of West Asia and North Africa, and the United States.  All share a compelling interest in a stable Middle East whose quarrels do not export radicalism or endanger access to crucial energy supplies.

It would be in America’s interest for China and other countries that rely on Middle Eastern energy exports to share the burden of preserving global prosperity by coming together to safeguard the world’s energy trade.  If China faces a choice in this regard, so does America.  The United States can cooperate to mutual advantage with China, other rising powers, and the oil producing countries of the region, or it can overwrite obvious interests it shares with China and others with irrational antagonism and pursue a pointless game that no one can hope to win.

[1] The July 14, 2014 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, endorsed by the UN Security Council on July 20, 2014 in UNSCR  Resolution 2231.