How China’s rise in the Middle East can inform US policy under Biden
- China has courted the Middle East with offers of investment and technology, issues at the very heart of the superpower competition with the US
- However, Beijing is wary of the region’s instability, and remains sensitive to American power and influence, which Biden might seek to reassert
China is cementing its position in the US sandpit. As the Biden administration re-evaluates US foreign policy, and its China policy in particular, one region that demands a closer look is the Middle East. Traditionally a US domain, the region is undergoing an unprecedented transition and could become the next front in the superpower competition.
China’s approach to the Middle East has changed dramatically over the past decade. Nearly half of China’s oil and natural gas now comes from the Middle East, and increasingly, Chinese goods, services and technology are finding their way into homes, hearts and minds in the region.
Isolated countries such as Iran have welcomed this engagement, hoping to increase cooperation. China sees Iran as a useful ground for action in traditionally US territory. It understands, however, that Iran needs it much more than it needs Iran.
China, for its part, appears to be gradually shifting away from Iran and closer to the wealthier and more promising Gulf.
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However, the agreements shift the status quo in ways Beijing does not like and is still carefully assessing. Israel’s normalisation of relations with prominent Arab nations could bring more stability and, with it, more opportunities. China thinks the accords served president Donald Trump’s domestic aspirations more than any regional ones, and is concerned about a resurgence of US influence in the region.
China is likely to wait and see; such policies could ultimately work in its favour. A return to the Iran nuclear deal, in particular, will reverse Iran’s isolation and reinstate China as a leading mediator in the UN Security Council’s P5+1 (the five permanent members of China, France, Russia, Britain and the US, plus Germany) power setting.
Feeling increasingly shunned by the West, China will focus on more welcoming places but remain pragmatic; it is wary of the Middle East’s pitfalls and instability, and is not looking to assume a leading political role. Despite its rhetoric, Beijing remains sensitive to American power and influence in the region.
As Biden’s administration assesses its positions on China and the Middle East, it should look carefully at these developments and the challenges and opportunities ahead.
Dr Gedaliah Afterman is head of the Asia Policy Programme at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (Israel)
Tomer Raanan is a research assistant at the Asia Policy Programme at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy