A woman holds a placard to support China in front of the Tel Aviv Municipality Hall lit up with the colours of China’s national flag in solidarity with China's fight against Covid-19, in Israel, on February 11, 2020. Photo: Xinhua
by Gedaliah Afterman and Tomer Raanan
by Gedaliah Afterman and Tomer Raanan

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.

Propelled by its ballooning demand for energy, China sensed an opportunity in the Middle East and began showing its appetite for what it initially saw as a remote, complicated region under the US sphere of influence. After the Arab spring and against the backdrop of a shrinking US presence and anger at US mishaps, China moved swiftly to stake its claim.

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.

As the largest investor in the region, China completed its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017, extending its reach to the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial maritime crossing.
Beijing is also heavily involved in infrastructure projects with vital US allies including Israel. Chinese investment in Israeli technology and growing involvement in Israeli infrastructure projects, including the Haifa and Ashdod ports, have raised US concerns.
China, pushed by Trump’s trade war to diversify its access to technology, has identified Israel as a key partner. Alarm over China’s ascent and its attempts to harness Israeli technology is one of few bipartisan issues the US Congress can agree on. The latest National Defence Authorisation Act contains language specifically addressing concerns over US-Israeli technology falling into Chinese (and Russian) hands.
Beijing has shaped its engagement in the region by balancing its relationships with feuding nations such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. Its doctrine of non-interference is endearing to leaders in a region rife with controversy.

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.

While avoiding getting drawn into regional conflicts, China sees Iran as insurance for its resource demand. Negotiations over a 25-year strategic agreement, while having some significance for Beijing, seem to be mainly pushed by Tehran. It remains unclear to what extent it will materialise.

Will China lead a Middle East alliance as US-Iran tensions escalate?

China, for its part, appears to be gradually shifting away from Iran and closer to the wealthier and more promising Gulf.

Most recently, China has used Covid-19 to solidify its economic and strategic influence in the region with its “ mask diplomacy” and subsequent “ vaccine diplomacy”. Leaders and media in the region have lauded its pandemic response.
The United Arab Emirates was the first to approve a Chinese vaccine last September, and Turkey began administering another Chinese vaccine in mid-January. Both Egyptian and Saudi officials have praised China as their primary model for dealing with the virus.


Erdogan gets jab as Turkey rolls out coronavirus vaccine campaign with China’s Sinovac

Erdogan gets jab as Turkey rolls out coronavirus vaccine campaign with China’s Sinovac
China’s lukewarm reception of the Abraham Accords between Israel and a growing number of Middle Eastern countries is consistent with its ambivalent approach. Adopting its traditional stance, China expressed hope that the accords would serve as a stepping stone towards solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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.

President Joe Biden might seek to reverse the perception of a US decline in the region even further. The new administration could signal a return to the two-state solution and, perhaps, to the Iran nuclear deal.

Global slapdown of US’ Iran move was a long time coming

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.

The Middle East is turning towards China. It is gaining ground on the technological front through 5G contracts, drone sales and surveillance technologies, issues at the very heart of the superpower competition. But China cannot – and appears to have no desire to – usurp US dominance in the region, at least for now. China knows there are many benefits to the US military presence in the Middle East.

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