West Asia’s geostrategic shift can be witnessed as the Middle Eastern countries increasingly develop closer ties with China
Within days of a visit from the Gulf, foreign ministers of Iran and Turkey also arrived in Beijing, representing the two ‘alternate’ power constructs in the Middle East, other than the GCC.This ongoing diplomacy is happening parallel to the fact that China reportedly has over 3 million Uyghur Muslims in its restive Xinjiang province held in internment camps. Beijing’s systemic dismantling of the Uyghur minority has met mostly with a staunch silence from the Islamic world, highlighting the fact that is often missed in commentaries, that most Islamic states ultimately act on strategic interests, and theology, ideology, and culture are only one part of the tooling behind such designs. For the longest time, power structures and geopolitics in the Middle East have been seen from a singular point of infraction when it comes to external influence in the region, and that is oil. While this remains a critical component of the region’s strategic design, the overall blueprint, however, is rapidly changing. The Middle East, when it comes to China, could be seen from two main viewpoints. First, as mentioned earlier, the simple fact that China is the second largest economy. Second is that it offers some things that traditional allies such as the US don’t, i.e., money without caveats—such as human rights, democracy, freedom of press, etc. Ultimately, the region is host to largely autocratic and monarchic ‘middle powers’ that are open to be swayed depending on their own strategic bends, which are becoming more and more dynamic in nature due to a very contested view that places the US as a ‘declining power’. The ideation of absolute support and influence of the West, particularly the US in this region has eroded over the past few years, and this has been a two-way situation. The US part of this, is not debated enough, and comes from the fact that during this period the US itself has become a net-exporter of energy. Its reliance on Middle East for oil has reduced. As the Gulf states toured Beijing, the US in fact had become the single biggest exporter of LNG, outpacing Qatar. The impact of this development is not limited to supplies, but perhaps more importantly, international pricing of these critical commodities. In 2020, the US became India’s fourth largest supplier of oil, just behind Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
The region is host to largely autocratic and monarchic ‘middle powers’ that are open to be swayed depending on their own strategic bends, which are becoming more and more dynamic in nature due to a very contested view that places the US as a ‘declining power’.Even in China, echoes of a ‘changing Middle East’ are increasingly finding ground. Yuan Peng, President of China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), a thinktank close to Beijing’s security establishment, recently said that a fundamental withdrawal of US military from this region—and by extension, US influence and power—has brought forward a “rare moment of calm”. Peng further highlights that the return of Iran to the negotiating table regarding the 2015 nuclear deal adds towards the trend of friction points being resolved. In 2020, Beijing and Tehran agreed upon a comprehensive strategic agreement that involved components of both security and economy, based on China’s intent to invest over US $400 billion into Iran’s under-tapped energy reserves. The Iranian Foreign Minister’s visit this month was with an intent to kickstart this partnership , however, much remains to be seen of how much of a commitment China will provide to Tehran realistically. Even Israel, US’s all-weather ally in the region is having to content with Beijing’s growing presence, and the pushback against the same coming from the US. For China, Israeli ecosystems of hi-tech, innovation, and defence technologies are a boon. Even though Israeli officials have privately driven home the point that the country would always remain within the US security architecture, how to balance Beijing’s increasing clout remains an open debate for a country reliant on export of cutting-edge technologies. Scholars Assaf Orion and Dana Shem-Ur recently highlighted that China has setup two recruitment arms in Israel to tap into the country’s talent pool. They, however, further highlight that while China approaches its hunt for top-tier human resource through official means, it also runs expansive “espionage programme(s) in manufacturing, technology, and cyber-related areas” to achieve the targets they are looking for.
The outcome of China’s presence in defence was later seen as the US and UAE negotiated for the latter to purchase a fleet of F-35 fighter jets, where Washington raised issues over providing this critical technology near Chinese presence in the UAE.The agenda set by the above example is not the only one. In fact, China’s attempts to further cooperation amongst the Gulf states in defence and strategic affairs continues at a healthy pace. This ranges from reports of Saudi Arabia allying with Beijing to construct their own ballistic missiles to tensions between the US and the UAE over Abu Dhabi allowing a secret Chinese military facility at one of its maritime ports. Previously, the UAE and Saudi Arabia alike purchased armed drones from China after finding it difficult to get this capacity from traditional suppliers in the West. The outcome of China’s presence in defence was later seen as the US and UAE negotiated for the latter to purchase a fleet of F-35 fighter jets, where Washington raised issues over providing this critical technology near Chinese presence in the UAE. Ultimately, Abu Dhabi came out as the winner, getting the aircrafts without having to puncture Chinese presence too much. And that is the point to drive home here. The dash to China by Middle East’s power centres, specifically the Gulf and Iran, is ultimately ‘middle powers’ of the region committing realpolitik manoeuvring under the larger US–China competition architecture to achieve their strategic goals. For example, the UAE’s military involvement in Libya finds it in cooperation with Russia, another power trying to fit in globally amidst a US–China narrative. Scholar Jalel Harchaoui says Abu Dhabi sees Moscow’s influence in the Arab world as “desirable”. Russia is active on-ground in Syria, but comes into the region with severe economic limitations, which is balanced by much more robust tactical balancing. Beijing, is where the economics are, and China not yet willing to militarily commit itself to the region (and this remains highly improbable in the future as well) makes it an ideal partner. China itself is deepening its economic and strategic impact on Russia, to what some are calling a new bid towards imperial ambitions, this time coming from the East.
The dash to China by Middle East’s power centres, specifically the Gulf and Iran, is ultimately ‘middle powers’ of the region committing realpolitik manoeuvring under the larger US–China competition architecture to achieve their strategic goals.Finally, China’s view of the Middle East currently comes via two main documents and policies. First, the 2016 white paper on its policy towards the Arab world, and second, the 2015 document that lays down Beijing’s vision for its expansive Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). However, much like India, all this will remain a balancing act for China. This raises key questions such as would Beijing be able to help Riyadh build missiles while simultaneously provide defence equipment to Tehran? And will Israel entertain China on the question of advance technologies as Beijing potentially shares operational intelligence with the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)? Despite regional thaws such as the Abraham Accords, Iran–Saudi talks, and UAE–Iran cooperation, the middle power ambitions will continue to pose challenge to a larger superpower struggle between the US and China. Wang Yi has said that there has never been a “power vacuum” in the Middle East, and that the region does not need any “foreign patriarch”. Under all these undertones, individual strategic aims within the region will indeed continue to thrive. China’s increase of influence in the Middle East is not a theory anymore, but is happening today in practice.
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Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...Read More +