Influence Without Entanglement in the Middle East

How China is outflanking the United States—and staying under the radar.

A close-up view of Dubai Knowledge Park’s Huawei building in Jumeirah, Dubai, on Feb. 22.
A close-up view of Dubai Knowledge Park’s Huawei building in Jumeirah, Dubai, on Feb. 22. Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images

For 12 years, the United States has been trying to disengage from the Middle East. Regional powers, including Iran, Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, have responded by seeking new allies and competing more fiercely with one another. But beyond the headlines, China has been the biggest winner in the post-U.S. Middle East. Beijing was already the largest buyer of the region’s oil. Now, without fanfare, it has become the only outside power that has strong political and trading ties with every major country there.

For Washington, this means the Middle East is reemerging as an arena of great-power competition. China’s growing influence in the Middle East does not yet directly threaten any vital U.S. interests. Yet China’s deepening alignment with Iran and friendly links to anti-American Shiite militia groups is concerning and poses long-term risks to U.S. forces, partnerships, and commercial access. The Biden administration should impose costs on China and Iran to keep their budding strategic partnership from growing unchecked. It should also recognize that most of its Middle Eastern allies and partners—including Israel and the Gulf states—are determined not to take sides in a U.S.-Chinese geopolitical rivalry.

China began searching for a new strategic concept for engagement with the Middle East soon after the Obama administration announced its “pivot to Asia” in 2011. In 2012, Wang Jisi, China’s most prominent foreign-policy commentator, proposed a concept he called “marching westward.” “As Washington rebalances to Asia,” he wrote, “the relationship between the United States and China has become increasingly contentious and zero-sum.” And as competition in maritime Asia heated up, Wang predicted, Central Asia and the Middle East would become newly open to engagement with China. The inevitable U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East even represented a potential “win-win,” Wang argued, because the United States was “desperate for China’s assistance in stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Wang’s essay was published just prior to the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th Party Congress, when Xi Jinping was to be elevated to the top job, and it foreshadowed the strategic logic, slogans, and financing concepts that would soon be institutionalized in the form of One Belt One Road, later called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Yet reactions to Wang’s explicit focus on the Middle East were harsh and immediate. In a response essay, scholar Xian Xiao argued that China should prioritize its neighbors first and avoid spreading its resources too thinly. After a line or two of personal praise for Wang, Xian launched into a devastating critique. “What does ‘West’ refer to?” he asked. “From the perspective of distance, first the western neighboring countries, followed by the Middle East countries which are moderately far, and then the distant African countries.” Xian went on to argue that Wang was encouraging China to overextend itself in strategic sinkholes—much as, by implication, the United States had done in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Another critique of Wang’s proposal argued that “marching westward” would antagonize the other great powers. Scholar Jiye Zhang, writing in the Global Times in 2013, argued that the strategy would damage relations with Russia, India, and the United States and lead China to invest in “hazardous areas.” China should not “take a big step in, but rather judge the strategic risks and construct a strategic plan to fully grasp its ‘westward move.’”

In short, many Chinese foreign-policy intellectuals were deeply concerned about the risks that a high-profile Chinese project resembling the BRI could backfire in the Middle East. Chinese strategists saw the logic of leveraging the country’s economic power for political benefit, but they feared getting caught in the region’s tangled web of national and sectarian rivalries. History, indeed, suggests that avoiding such an outcome is no easy task. The Middle East has been a sinkhole for many outside empires over the centuries, including the United States, Britain, Russia, and France.

In the Middle East, Beijing tries to keep its deals out of the headlines as much as possible.

These considerations explain why China has approached the BRI differently in the Middle East than in every other region. In Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and South America, China usually touts its deal-making with media fanfare and red-carpet photo-ops. In the Middle East, by contrast, Beijing tries to keep its deals out of the headlines as much as possible. Little has been written, for example, about how the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund is investing in SenseTime, the Chinese artificial intelligence company famous for its facial recognition software. Most of China’s BRI agreements with Middle Eastern countries have never been released in full—in English, Mandarin, or the local language. The China-Iran $400 billion comprehensive strategic partnership is known to the public only because it was leaked.

If China’s goal is to achieve influence without entanglement in the Middle East, the BRI is succeeding brilliantly. The list of countries that have endorsed the BRI and committed in one form or another to partnering with it includes Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. That alone should be a wake-up call to Washington. These countries agree on almost nothing—but they all want closer ties with China.

Most problematic for U.S. national interests is the strategic partnership between China and Iran. Iranian domestic politics is divided between a moderately pro-China reformist faction and an ultra-pro-China hard-liner faction that has enthusiastically embraced the BRI. The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” Iran policy has empowered the hard-liners. China-Iran relations have been friendly for decades, but they improved rapidly during Donald Trump’s presidency. China has made large purchases of Iranian crude oil and sold telecom supplies to Iran, in violation of sanctions, and it is currently negotiating an agreement for Jask, a port outside the Strait of Hormuz. The two countries were supposed to conduct joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean last week. (China pulled out at the last minute, citing its New Years’ holiday.) Whether or not the money materializes on the promised timetable, the expectation of Chinese backing will induce Tehran to drive a harder bargain in nuclear negotiations with the Biden administration.

Shiite groups across the region are attracted to China for similar reasons—they see it as a strategic counterweight to the United States. In Iraq, the electricity minister wrote in October 2019 that “China is our primary option as a strategic partner in the long run.” Shiite paramilitary groups from Iraq and Syria (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq) to Lebanon (Hezbollah) have repeatedly praised China and solicited Chinese investments as a rebuke to the United States.

Surprisingly, this has not provoked an anti-China reaction in the region’s major Sunni states. Saudi Arabia has launched a program to teach Chinese as a third language in all schools and universities. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait have all hired Huawei to build their 5G telecom infrastructure, in defiance of U.S. pressure. The UAE was the first foreign country to grant emergency approval to Sinopharm’s COVID-19 vaccine. Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum tweeted a photo of himself ostensibly getting the jab.

Remarkably, China has paid only a small diplomatic price in the Middle East for its gross human rights abuses against its own Muslim minorities. In 2019, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was praised on his trip to Beijing. The two countries signed several big commercial deals, and the rising leader praised China’s domestic “anti-terrorism” policies—a tacit endorsement of the crackdown on the Uyghurs. Only a few years ago, Turkey was a prominent defender of the Uyghurs, a Turkic people that has a substantial diaspora in Istanbul. But in the past year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gone silent on the issue, and Turkish police have allegedly arrested hundreds of Uyghur refugees at China’s behest. As the Turkish economy slides ever deeper into crisis, Erdogan is relying more than ever on Chinese investment and trade.

Even Israel is resisting U.S. pressure to limit its commercial interactions with China. A Chinese state-owned enterprise has a 25-year operational lease on the Israeli port at Haifa. This month, the Israeli government rejected a U.S. request to inspect the facility. China is also investing hundreds of millions of dollars per year in the Israeli tech sector, despite the Trump administration’s months-long charm offensive to persuade Israel to pull away.

At present, China’s growing influence in the Middle East does not directly threaten any major U.S. interest. In a sense, this describes a general feature of the region: The United States just has fewer national interests in the Middle East today than it did a decade or two ago.

However, China’s activities bear indirectly on multiple interests in ways worth considering and responding to. Iran’s bid for nuclear weapons is the most important. For U.S. national security and the survival of U.S. allies, it is vitally important to get Iran back into compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or a new, enforceable nuclear deal. Insofar as China’s budding investment partnership with Iran gives the regime leverage in these negotiations or China’s purchases of Iranian oil buy time for a nuclear enrichment sprint, the United States must push back. This could include interdicting vessels carrying illicit cargoes and enforcing secondary sanctions.

The United States also has an extremely important interest in preventing China from establishing an authoritarian geopolitical bloc or becoming an exporter of techno-authoritarian tools. Washington has few clean ways to prevent the gradual detente between Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran, but it can certainly impose costs on countries that acquire arms or surveillance capabilities from China, just as it sanctioned Turkey for buying Russian S-400s.

Finally, the United States has an extremely important interest in preventing China from backing Hezbollah and hostile Shiite factions in Iraq that threaten U.S. allies and assets in the region. China did not unleash the torrent of investment in Lebanon that Hezbollah requested last summer, but the United States should continue to communicate to Beijing that it will face costs if it backs Hezbollah. In geopolitically sensitive cases such as Lebanon’s, Washington may need to lean on the International Monetary Fund to loosen the purse strings.

Beijing knows it is walking a fine line, trying to acquire influence while steering clear of the region’s complex national rivalries and sectarian conflicts. The status quo in the Middle East basically works in China’s favor. The United States spends enormous sums to combat extremist groups and protect freedom of navigation in the region, and China benefits in the form of stable oil prices. What China wants is to preserve this arrangement while gradually acquiring the ability to pressure individual countries to bend its way. Although there is no immediate threat to U.S. interests here, China’s ability to quietly attract willing partners in the Middle East is surprising and deserves closer scrutiny. In the long term, the United States should not be content to underwrite the regional security order if Beijing will be its primary beneficiary.

Eyck Freymann is the director of Indo-Pacific at Greenmantle.

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