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China Won’t Replace the U.S. in the Middle East

Beijing remains uninterested in choosing sides in the region’s ongoing power games.

By , a distinguished senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and , a senior fellow and the director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Xi and Salman walk side by side, both waving.
Xi and Salman walk side by side, both waving.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz (right) attend the “Road to the Arab Republic” closing ceremony for artifacts unearthed in Saudi Arabia at China National Museum in Beijing on March 16, 2017. LINTAO ZHANG/AFP via Getty Images

Notwithstanding U.S. President Joe Biden’s much publicized recent visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia and his promise not to “walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran,” the talk of the region is the U.S. pivot away from the Middle East.

After the Iraq War’s disappointment, the Iran nuclear deal’s collapse, and the nightmares of failed interventions in Syria and Libya, both Republicans and Democrats in Washington have had enough of the Middle East. What has followed is buzz around a potential regional opening to China.

But it is no more than buzz. Aggressive, mercantilist, and opportunistic, Beijing remains uninterested in choosing sides in the region’s ongoing power games.

Notwithstanding U.S. President Joe Biden’s much publicized recent visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia and his promise not to “walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran,” the talk of the region is the U.S. pivot away from the Middle East.

After the Iraq War’s disappointment, the Iran nuclear deal’s collapse, and the nightmares of failed interventions in Syria and Libya, both Republicans and Democrats in Washington have had enough of the Middle East. What has followed is buzz around a potential regional opening to China.

But it is no more than buzz. Aggressive, mercantilist, and opportunistic, Beijing remains uninterested in choosing sides in the region’s ongoing power games.

Arab and Israeli (not to speak of Iranian) leaders can be forgiven for thinking that Chinese President Xi Jinping is on track to usurp the United States’ role as local hegemon. Last year, just over half of China’s imported crude oil originated from the region. In 2021, bilateral trade between the Arab world and China stood at $330 billion, an increase of more than a third over the previous year. China’s (in)famous Belt and Road Initiative boasts over 20 partners in the Middle East and North Africa, and Beijing has signed 15 “strategic partnership” agreements with Arab countries in the last decade alone.

But Chinese leaders have consistently shied away from playing any role in security or political disputes among Arab countries, Iran, and Israel. Strategic government documents such as the 2016 “Arab Policy Paper” that underpin Beijing’s drive westward underscore economic ties and development assistance while downplaying any other role China might play. Domestically, Chinese experts vacillate between wariness of deeper political involvement in the Middle East—America’s troubles have been a cautionary tale—and eagerness to deepen ties with a critical source of oil at a time of growing energy insecurity.

Recent initiatives have suggested Beijing may be inching toward greater political engagement. A four-point proposal from Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, put forward amid the May 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas, was intrinsically interesting merely because the minister spoke out on substantive strategic questions like a two-state solution, a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, and the importance of U.N. Security Council action to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the four points themselves—much like the work of Xi’s special envoy for Middle East peace—were completely generic, exhorting dialogue, an end to “violent acts against civilians,” and other peace process bromides.

Similarly, Beijing’s overhyped 25-year cooperation agreement with Tehran last year has proven more talk than action, with experts noting that Chinese companies would “have to invest an average of $16 billion per year in Iran to make the target” while by comparison, “China’s investment in Iran totaled $4.7 billion from 2005 to 2020.”

On the security side, China has similarly begun greater engagement, contributing more than 1,800 troops to U.N. peacekeeping missions in and around the region as of 2020 (419 in Lebanon, 370 in Sudan, and 1,072 in South Sudan). The Chinese Navy has also participated in maritime security missions in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden and built its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017. There was even a suggestion that Beijing might be building a secret military base at a port in the strategically critical United Arab Emirates.

For their part, the Arab, Iranian, and Israeli governments have cautiously engaged with China, excited about the prospect of arms purchases and investment.

Russia’s declining ability to sell weapons may also burnish Beijing’s glow, as has China’s willingness to sell increasingly sophisticated drones to Arab governments. (The United States has been reluctant to do so.) Chinese weapons exports to the region have almost doubled over the last decade. And Beijing’s signature uninterest in democracy deficits or human rights violations has made China an even more attractive partner, particularly in contrast with the United States, which almost always attaches political strings to arms sales, economic assistance, and development funds.

Taken together, all the various pieces of China’s engagement in the greater Middle East appear to add up to a significant effort to usurp the United States’ role in the region. Indeed, analysts could be forgiven for thinking there is a major play afoot. But there is not, and the reason is quite simple. Arab and Israeli concerns boil down to one overarching priority: containing Iran.

And though the Obama and Biden administrations have been eager to propitiate Tehran—sending pallets of cash to Tehran at the outset of the Iran nuclear deal (Obama), buying enriched nuclear material produced in violation of Tehran’s commitments (Obama), and declining to impose sanctions for illegal oil sales (Biden)—the United States nevertheless remains the only global power willing and able to actually punish the Iranian regime for its malign regional behavior.

From the perspective of the Middle East’s Sunni Arab powers and Israel, a U.S. administration would ideally be game to oust Iran’s leaders from power. Absent that, the Biden administration’s pushback on Tehran, while far from optimal, is still more than what China will offer.

Though significantly less tough on Iran than the Trump administration was, the Biden administration has nonetheless been willing to interdict Iranian weapon shipments to its allies in places like Yemen, impose sanctions on the Iranian ballistic missile program, resist the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ attempts to intimidate ships in the international waters of the Persian Gulf.

Biden’s recent reiteration of the United States’ willingness “to use all elements of its national power” to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon was also welcome and a major contrast with China’s much more cautious approach to the threat from Tehran.

Were the nations of the Middle East primarily interested in money and arms, China would be a shoo-in as power broker. But Beijing is uninterested in playing balance-of-power politics, let alone providing a security umbrella to the likes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Rather, Beijing is guided by its own priorities in the region, with only an occasional nod to local security interests. That places China at the intersection of key trading routes, as a buyer of critical energy supplies, as an arms seller, and as a desultory participant in geostrategic issues like the peace process and the Iran nuclear negotiations. But it does not go any further than that.

For the foreseeable future, China’s role on the sidelines is unlikely to change. Beijing will continue to worry about the security of its Middle East energy sources, seek to leverage political influence with its main suppliers, and look for opportunities to better project military power. But as long as Xi remains determined to come down firmly in favor of both sides in the power struggle between Iran and its regional neighbors, China will remain a bit player in the Middle East.

Danielle Pletka is a distinguished senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-host of the podcast What the Hell is Going On? Twitter: @dpletka

Dan Blumenthal is a senior fellow and the director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of The China Nightmare: The Grand Ambitions of a Decaying State.

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