By Dr. Yang Chen *
Since Donald Trump came to power, the United States has shifted its strategy from war on terror to the great power competition with China and Russia. For the USA, China will be the most important strategic opponent that it needs to confront in a long-term and systematic manner, and positions China as the only country with the intention of reshaping the international order. It also held that the next ten years will be a decisive time for the competition between China and the United States. This trend became clearer when Joe Biden came to power, especially the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Under this background, the status of the Middle East in the global structure has also been significantly elevated.
Judging from the current relations between China and Middle Eastern countries, the United States will not succeed in unilaterally crowding out and suppressing China in the Middle East. In the end, it will definitely cooperate with China to some extent. For this reason, China should not fall into the trap of major power competition with the United States in the Middle East. China still have many opportunities to guide the competition between China and the United States in the direction of healthy development, fight against the United States without breaking the bilateral relations.
The latest developments in the competition between major powers in the Middle East
First, the mentality of major powers in the Middle East has undergone significant changes. After Russia-Ukraine conflict, the Middle East has gradually become a new intermediate zone for strategic competition between major powers. With Biden’s visit to the Middle East in July 2022, the United States has suspended its strategic contraction and returned to the Middle East again. And this is the biggest change of United States’ Middle East policy. The intention of US is to maintain its presence and position, but changed the means from traditional military and value-oriented diplomacy to new energy, large-scale infrastructure and climate change. Meanwhile, US vigorously promotes the normal relations between Israel and Arab countries, and also try to establish high-tech cooperation with I2U2 (US-Israel-India-Arabia). For Russia, it inclined to adopt the strategy of going south, especially using the Middle East to break through the containment of the West after the Ukraine crisis. That’s why Russia cooperates closely with Saudi Arabia under the OPEC framework, coordinates with Iran to de-dollarization, and increases relations with Türkiye. In addition, Germany, France, India, Japan, South Korea and other countries have also increased their attention in the Middle East.
Second, the awareness and capabilities of Middle Eastern countries on strategic autonomy have been significantly enhanced. In the past 100 years, the Middle East countries can never control their destiny. The Ukraine crisis provides a perfect opportunity to increase their strategic autonomy. The reality is that after most of the countries in the Middle East did not choose sides between US and Russia, withstood the pressure of the United States and did not impose sanctions on Russia. For example, the Gulf countries headed by Saudi Arabia have resisted the United States’ pressure to reduce oil production, began to apply to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS, and increased security cooperation with China. This also reflects the weakening of US power in the Middle East.
Third, it has become a prominent phenomenon for the countries in the Middle East to ease the relations with each other. One reason is that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 has greatly shocked its allies in the Middle East, enabling them to be aware of the importance of independent security. These countries also realize that they need to get rid of the confrontation situation and create a security environment that is conducive to the development and coexistence of the region. As a result, the wind of peace gradually descended on the Middle East, manifested in the easing of relations among Arab countries, between Arab countries and Israel, Turkey, and Iran, between Israel and Turkey, and between Egypt and Iran. It is especially important to note that the current Arab-Israeli reconciliation is no longer like the “cold peace” between Egypt and Israel in the past, but cooperation in various fields.
Fourth, the attention of the international community to the long and complex issues in the Middle East has declined. This will likely reduce the motivation and strength to resolve the Middle East issue. For example, the promotion of the two-state solution on the Palestinian-Israeli issue has weakened, and the enthusiasm for mediating the Yemen issue, the Syrian issue, the Lebanese issue, and the Libyan issue has also weakened. In this context, the humanitarian crisis and poverty problems in the Middle East are becoming more and more difficult to solve. It can also be seen from the conflict between Russia and Ukraine that food security issues in the Middle East and possible famines will cause social crises and even bring about a new round of turmoil.
New opportunities and challenges for the development of China-Middle East relations
Under the background of China-US strategic competition and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the importance of the Middle East to China is rising day by day.
On the one hand, the current situation in the Middle East also provides new opportunities for China to deepen relations with the Middle East. The core content of China’s Middle East policy is to promote peace, development and stability, which truly represents the direction of the world. Different from the United States, Europe and Russia, China has no historical burden in the Middle East, and has advantages in philosophy, moral and development. In particular, the success of the Chinese modernization has provided a typical example for the Middle East countries to embark on an independent development path.
On the other hand, the current situation in the Middle East also brings new challenges for China. This is mainly manifested in six aspects. First, the United States is still the most important factor in the Middle East. Although it no longer plays a constructive role, its destructive role is very obvious. The second is that the United States returned to the Middle East to try to rebuild the alliance system and create a small circle to contain Iran, Russia and China. The third is to continue to put pressure on the Middle East countries on Xinjiang-related issues. The fourth is to engage in an economically alternative strategy to China, especially in the high-tech field to continuously suppress Israel and the United Arab Emirates to abandon cooperation with China. The fifth is to slander China that it is China which put Middle Eastern countries into a debt trap, trying to discredit China’s image. Sixth, the severe energy and food crisis has little impact on the oil-producing countries in the Middle East, but it has a great negative impact on non-oil-producing countries, which is likely to create more failed states.
China’s responses toward United States’ strategic competition
In fact, whether admit it or not, China and the United States have entered a new era of great power competition in the Middle East. In view of the fact that the United States has gone back and forth in the Middle East, it has changed from a passive strategic contraction to an active strategic contraction, and a new trend has emerged. On the one hand, the focus of the United States in the Middle East is shifting from the security field to the development field, especially with Israel, the United Arab Emirates and other countries to strengthen investment in economic development and high-tech fields, so as to compete with China. On the other hand, the United States still attaches great importance to security interests in the Middle East, especially military advantages. That is to say, the United States’ increased focus on development in the Middle East is not for the purpose of helping Middle Eastern countries develop, but mainly to deal with China’s influence in the Middle East.
In this regard, China shall take the following measures. First, China should avoid falling into the trap that the United States intends to compete with China in the Middle East. There are many middle powers in the Middle East, and strategic autonomy has been significantly strengthened in the context of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In this regard, China should try its best to avoid falling into the game of great powers in the Middle East, and should not put pressure on Middle Eastern countries to choose sides between China and the United States. It should continue to maintain a balance among the major powers in the Middle East, promote peace and development in the Middle East, which will be of benefit for China’s national interest.
Second, China should strengthen the presence of “hard power” in the Middle East. In view of China’s interests and security in the Middle East, China should also adhere to two-handed means. On the one hand, it insists on “soft defense”, maintains a good relationship with the regional structure, and safeguards its legitimate rights and interests on the basis of “demilitarization”. On the other hand, China can adopt “Hard defense” and participate in Middle East affairs through “creative intervention” or “constructive intervention”. That is to say, China needs to respond to the security demands of the Middle Eastern countries. The sale of high-tech weapons to Middle Eastern countries at the Zhuhai Air Show in 2022 is a good example.
Third, China should lead the competition between China and the United States in the Middle East to a healthy development track. The third-party factors, especially US, will remain the biggest variable affecting peace and security in the Middle East for quite a long period of time. At present, the United States is implementing a policy of strategic contraction in the Middle East, reducing its military investment and increasing its investment in the field of development. But its fundamental purpose never change, that is to maintain its presence in the Middle East. No matter whether the United States can succeed or not, if the United States is willing to do so, it is in line with regional trends and interests.
In this regard, China can take an optimistic and open attitude, and is happy to see the improvement of relations between Israel and Arab countries. This also reflects China’s consistent proposition of “promoting peace through development”. In this sense, the United States is led by some ideas and propositions of China. To this end, China can even cooperate with the United States in the Middle East, such as climate change, green energy, digital economy and other issues, to jointly promote the development and governance of the Middle East, guide the competition between China and the United States to a benign direction.
* Associate Professor & Executive Director of the Center for Turkish Studies at Shanghai University