What if China Replaced U.S. Hegemony in the Middle East?
This article was published on Al Bawaba – December 9, 2019
China claims its foreign policy is based on “non-interventionism” to distinguish itself from the hawkish approach that has characterized America’s foreign policy in the Middle East for the past two decades.
To its credit, the Chinese government is not directly engaging in Middle Eastern wars. Beijing’s involvement mainly rests on economic investments like the Belt and Road Initiative or the import of oil from the region, which it desperately needs. But its ties in the region will likely lead China to have a political role as well, whether it likes it or not.
The U.S. is retreating from the Middle East after years of counter-productive interventions. President Donald Trump successfully ran a campaign based on a non-interventionist foreign policy, promising to bring troops home from the war-torn region. Not coincidentally, the US is also becoming increasingly self-sufficient for its energy supplies, producing 86% of its own oil consumption. The figure is projected to rise again by next year. The U.S. is not interested in engaging in the Middle East for oil.
Almost half of China’s supply for oil comes from the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia topping the charts as the second largest exporter after Russia.
On the other hand, China is becoming increasingly reliant on foreign imports for energy. Almost half of China’s supply for oil comes from the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia topping the charts as the second largest exporter after Russia.
Saudi Arabia’s archenemy in the region – Iran – is only ranked seventh as an oil exporter to China. Beijing is therefore unlikely to befriend Iran against its interests with the Arabian Gulf, even if Tehran is hoping to develop a special relationship with Beijing against Washington sanctions.
China’s New Silk Road Economic Belt passes through Iran, while its Maritime Silk Road passes through the Arabian Gulf from Oman, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Chinese infrastructure projects in the region are also neutral to current conflicts. China’s New Silk Road Economic Belt passes through Iran, while its Maritime Silk Road passes through the Arabian Gulf from Oman, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
The land routes of the Belt and Road Initiative (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
Beijing states that it aims to create mutually beneficial agreements with all the countries it engages with, regardless of the disputes they may have with each other.
Rather than replicate America’s supposed democratization projects abroad, China claims it wants to bring development while staying out of the internal affairs of other nations. It will be increasingly difficult, however, for China to maintain a position of neutrality in a region defined by sectarian forms of warfare, especially as the U.S. is in retreat and a power vacuum will arise as a result.
Until now, the Chinese government has stood by its word, taking no official sides in the numerous conflicts characterizing the Middle East. But neutrality can come with costs. Arab Gulf states are already suspicious of Beijing’s supposedly friendly relationship with Iran.
neutrality can come with costs that would force China to inadvertently take sides. Arab Gulf states have already suspected Beijing’s supposedly friendly relationship with Iran.
Nonetheless, despite Tehran’s hopes to forge an alliance with Beijing, the Chinese Communist Party has remained cautious in angering its neighbors, as well as challenging America’s current hegemony.
China’s state oil company has withdrawn a $5 billion deal to develop a portion of Iran’s massive offshore natural gas in October this year over US sanctions, and it was unwilling to provide Iran with any significant military technology, while allegedly wanting to provide other countries in the Middle East like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia with “killer drones”.
The U.S. has already put pressure on its allies in the Middle East to limit their engagement with China. Michael Mulroy, the top Pentagon official for the region, warned that Beijing’s influence in the Middle East could undermine military cooperation between the U.S. and its Gulf allies. But if the U.S. continues to retreat from the Middle East, its allies will be looking east for support.
China’s state oil company has withdrawn a $5 billion deal to develop a portion of Iran’s massive offshore natural gas in October this year
Gulf states like Saudi Arabia may lose faith in U.S. support and start their own nuclear programme in fear that Iran is secretly doing the same. The U.S. government has already reportedly acquired intelligence showing that Riyadh was developing a ballistic missile programme with Beijing’s support.
The U.S. has already put pressure on its allies in the Middle East to limit their engagement with China
As things stand today, Saudi Arabia and the wider Arabian Gulf appears to be China’s main regional ally in the Middle East, both economically and militarily.
How this relationship will evolve, especially as China will supposedly refrain from taking any responsibility on how its support will affect the region’s secterian warfare, is yet to be seen.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.