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Can China Replace the United States in the Middle East? | Business and Economics

On April 6, the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran met for the first time in seven years. A month ago, top national security officials from the two countries shocked the world by re-establishing diplomatic ties after years of animosity fueled tensions between the mutual neighbors.

But the meeting that led to the dramatic breakthrough was not in the Middle East. They are hosted and mediated by China after years of unsuccessful attempts in Oman and Iraq.

In the West, China’s central role in keeping Russia’s economy afloat despite sanctions and Beijing’s reluctance to even question Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine have drawn sharp criticism.

Experts say, however, that its new achievement as a peacemaker in the Middle East marks a shift for China, which has historically been reluctant to get too involved in efforts to resolve global conflicts.

And it seems to be dreaming big. In February, shortly before the conclusion of Iran-Saudi talks, Beijing launched a global security initiative aimed at “peacefully resolving differences and disputes among nations through dialogue and consultation.”

Last week, China’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, said Beijing was ready to mediate peace talks between Israel and Palestine.

Julia Gurol-Haller, an associate research fellow at the Arnold-Bergstraesser-Institut in Freiburg, Germany, said the Saudi-Iran deal could serve as a “springboard for future moves” by China. It was a statement, she said, that China was ready to play a bigger role in mediating the conflict than it had before.

All of this, according to many analysts, is happening at a time when the influence of the United States – traditionally the Middle East’s biggest power broker – has waned. The United States’ decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, its “hot and cold” relationship with Saudi Arabia, its prolonged occupation and chaotic withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan have all damaged its credibility. Domestic politics are also a distraction for the U.S., where the public is increasingly concerned about the country’s decades-long role as a global policeman.

But can China offer the Middle East what the US has had for years – despite all its failures?

Short answer: Despite its rapidly rising influence, China remains incapable of displacing the United States in the Middle East, where Washington has dozens of military bases and allies it has pledged to defend. But Beijing may not want to take on that responsibility anyway, experts say. For now, China can benefit from expanded diplomatic and economic influence while allowing the United States to continue to lead on security issues in the region.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabudorahian, left, and Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Prince Al Saud, right, shakes hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang in Beijing.  (Iran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs via Associated Press)
On April 6, 2023, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabudorahian (left) and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud (right) and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang in beijing handshake [File: Iranian Foreign Ministry via AP]

Advantage China

Long before the Saudi Arabia-Iran agreement, China had already established itself as an important partner of the Middle East country.

China is the largest trading partner of Saudi Arabia and Iran and the largest buyer of oil from both countries. It has further cemented these ties in recent years, signing a 25-year cooperation agreement with Iran in 2021 and a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement with Saudi Arabia in 2022.

But the goodwill is not limited to Saudi Arabia and Iran, thanks in large part to the massive “Belt and Road” initiative launched in 2013 to connect Asia, Europe and Africa via a Chinese-backed network of ports, railroads , highways and other infrastructure projects.

Between 2005 and 2022, China will invest more than $273 billion in the region. It is the largest investor in the Middle East. It also buys oil from Iraq, natural gas from Qatar and exports weapons to Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It is helping Egypt build a new capital outside Cairo and a metro network in Mecca.

In December 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, which also saw Beijing’s first summit with the League of Arab States and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman described the visit as marking “a new historical era” in relations between China and Saudi Arabia.

At the same time, China’s rapid development in cutting-edge technology in recent years means that Beijing can provide services such as 5G connectivity through companies such as Huawei.

All of this gives China automatic influence in the region, said Tritta Passi, co-founder and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Governance, a Washington-based think tank. That leverage has allowed Beijing to succeed on Saudi Arabia and Iran where past negotiators have failed, he said. Countries in the region want to remain in China’s favor for economic reasons.

Even better, Beijing is seen as an ideologically neutral trading partner that has long pursued a policy of non-interference in domestic issues ranging from politics to human rights in Middle Eastern countries, making it a less contentious mediator than countries such as the United States.

It also has nothing to do with specific reasons such as the US’s close relationship with Israel, nor its history of punitive action in the region — whether through military action or sanctions.

“At the end of the day, a key reason why many of these countries have a good opinion of China is not just because China doesn’t interfere in their affairs, but because they don’t see that China acting in this way is a threat to them, or Potentially a threat,” Passy told Al Jazeera.

The U.S. does not enjoy that reputation, even among some of its traditional partners, he said — and sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine war have fueled unease in regional capitals.

“For America, they see [it] Capable of cutting Russia off from the international financial system within five days. It’s a very powerful tool, and the U.S. hasn’t acted particularly responsibly over the past 20 years,” Passy said. “So it’s a very powerful tool for the sometimes reckless player. That’s a threat. “

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has lunch with members of the military during a visit to Prince Sultan Air Base in Al-Kharj, central Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. Pompeo met Saudi Arabia's King Salman on Thursday during a visit focused primarily on discussing shared security concerns with regional rival Iran.  (Andrew Caballero Reynolds/Pool via AP)
Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lunches with members of the U.S. military at Prince Sultan Air Base in Al-Kharj, central Saudi Arabia, Feb. 20, 2020.The United States has more than three dozen military bases in the Middle East – a presence that China cannot compete with [Andrew Caballero Reynolds/Pool via AP]

a different force

Fan Hongda, a professor at the Shanghai Middle East Institute, said that while positioning itself as a potential alternative to the U.S. in the Middle East, Beijing was not really trying to usurp Washington’s longstanding status as an international research university.

China’s power, he said, lies primarily in its economic clout and projects like the Belt and Road Initiative — something it is happy to keep in the region for now.

“China never intended to control the Middle East,” Fan told Al Jazeera. “I don’t think Beijing has any plans to replace the United States in the Middle East. Because many of the actions of the United States in the Middle East are not what China likes. In short, China has its own way of cooperating with Middle Eastern countries.”

China and the United States find themselves at opposite ends of conflicts such as the Syrian civil war. Beijing has used its veto power in the UN Security Council to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power. But it has a much lower record than Washington, D.C., of major conflicts, and it doesn’t have the same track record of enforcing regime change and helping to oust elected leaders. The United States has more than three dozen military bases in the Middle East.

To be sure, although China likes to present itself as a moderate power compared with the United States, in recent years China has set out to significantly upgrade and expand its military capabilities, often on display in its own neighbours. In 2017, the People’s Liberation Army established its first overseas military base in Djibouti, near the Strait of Hormuz.

Four years later, the Wall Street Journal reported that China might be building a naval base in the United Arab Emirates, a project that was put on hold after U.S. and UAE authorities intervened. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, some China watchers say Beijing follows a “people first, army first” policy when building infrastructure such as ports, railways and airports.

However, Zakiye Yazdanshinas, director of the China-Middle East program at Tehran’s Center for Middle East Strategic Studies, said China’s record so far shows that the United States has little interest in engaging in the region.

“Beijing neither has the capability nor wants to have a US-like military presence in the region, but it does try to expand its influence in the Middle East, especially in the Persian Gulf,” she told Al Jazeera.

Yazdanshenas described China’s goals as three-pronged: “to ensure the security of the free flow of energy, while allowing China to bear the lowest cost, while enhancing its reputation as a responsible international player.”

A railway guide gestures to Muslim pilgrims traveling by subway from the Arafat region to Mina during the annual Hajj season in the western Saudi city of Mecca, August 22, 2018.  - The Mecca Metro Light Rail opened eight years ago. The Chinese-built monorail project linking Mecca with the shrines of Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah began operations during the 2010 Hajj season, transporting Saudi nationals for the annual Muslim pilgrimage.  (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP)
People disembark from a Mecca metro train during the Hajj season in Saudi Arabian city on August 22, 2018.The Chinese-built monorail project began operations in 2010 [File: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP]

limit impact

But while that could allow China to go further, its reluctance to play the role of “policeman” or security provider could limit its negotiating toolkit in the long run, said MacPhee, an associate fellow for strategy, technology and arms control in London. Zpatrick said – based at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Whether China can enforce the deal it mediated on the basis of economic guarantees alone, or whether its recent successes can be replicated outside Iran and Saudi Arabia — both of which are closely tied to China through energy sales — remains to be seen.

“One question is whether the Saudi-Iran rapprochement will last, and whether China will be able to enforce it. I think a lot of people are skeptical about its stability,” Fitzpatrick told Al Jazeera. “Something might happen to unravel it again, and China might not have the economic clout to actually enforce it. That’s not to say it’s going to fall apart, but it could be that all aspects of the deal won’t work out as it hopes. “

For now, China must follow a “very long and bumpy” road to peace and avoid getting drawn into protracted conflicts, as the United States has done many times, said Gu of the Arnold-Bergstrasser Institute in Freiburg. Rohr Haller said.

“It’s unclear how China will accompany Iran and Saudi Arabia on this path,” she told Al Jazeera. “The joint statement issued after the deal did not specify how the signatories or China would respond to the breach.

“So what happens if Iran breaks the deal? Or what happens if Saudi Arabia doesn’t follow through on its commitments? It’s really not clear how China will respond, what the carrot and the stick are.”

Gurol-Haller said it is clear that the hard work for China in the Middle East begins now.

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