Creating new perspectives since 2009

Is China filling a US-shaped void in the Middle East?

June 14, 2023 at 7:02 pm

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (2nd-L) poses with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan (3rd-R), Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim al-Thani (4th-L), and Oman’s Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr al-Busaidi (4th-R) during a family photo opportunity with other GCC ministers at the GCC Secretariat in Riyadh on June 7, 2023 [AHMED YOSRI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images]

While in Saudi Arabia last week, America’s top diplomat, Antony Blinken, went out of his way to assert that Washington is “not asking anyone to choose between the US and China”.

His words may have been quite general but, where he uttered them, gave a lot of context: Saudi Arabia, and more importantly, the Middle East.

This is a region in flux, where relationships are changing and the scales of power apparently shifting.

Blinken was the third senior US official to visit the Kingdom since March, when the world woke up to the news of a China-brokered deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, an agreement viewed by many as Beijing’s “diplomatic coup”.

When the deal was signed, Wang Yi, China’s top Foreign Affairs adviser, took an apparent jibe at the US, saying “the world is not limited to just the Ukraine issue”.

Things have progressed to the point where Iran has re-opened its Embassy in Riyadh, seven years after it was locked down, and its Consulate in Jeddah.

READ: China willing to help foster Palestine peace-making with Israel

Building on the momentum, Beijing reiterated its willingness to mediate on the region’s other major rivalry – the Palestine-Israel issue – as Foreign Minister Qin Gang phoned his Palestinian and Israeli counterparts to extend the offer.

This Tuesday, Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, landed in Beijing on his fifth official visit to China as the two nations mark 35 years of diplomatic relations.

After talks with Abbas on Wednesday, President Xi Jinping said China stands ready to work for internal reconciliation in Palestine, as well as peace talks for a “durable solution” to the dispute with Israel.

Given this series of geopolitically significant events, the question being asked is whether it is all part of a Chinese push to fill a US-shaped void in the Middle East.

The answer, though, is far from certain and just as complex as the long history of this strategic region.

‘Tremendous chess play going on’

There are at least two reasons why Beijing is getting closer to Middle Eastern nations, according to Andrew Leung, a Hong Kong-based analyst.

“The US is not the biggest customer for oil from the Middle East, China is,” he told Anadolu.

Secondly, he said China enjoys friendly relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran.

“It is not criticising either of them on human rights, democracy and so on,” he added.

Andrew said the Middle East is witnessing “tremendous chess play going on” between two big powers, the US and China.

The US has been “trying to contain” China both in technology and diplomacy, besides the South China Sea and Taiwan, he explained.

“There is eagerness on part of the US to establish relations in Beijing … to eat the cake and have it at the same time … (as) dehumanisation of China still goes on,” he said.

Einar Tangen, a commentator and analyst focused on China, said the US has switched from a client “for energy to a major energy competitor” for Middle East countries.

“The relationship has dramatically changed, with the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), in particular, and the region, in general,” he said.

READ: China’s criticism of America’s ‘piecemeal crisis management’ in Palestine is based on international law

Since it is the GCC’s major energy buyer, Beijing “wants the Middle East to be politically stable,” he added.

Economy at play

Hongda Fan, a professor at the Middle East Studies Institute of the Shanghai International Studies University, said China’s two primary concerns in the Middle East are “economic and trade cooperation”.

The assessment is in line with what President Xi said at the first China-GCC Summit in Riyadh last December, where he outlined Beijing’s five priority areas, including using the Chinese yuan for oil and  gas transactions.

For such plans to materialise, the Middle East needs stability.

That is why Beijing is pushing for peace in the Middle East, “which is also what Middle Eastern countries generally desire,” Hongda told Anadolu.

However, he said China’s role in the Saudi Arabia-Iran deal “should not be overstated”.

“China’s success is based on the fact that both Iran and Saudi Arabia have a strong desire for detente, and that the two countries have resolved most of the difficulties in resuming diplomatic relations with the help of Iraq and Oman,” he explained.

He underlined that there is a “huge difference” in China and the US’ diplomatic approach in the region.

Disagreeing with the notion that China “will fill the vacuum left by the US in the Middle East,” he said: “In fact, the influence and attractiveness of the US in the Middle East are still unmatched by other external countries.”

Hongda underscored the need for Middle Eastern states to “achieve strategic autonomy, which is the key guarantee for lasting stability, peace and development in the region.”

READ: US ‘losing influence’ in Middle East to China

“China welcomes such a Middle East because it is a guarantee that the two sides can deepen exchanges,” he added.

‘Catalyst for change’

Einar, who is a senior fellow at the Taihe Institute in Beijing, said China views America’s approach in the Middle East as “toxic,” particularly due to the years of “direct interference” and turmoil.

“China’s efforts, as can be seen, are not to dictate terms favourable to itself … but rather to try to get them to talk, instead of fight,” Einar told Anadolu.

Despite much talk about China “filling the void” left by the US, the “sum and substance of China’s involvement is not about American colonial domination, but constructive consensus building,” he added.

This thinking is based on Beijing’s view of the Middle East “as a resource supplier and a trade market,” according to Einar.

“China’s narrative about the emerging multilateral reality is about the rise of the Global South,” he said.

“It is not about choosing sides … China wants to be a catalyst for change. The difference being brokers like America expect to be paid.”

‘Israelis not interested’

China has held a “consistent” position on Palestine, while trying to benefit from its ties with Israel, particularly in technology and defence, since the 1980s, according to Sami Al-Arian, Director of an Istanbul-based think tank.

China has “tried to be consistent on the rights of Palestinians without really offering much,” he told Anadolu.

Beijing’s push for better relations with Palestinians is because it is “trying to assert its positions across the Middle East” and has certain other objectives, he said.

READ: Oman unveils monument dedicated to Chinese Muslim admiral Zheng He

“They would like to convince the Saudis that they (Chinese) are a reliable partner. That they can pay in yuan, rather in dollars,” he explained.

“That would be a direct challenge to US hegemony in the area.”

After the success with Iran and other Gulf states, China would like to “establish other victories … and then, of course, if they can, a breakthrough with Palestine,” said Al-Arian.

However, he said the US would “not allow” China to get involved in peace efforts or negotiations on the Palestine-Israel issue.

“More importantly, the Israelis are not interested,” he added.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.