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  • Lucy Aspinall

China & the Middle East: The US is right to focus on China but not at the expense of the Middle East

This article was written by Lucy Aspinall, Pinsker Centre Policy Fellow '23, and was originally published in International Relations Today  


As the West tries to balance cooperation and confrontation with China, the CCP is intensifying its diplomatic offensive across the globe. In brokering a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, developing a blossoming relationship with rising power Brazil under the leadership of President Lula, and creating the facade of being a mediator in the Ukraine-Russia conflict with their peace plan, the CCP is attempting to spread its influence and power across every continent. 


Source: The Japan Times


The timing of this diplomatic offensive is no coincidence. The CCP are exploiting a golden opportunity as the US seeks to reduce and even relinquish their commitments abroad — particularly in the case of the Middle East. This has been the trend in US foreign policy since the Obama administration and has continued with his successors. Some argue that a withdrawal from the Middle East is natural. The US has expended a vast amount of money and resources in its ‘nation building’ projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, a commitment it has tried to reduce over consecutive administrations. The most illustrative example of this is the reduction of troop numbers in Afghanistan over the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations, culminating in a full withdrawal in 2021.


There are two clear mistakes with this policy. Firstly, by reducing their commitments in the region, the US is weakening its international influence and risking its national security by failing to counter threats abroad. Secondly, while the US continues its ‘pivot to Asia’— the shifting of their strategic interests from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific region— its withdrawal from its commitments in the Middle East leave major areas of US national security interest vulnerable to CCP influence. 


Traditionally, China’s interest in the Middle East was mainly economic in nature, particularly in regard to energy resources as domestic demand for energy grew in China. For example, Saudi Arabia is a major supplier of crude oil to China – accounting for 18% of China’s total crude oil purchases. However, Saudi Arabia is not the only Gulf State that is strengthening its economic relationship with China. Now, many Gulf states are looking to China as a trading partner and beyond. 


In particular, China is engaging extensively with the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). China’s relationship with these states is no longer exclusively characterised by economic ties such as energy exports. China is now creating and expanding ties with these states across multiple areas such as trade, digital technology, and defence and security.


It is no coincidence that China’s role in the Middle East is evolving whilst the US decreases its engagement in the region. The irony is that while the US looks East to counter China in Asia, China is increasing the threat it poses to the US and the international system abroad by filling the void left by the US. 


In May 2022 Secretary of State Anthony Blinken summarised the Biden administration’s policy towards China in three words: “invest, align, compete”.  


Key to this policy is the second part, Align. Combined with the enhancement of domestic strengths is the alignment of key strategic allies and partners to combine efforts in the aim of achieving common goals in regard to the threats posed by China. The logic being that by harnessing the benefits of investment and alignment the US will be able to compete when necessary for US interests with China – from a position of strength.


In policy terms sthis strategy has the potential to be effective at combating the threats posed by the CCP. However, the reality is that the Biden administration has not deployed this strategy effectively, and the US’s relationship with strategic partners in the Middle East has been going in the wrong direction especially under the Biden Administration. Many are pointing to the administration’s turbulent relationship with key and long-standing ally Israel and President Biden’s ‘major reset’ of the US’s relationship with Saudi Arabia as examples of declining relationships in the region.


It is therefore welcome news that President Biden has made a concerted effort in recent months to strengthen the US’s role in the Middle East. For example, there have been recent reports of a potential Saudi Arabia-Israel Pact brokered by the US which would ‘normalise the countries’ relations’. Securing a Saudi Israeli pact would not only be a transformational deal for the region, but it would signal to China that the US’s role and commitment to enhancing cooperation and security in the region remains resolute despite recent setbacks. A major win for the US. 


The US must now continue to show strong leadership and undivided attention to this growing issue of soft power influence and create a broad coalition of states aligned with the West to combat the spread of Chinese influence. As China increases its influence in regions where the US traditionally had a major foothold, there is a strong risk that the balance of power will begin to tilt in favour of the oppressive CCP regime at the expense of the West. 


Traditional allies are key to a successful China strategy, but the US must fully commit to forging and developing new relationships to contain the CCP’s ambitions across the globe. To do this the US must begin to actually, invest, align, and compete.  


Lucy Aspinall is a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank which facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.

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