The negative effects of US-Chinese competition on the future of US interests in the Middle East

Many potential repercussions and negative effects may have emerged as a result of the US-Chinese competition regionally and globally, and this conflict between them has spread to the Middle East in one way or another, especially after the signing of Israeli peace agreements with a number of Gulf countries (UAE and Bahrain), under American auspices, which led China to fear an increase in American influence in the Middle East, especially the Arab Gulf and the Emirates, due to the heavy Israeli presence in the region.  Accordingly, the Egyptian researcher analyzed a number of negative indicators of the path of US-Chinese competition, and analyzed the extent of its future repercussions on the Middle East region, through the following:

A disruption to oil exports from the Gulf, based on the desire to continue to ensure the flow of energy as one of the tools for maintaining the global order.

China’s development and operation of the fifth generation networks in the countries of the region, and this is linked to the “technological cold war that is likely to escalate in the region, and the risks it may pose to security cooperation between Washington and the countries of the region”.

The expansion of the scope of strategic ports that Chinese companies benefit from, within the framework of the “Belt and Road projects”. The United States fears that these civilian ports can turn into military bases in times of conflict.

In addition, there is an American concern about the inability to guarantee the flow of American trade with the countries of the region and the world in general, which may cause confusion for the American economy, especially when any confrontation with China occurs.

On the other hand, China’s goals in the region seem clearer and less complex.  The Chinese concern is focused on (maintaining the security of shipping lanes, the continuation of the flow of oil, and ensuring China’s extensive trade and investment interests with countries in the region).

The Biden’s administration has shown a commitment to maintaining its role as a (guarantor of the security umbrella), despite the difference in its tools in doing so from the previous administration. This reality reinforces the Chinese desire to stay away from the region’s conflicts, which are seen in China as complex and distant.

China’s approach to the projects of the “Belt and Road Initiative” in the Middle East is unique, and differs from the rest of the world, as it is characterized by a high degree of calm and distance from propaganda, a behavior linked to China’s desire not to convey messages that it seeks to challenge the United States in the region. As long as the US regional role continues, China will continue to benefit from it in the foreseeable future, and will remain far from engaging in a deeper way in the Middle East issues.

The Middle East can be considered the only vital region in the world where China’s interests meet with the United States, including freedom of navigation, the Iranian nuclear agreement, and the quest to end “permanent wars”. The reason for this is not only China’s desire not to bear its burdens with the United States, but also the decline in US interests in the region over the past years.

Nevertheless, the technological rivalry between the two sides remains a hot spot. The indicators lead so far to believe that the international arena, and at the heart of which is the Middle East, will witness the formation of a (bipolar technological world). The countries of the region realize that this new reality will produce great pressures on them in the future, as happened with Israel regarding the (Fifth generation networks) “5G” in 2019 so far.

But, the regional countries, especially in the Gulf region, are facing a dilemma that (the United States does not have alternatives to strategic technologies, such as fifth generation networks and artificial intelligence, which include an essential element in their long-term development plans), such as “Vision 2030” in Saudi Arabia, and Economic Vision 2030 in  UAE.  In contrast, China and Russia do not have diplomatic or military alternatives through which they might be able to (displace the United States as the guarantor of the regional security equation).

On the economic level, most countries in the region are going through deep economic transformations, including structural changes, such as: (shifting from dependence on oil to digitization, and modernizing the tributaries of national economies). Here, we find that relations with China are at the heart of these plans, as China has become the largest trading partner for a large number of countries in the region since 2016, and economic growth rates in many Arab Gulf countries and the Middle East depend on their relations with China.

Here, we find that although the United States has not yet presented an alternative to the “Belt and Road Initiative”, perhaps Washington, through its pressure, may target some projects related to the initiative in the region.

Just as China tries to balance its relations with its opponents in the Middle East, the countries of the Middle East will have, in the near future, to try to “balance its relations with the major powers in the world”, especially in light of the Sino-Russian alliance in the region and the world.

This vision began to take shape quickly, as the Russian Foreign Minister (Sergey Lavrov) conducted a Gulf tour in March 2021, which included (the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar). Also, Qatar and Kuwait received the Chinese official (Yang Jiechi) member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in February 2021, during which he met the leaders of the two countries.

China’s attempts in the Middle East aim to diversify relations, ease Washington’s pressures on its Gulf partners, and show that it has wide options, but without sending signals that affect the (foundations of the relationship with the United States itself).

However, we find (the countries of the region fear and hesitate to expand security relations with China in particular). These reservations are related to (the lack of trust in China, which insists on looking at the GCC countries and Iran on an equal footing).

Moreover, the main regional countries in the Middle East are fearing that (China’s lack of the security capabilities necessary to indulge in the region’s politics and the limited Chinese security capabilities, and perhaps the Chinese’s unwillingness and lack of will to play a major role in the Middle East).

     Here we can conclude that (the Gulf countries in particular do not want to replace the United States with any other power, but they see the expansion of China’s economic and investment role in the region as an element of pressure on the American administration to re-upgrade its commitment to the region’s issues and support its policies).

Dr.Nadia Helmy
Dr.Nadia Helmy
Associate Professor of Political Science, Faculty of Politics and Economics / Beni Suef University- Egypt. An Expert in Chinese Politics, Sino-Israeli relationships, and Asian affairs- Visiting Senior Researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES)/ Lund University, Sweden- Director of the South and East Asia Studies Unit