West Asia: An Emerging Arena of China-US Geopolitical Contest

West Asia is fast emerging as a new arena of China-US strategic competition. Chinese policy of ‘Partnership Diplomacy’ across the geopolitical divides in the conflict-ridden region is being received positively. Its pursuit of economic engagement with characteristic non-interference and apolitical dealings finds ready welcome in the region fatigued with the democratic prescriptions and human rights criticism by the West and US in particular. Chinese proposition of the developmental peace instead of Western idea of democratic peace has found increasing momentum of acceptance by countries of the region for stability, security and shared future of prosperity. The Chinese economic engagement is fast shifting gear to the political and security sphere with profound impact and implications. The evolving pattern of changes in geopolitical landscape, development trajectory, longer term security perception in the region is an emerging syndrome of the China-US geopolitical contest in the region and beyond.   

The post Cold War policy of China has been based on “peace, development and cooperation respected each other, treated each other as equals, and committed themselves to deepening the traditional friendship and the bilateral relations.”  Broadly, the Chinese interests and objective in the region can be enumerated as “securing energy supplies, promoting trade and transport and to a lesser extent, finding potential avenues for security cooperation, particularly in combating terrorism.” The creation of One Belt and One Road in 2013 and the China’s Arab policy paper in 2016 China has plunged into this strategic region to create and consolidate its broad partnership. The visit of President Xi Jinping to the region in 2016 has pushed the Chinese engagement in the region in a new track with multifarious geopolitical implications.

In November, 2019, two-day event on security was held to share ideas to promote peace and prosperity in region as it tries to share that upholding security and safety in this region is the key to world peace. In his address to the second Middle East Security Forum, Mr Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister remarked that the principle of adhering to multilateralism and opposing unilateralism has gained more popularity in the region. He stressed on common aspiration of the Middle East countries and just role of the international community to adopt systematic and forward-looking thinking and actions based on ground reality to resolve the security challenges and join cooperative hands to promote genuine peace and long-term stability in the region.

President Xi Jinping in his address to the 8th Ministerial Meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, 2018, proposed to build a common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security architecture in the region for a lasting security in the region. The Arab participant countries expressed their approval for such blueprint for Arab-China development process and a greater Chinese role in the affairs of the region. Earlier, in 2014, President Xi Jinping put forward a vision for common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security and assumed the shape of Global Security Initiative (GSI). It calling on countries to adapt to the changing security landscape in the region and emphasised for a larger, more influential and authoritative international peace conference for the Two-State solution of the Palestine issue.

Besides, Chinese naval network with its Djibouti military base, probable militarisation Gwadar port in Pakistan, its commercial foothold in Chahbahar, Iran and Duqm, Oman along with China-Iran-Russia naval exercises China is becoming a naval power of substantial reckoning capable of security provider in the region in longer term. In contrast to President Joe Biden’s visit in July, 2022 the grand welcome of the Chinese President Xi Jinping in December, 2022 in Saudi Arabia was a powerful symbolism of change in the geopolitical psyche of the region. The power-pact summits- China-Saudi Arabia, China-GCC and China-Arab was a powerful statement of geo-strategic and geopolitical change.

Iran is an another important sector of strategic competition between China and US in the region and beyond. The visit of the Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi to China and  expressed willingness of China to strengthen communication and coordination with Iran in the international forums and platforms such as United Nations, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiations and all avenues of multilateralism and common issues of developing countries is a significant geopolitical development. The timing and grand demonstration of the visit and the expressions were noticeable to make sense of the change underway.

The Strategic Partnership diplomacy in this region which doesn’t bind it with security commitment is gaining wider acceptance in the region. China has used the stability provided by the US in the region to expand its engagement and influence and transitioned in a decades time to the largest trading partner. China has developed diplomatic skill of the strategic hedging and establishing different levels of strategic partnership in consonance with the level of strategic value of the country concerned. Most of the countries are having the strategic partnership with China and only Iran, Saudi Arabia and UAE are the Comprehensive Strategic Partners like ‘three pillars of Chinese partnership diplomacy and promotion of its engagement and interests in the region.

Challenges Ahead for China in the region

This syndrome of Chinese expansion are faced with many challenges. The foremost is the unwillingness and unpreparedness of China to plunge into a security provider in the region. As the Chinese engagements deepens and its competition with the US intensifies, the US security in the region would not remain benign to its interests. Creating an alternative security order- by own or bringing together all other powers with stakes and interests in the region is going to be a formidable challenge and taxing scenario to sustain that. A broad view makes it apparent that West Asia has triangular strategic regional competition of Arabs, Iran and Israel. The US pursuit of its order is underway to bring the Arabs and Israel into an integrated security framework and structure as its US Security order. This is provides a big strategic challenge to China’s Strategic Partnership which holistic in nature with both Arabs and Iran. The issue came to the fore when there was a diplomatic pressure on UAE from the US based on its intelligence report that China was building a military facility inside the commercial Khalifa port and UAE was forced to shut the construction eventually.

Israel is a profound factor in the West Asian region. Given the deeper strategic security alliance with US makes it a complex case on the West Asian chessboard for China. Both the countries over the years has developed dense economic engagement and trade. But it will remain a tough knot owing to strategic competition of the US with China. Israel was forced by the US administrations to deny bids by Chinese companies to build critical infrastructure projects mainly in communications and technological areas. There is an intense trade and technology war between China and US and the latter believes that Chinese involvement in the Israeli infrastructure which could be used by the China for spying on US interests. The US President even threatened to end the docking of US ships in the strategic Haifa port owing to Chinese involvement in its development and operation.

Despite these challenges, the expansion of Chinese influence in Iran is an apparent reality with immense geopolitical implications. Chinese $400 billion deal with Iran over 25 years with broad agreement for Iranian economic and infrastructure development under a sweeping economic and security agreement has huge potential to deepen China’s engagement and offset the US effort to isolate Iran. The investments have not seen the progress yet but there is a geopolitical turning-around within the region, a broad pattern of normalization in the recent years. From the end of Qatar blockade by Al Ula Summit, diplomatic normalization of Syria by other Arab States, to restoration of relations of GCC countries with Iran are part of this reconfiguration.

To cap all, there has been five rounds of Iran-Saudi Arabia Talk, the Baghdad process with Saudi prince statement that Iran is a neighbour and we must have a good relation are remarkable changes manifestation of geopolitical changes in the region. The response of the Prince in his interview to the Atlantis Magazine is worth mentioning. He says about Iran that “They are neighbours. Neighbours forever. We cannot get rid of them, and they can’t get rid of us. So it’s better for both of us to work it out and to look for ways in which we can coexist. We heard statements from Iranian leaders which we welcome in Saudi Arabia. And we are going to continue through details of the negotiation. Hopefully, we can reach a position that’s good for both countries and is going to create a brighter future for this country and Iran.”

The Joint Statement: Iran-Saudi Arabia-China

The time bound re-opening embassies and resumption of ties within two months exhibits the depth of understanding and realization of mutual geopolitical benefits. The affirmation of the respect for sovereignty of states and non-interference in internal affairs of states are the most attractive clause in this turbulence-ridden region as an assured commitment each other, rest of the states in the region and assurance of China’s vision and pursuit in the region. The resumption and enhancing of ties of these two regional powers who were at loggerheads for long mainly responsible for the regional conflicts, are finding ready welcome as factor of calming of the regional conflicts. The agreement to implement the Iran-Saudi Security Cooperation Agreement signed on 17th April, 2001 hold a bright future for the security and stability of the Gulf region and whole of West Asia. Besides, the implementation of the General Agreement for Cooperation in the Field of Economy, Trade, Investment, Technology, Science, Culture, Sports, and Youth, signed on 27th May, 1998, has huge potential of all-round cooperation and shared prosperity of these two long standing rival powers in this strategic region.

US- Iran Secret Talks for a Mini-Agreement

The United States has responded with a secret indirect talk with Iran through Oman over the stalled nuclear talks in order to stitch a mini-agrrement. As per the reports the White House Middle East Coordinator, Brett McGurk went to Muscat as a diplomatic outreach to Iran where an indirect communication was conducted with the Iranian Chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kan through the Omani officials. The broader aim of this US outreach is said to reach an understanding to de-escalate the Iranian nuclear programme, its regional activities and involvement in the Ukraine war, release of US citizens in Iran and unfreezing of some Iranian assets abroad. The JCPOA, 2015 had capped the uranium enrichment at 3.67% purity and the stockpile of enriched material at 202.8 kg (447 pounds). As per the IAEA reports uranium enriched up to 83.7% was found at the underground Fordo nuclear site, which is nearly the weapon-grade of 90%. Thus outcomes of the secret talks and understanding is manifest as Iraq has agreed to release $2.7 billion Iranian frozen fund after receiving a sanction waiver from the United States.

The attempt and timing suggests Washington’s strategic concerns over growing influence of China in the region in the wake of the Iran-Saudi Arabia deal with broader syndrome of normalization in the region with Chinese promotion and facilitation.   

Normalization of Syria

The process has tremendously boosted the normalization trends in the region. The normalization of Syria in the Arab countries has gained momentum in the wake of devastating earthquake in Syria. The third visit of the Syrian president to UAE on 19th March, 2023 is clear manifestation of this trend. Despite Saudi role in opposing President Assad, support to the Syrian opposition, expulsion of Syria from Arab League has been in the mode of normalization with Syria. The trends follows the pattern of the Chinese brokered Iran-Saudi Arabia agreement. The prevailing geopolitical pattern are the evidence that “times have changed” and there is a reverse trend of Saudi normalization with Syria. “The political mood within the House of Saud has chamged, many senior royals, particularly Mohammed bin Salman[MBS] himself, are keen to reengage with Assad.”

The Saudi delegation led by Khalid Humaidan,Director General of General Intelligence Directorate to Damascus for a possible normalization and re-engagement was fruitful and a Syrian ministerial delegation was sent to Saudi Arabia led by the Minister of Tourism, Rami Martin. This is part of the larger Iran and Saudi Arabia normalization contact process and initial outreach. There was an Iranian outreach to Saudi Arabia through Iraqi envoy towards ending their frictions over Yemen and de-escalation of their tension in Iraq and Syria.The remark of the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan in the Munich Security Conference that “not just among the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) but in the Arab world there is a consensus growing that the status quo is not workable.” He further added “So that’s going to have to go through a dialogue with the government in Damascus at some point in a way that achieves at least the most important of the objectives especially as regards the humanitarian angle, the return of refugees, etc.”

The Syrian delegation led by Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad was welcomed in Arab League Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. The Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan underscored the need of Arab unity in order to face the common regional and global challenges successfully. Finally Syria was voted back to the Arab League in the League’s headquarter in Cairo.The normalization is seen as a new “Arab-led political path” in resolving the long drawn-out crisis. In its return, Syria stressed for Arab States to pursue “effective approach based on mutual respect”, joint work and dialogue to face the challenges of the Arab States.These intra-Arab geopolitical reconfiguration of normalization is having a sustained support of the Chinese policies and diplomatic pursuits. Even in the thick of the crisis, China hosted Syria’s Foreign Minister and the Opposition figures both in a bid to resolve the crisis. It supported the UN-led mediation efforts with the UN Syria special envoy. To remain engaged and involved, China made appointment of its first own Special Envoy for Syria to help push the peace process and return of normalcy and stability.

In April, 2023, the Special Envoy of the Chinese Government on the Middle East, Zhai Jun, met President Assad in Damascus and discussed their common perceptions on bilateral relations in the larger perspective of China’s relation with other countries in the region. Also discussed Syria’s political settlement and facilitate Syria’s return to the Arab League. The Syria President appreciated the increasing Chinese role in a calm and balanced manner with positive effects and further noted that there is a growing need of political and economic presence of China around the world to re-balance the global diplomacy and order. Thus, the Chinese played a significantly substantial role in this vexatious Syrian crisis and its eventual solution which seemed for some time beyond the reach of dialogue and diplomacy.

The return of the Syria to Arab League received unreserved expression of appreciation when the Chinese Foreign Ministry congratulated Syria and noted that “as a friend of Syria and other Arab States, China welcomes and supports the Arab solidarity and continuously work relentlessly to that end.” It further added that China’s attitude also represents the general position of the international community. “Dialogue, mutual respect, and common interests of Arab countries”, the Syrian Foreign Ministry emphasized in an statement, which reflects the common desire of regional countries. There has been a consistent Chinese stand for a strong united Arab countries, the position which finds wide ranging support in this crisis-ridden and war-fatigued region in search of a hope of peace, cooperation and development.

Syrian Normalization: Response of United States and China

A simple comparison of the official responses of China and the United States on return of Syria into the Arab League seems to be worth mentioning to understand the evolving geopolitical changes underway, better. “ We believe this is conducive to the strength and unity of Arab states, the development and revitalization of the Arab world and peace and stability in the Middle East. This serves the long-term interests of Arab states,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin. In response to a question on the issue, the US State Department spokesperson, Vedant Patel said that “We do not believe that Syria merits readmission to the Arab League at this time, and it’s a point that we’ve made clear with all of our partners.” This makes it clear that US partners do not share the opinion with the United States as they supported the Syrian normalization and are overwhelmingly in the side of the Chinese line of approach in Syria and the whole region at large.

Economic Engagement and China-Saudi Business Conference

The 10th China-Saudi Business Conference held on 11th and 12th June in Riyadh “under the theme of “Collaborating For Prosperity” with the aim of supporting and promoting cooperation in the areas of economy, trade, and investment to achieve solutions of common interest for both Arab nations and China through strategic collaboration,” was a demonstration of engagement enthusiasm and growing welcome and influence of China in the region. The caption is particularly worthy of mentioning, “Join us for a new era of cooperation between Arab countries and China leading to stronger partnerships linking diplomatic, strategic, economic, industrial and cultural, cooperation.”These are the signs of growing syndrome of expansion of Chinese influence in this region of strategic importance for energy security and global transit trade route.

Chinese Peace Initiatives on Palestine

The Chinese peace gesture in the region which finds political and popular echo in the region when it says that the Palestine question has been the core issue in the region and only a comprehensive peace on a fair and just basis can bring a lasting peace and security in the region. In this regard it has proposed four point peace plan as well. First, ceasefire and cessation of violence is the top priority, specially Israel must exercise restraint in particular Second, humanitarian assistance is an urgent need. China urges Israel to earnestly fulfill its obligations under international treaties, lift all the blockade and siege of Gaza as soon as possible, guarantee the safety and rights of civilians in the occupied Palestinian territory, and provide access for humanitarian assistance. Third, international support and vigorous action by UN Security Council on the Palestine-Israel conflict, reiterate its firm support for a “two-state solution,” Fourth, a “two-state solution” is the fundamental way out. China supports the two sides resuming peace talks based on a “two-state solution” as soon as possible, to establish an independent State of Palestine with full sovereignty with East Jerusalem as its capital and based on the 1967 border and subsequent harmonious coexistence of the Arab and Jewish nations only can lead to a lasting peace in the region.

Chinese Responses to Recent Palestine Crisis 

As the tension and violence spiraling up in Palestine, the Chinese Foreign Minister had telephonic conversation with the Israeli Foreign Minister, Eli Cohen and said that “All parties should stay clam and exercise restraint, and refrain from any radical or provocative words and actions. The fundamental way out is to resume peace talks, and implement the two-states solution.” The vision of common security of both Israel and Palestine was to be upheld. The recent restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is “a fine example of resolving differences through dialogue”, he added. Such an intervention in the midst of the crisis and talk of genuine resolution of the century old inexorable conflict through dialogue and diplomacy finds positive echo in the region and ripples of hope all around, enhancing China’s influence as a power with credibility as a peace maker.

The perception of China and its role in West Asia has gained substantially with its stands on Palestinian and its offer of mediation based on two state solution. “The Palestinian question is at the heart of the Middle East issue and bears on enduring peace, stability and security in the Middle East region. To deescalate the Palestine-Israel conflict and resolve the Palestinian question, the fundamental way out lies in resuming the peace talks, enforcing the two-states solution, and establishing an independent Palestinian state,” said the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Qin Gang. He further added that “China upholds fairness and justice on the Palestinian question.”

The Palestine remains to be the core geopolitical issue for West Asian politics, regional peace and global diplomacy. The US is no more perceived as an honest broker given its extraordinary close strategic alliance with Israel and an unexplained silence to Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied territories. The Iran-Saudi rapprochement has strengthened the hope in Chinese support, a huge ripple of Chinese influence in the entire region. Following Beijing’s success in brokering the Saudi-Iranian diplomatic agreement in March, the support for Chinese diplomacy has substantially increased. Now around 80 percent of the people expressed a clear opinion in support of a Chinese role in Israeli-Palestinian Peace talks.

The cycle of violence in Palestine and US policy of vacillation and ambiguity and silence on Israeli excesses, makes Chinese engagement desirable into this century old inexorable crisis for a possible way out to peace. After the Chinese brokered peace  between Iran and Saudi Arabia, a congenial atmosphere is underway and the Chinese peace plan finds strong receptivity with hope of success. Chinese Ambassador, Geng Shuang made the remark at the UN Security Council Briefing on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question stressed three points in the wake of violence in Palestine. “First, the historical status quo of religious holy sites in Jerusalem must be respected and upheld. Second, the illegal expansion of settlements on the occupied territories must stop. Third, international humanitarian law must be observed.” Besides he further added that “China will continue to firmly support the Palestinian people and their just cause to restore their legitimate national rights, and support the establishment of a sovereign and independent state of Palestine based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

President Abbas Visit to China and Agreement

The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas just completed his three days state visit to China, his fifth visit to the country. The visit is important with the fact that China is ready to help facilitate the peace talks between Israel and Palestine. The main goal of this trip was to strengthen bilateral relations, exchange views on the latest developments in Palestine besides other regional and international issues of common concern. President Xi Jinping pointed out that China and Palestine are good friends, partners and trust and support each other. It was recalled that China was one of the first countries recognize Palestine Liberation Organization and the State of Palestine and firm support for restoring their legitimate national rights. It witnessed commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the establishment of their diplomatic relations and signing of the economic and technological cooperation agreements.

In a great show of support to the Palestinian sovereignty China affirmed its support for Palestine to become a full state member of the United Nations and would continue speaking for the Palestinian justice in multilateral forums and provide best possible assistance “to help ease humanitarian difficulties and reconstruction in Palestine.” It is notable that the President Xi Jinping had expressed China’s support to gain full membersship of the United Nations during his visit to Riyadh in December, 2022. These are rare expressions of support for Palestine from such a global power. It assumes greater salience in the wake of weakening of US support, withdrawal of commitments and assistance and genuine push for peace with Israel. 

A Joint Statement was issued on establishment of Strategic Partnership agreeing to support each other on core issues of mutual concern. China pledged support for legitimate Palestinian rights based on two-states solution with 1967 borders and East Jerusalem as capital and Palestine’s firm support to One-China principle and opposition to any attempts of interference in internal affairs of China. Both agreed for cooperation in Belt and Road Initiative, China-Palestine Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade, China-Palestine Free Trade Area, as well as in the field of culture, education and information. Also vowed cooperation in regional and international affairs to strengthen multilateralism. The grandeur of the visit with the global optics and commitments of China towards the most critical issue of Palestine and public resolve to resolve it is the significant Chinese outreach with profound geopolitical significance for the region. In the face of US failure in making peace owing to its obvious support for Israel and overlooking its settlement expansion in the West Bank, disproportionate use of force against Palestinian, China has become a rising hope for peace in Palestine.

Israel and Netanyahu’s upcoming visit to China

All these have produced an unprecedented geopolitical influence of China in the region without any cost. Moreover such an independent mediation policy in the region and beyond is underway at the expense of US influence. The geopolitical contest assumes completely a new dimension with recent growing differences between President Joe Biden and Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The latter in a classified briefing of the Israeli Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee  said that “The Chinese involvement in the Middle East isn’t necessarily bad. It could be useful because it will compel the US to stay here.” This is notable in the wake of US pressure on Israel in the recent years to limit Chinese involvement in Israel’s economy, particularly in infrastructure and tech sectors. Israel calls its relation with China as ‘Strategic Innovation Partnership’, important for its economy and technological leadership. President Netanyahu has officially invited by the Chinese gocernment to participate in the annual meeting of China-Israel Joint Committee on Innovation Cooperation, started in 2014. President Netanyahu shared this with the visiting US Congress Delegation about the planned trip. As per the Prime Minister’s Office it has already informed the US administration regarding this and also “emphasised that the US will always be Israel’s most vital ally and irreplaceable ally. But it is notable that the Prime Minister has not been invited to White House so far, a customary tradition of Israel-US relations. The upcoming visit, therefore, of the Israeli Prime Minister entails profound implications for the geopolitical trend in the region, Chinese pursuits in the region and obviously for geopolitical competition between China and the United States in the region and beyond.

In Brief

The geopolitical shift in West Asia underway entails a profound geopolitical competition between China and the United States. An ascending Arab normalization and unity is a marked trend with a vision for post-oil economic diversification. Armed peace strategy of the West, particularly of the United States has been losing relevance with the spiraling crisis in the region. There is a general aspiration in the region for cooperative peace and shared development which fits appropriately with the Chinese ‘Partnership Diplomacy”. There is a strong current of Chinese role and influence in the geopolitical reconfiguration in the region. Its involvements in crisis spots across the region- from Iran-Saudi rapprochement to Syria’s return to the Arab League as well as its peace proposal for Israel-Palestine issues is seen as constructive and in consonance with lasting regional peace and security. The ‘Arab Accord’ and an eventual Arab-Iran-Israel Accord is the pathway to a peaceful and prosperous West Asia. However, the global strategic competition of China and US is assuming an intensifying trajectory in the region. Hence, keeping a consistent balanced approach by countries of the region for a sustained momentum of normalization is the real challenge ahead to ensure security, stability and shared prosperity in the region. 

Dr.Khushnam P N
Dr.Khushnam P N
Independent IR and Regional Security Researcher & Analyst, Bengaluru, India