A U.S. official in May explained that it’s not just Israel: “We’re having similar conversations with all of our allies and partners.” A year ago, Pompeo warned that growing Chinese investment in Israel could adversely affect security cooperation with the United States.
U.S. pressure to reject China could now force several Middle Eastern countries into difficult alignment choices, as great power rivalry once again threatens to turn the region into a theater of competition. Here’s what you need to know about how U.S. allies are likely to react to the escalating tensions between the United States and China.
China’s Middle East strategy involves working with everyone
Could Washington force Middle Eastern countries to side against Beijing? It’s not likely. First, despite China’s heavy dependence on Middle Eastern energy, no single Middle East country has serious leverage over Beijing. China is the biggest trading partner for several Middle Eastern countries, and the largest external source of direct foreign investment.
Nor is cooperation against China likely. The continuing tension between Qatar and the Saudi-UAE bloc precludes coordinated Gulf Cooperation Council decisions. The lack of any meaningful multilateral forum in the Middle East means that unlike in Europe or Southeast Asia, there are several highly asymmetrical bilateral relationships between Middle East countries of various levels of development and capacity on the one hand and a $14 trillion economy the other.
Of course, the complex security dynamics in the Middle East have largely been shaped by U.S. policy. Beijing does not have to accept Washington’s strategic logic; it can pursue its own interests while working to avoid disrupting a delicate balance.
Trump and his predecessor Barack Obama both have accused China of free-riding in the Middle East, relying on U.S. protection of strategic oil supplies and supply lanes. In fact, the prospect of China not free-riding is more troublesome for U.S. interests. If China stepped up to play more of an active role in the region, Beijing would undoubtedly want to have a greater say in setting the rules. There is a gap in expectations: The U.S. wants China to bandwagon, to support U.S. stewardship of the Middle East.
China’s ambitions in the region don’t fit into this straitjacket. Instead, China has adopted a strategic hedging approach, building up an economic and political presence while avoiding a larger security role. For the time being this is largely about capacity — China does not yet have the ability to project power that far from home.
But it is also about politics. Beijing knows that an independent security position would antagonize the United States and also run counter to the preferences of Middle East leaders who want to continue trade and investment from China and retain U.S. security commitments. The status quo works for now.
What about Israel?
As with other Middle Eastern countries, China has been building a strong economic foundation for its relations with Israel, complementing steadily growing trade with increased investment, to the point where it is expected to overtake the United States as Israel’s largest investor. Beijing has emphasized cooperation in the high-tech sector, and U.S. officials estimate Chinese companies have substantial stakes in Israeli companies working on joint defense projects with U.S. contractors.
Infrastructure is another area where U.S. officials are watching closely. In 2015, Shanghai International Port Group won a 25-year contract to manage Haifa Port. The United States views Chinese investment or management of critical infrastructure as a threat — especially infrastructure used by the Navy. Given the depth of U.S.-Israeli ties it is not surprising that Washington has concerns about the port deal.
China investments reflect strategic decisions
Chinese leaders have to balance the importance of relations with Israel against the cost of antagonizing the United States. Beijing’s calculations with Israel have a regional dimension, though. If the State Department leans on allies and partners, then several Chinese projects across the Middle East could be threatened.
China also has comprehensive strategic partnerships with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE and all have signed on for major Chinese infrastructure projects. My research on China’s Belt and Road projects in the Middle East highlights how industrial parks and ports investments sketch the contours of China’s future Middle East presence, based upon several massive investments in those three countries as well as Oman and Djibouti. The extent of these investments suggests China will not abandon its interests in the Middle East because of increased U.S. pressure.
Furthermore, it’s not clear that Middle East countries would want China to stop. China has stepped up coronavirus aid diplomacy to its Middle East partners while the United States has been caught up in partisan bickering and blaming China for the pandemic. And just last week Dubai and Huawei announced an initiative to expand cooperation in artificial intelligence and digital transformation, building on inroads Huawei has made across the region, even under duress from Washington.
Middle Eastern countries are interested in what China has to offer, and China has seemed satisfied with the status quo. If the United States is going to ask its Middle Eastern partners to choose between it and China, the result will likely be a return of great power competition in the Middle East.
Jonathan Fulton is an assistant professor of political science at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi and a senior nonresident fellow at The Atlantic Council.