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China’s emergent footprints in West Asia
As China continues to exert its influence in West Asia, the US must manoeuvre itself to make sure it does not play second-fiddle to either Moscow or Beijing.
In a recent statement, US Special Envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, said that despite a prevailing narrative of American power in West Asia (Middle East) being in recession, the US was not abandoning the region. “The major message that the (US) president brought to the region is that the United States is not going anywhere,” Lenderking told the American media. However, many in the region today believe that the United States (US) in fact checked out a while ago.
US President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia in July came at a contested time. Russia’s war against Ukraine was pushing up global commodity prices, and Europe continues to face a critical energy situation in the run-up to the winter season. Biden, who had called Saudi a “pariah” state during his campaign, grudgingly met the kingdom’s heir apparent, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been linked to the murder of The Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 by the CIA itself. These moral and ethical red lines for American foreign policy have been a boon for China, which has steadily made space for itself in the region, both politically, and economically, by not bringing to the table any demands on issues such as human rights. This, of course, comes from the fact that Beijing itself is criticised by the United Nations for its treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the country’s Xinjiang province. However, the Islamic world has largely been silent on China’s crackdowns in Xinjiang, which gives Beijing the agency to approach its diplomacy from a transactional framework. Amidst all these variables, the US must manoeuvre itself today to make sure it does not play second-fiddle to either Moscow or Beijing.
"The Islamic world has largely been silent on China’s crackdowns in Xinjiang, which gives Beijing the agency to approach its diplomacy from a transactional framework."
Recently, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reportedly apologised to the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for a lacklustre response from the White House after Houthi militants attacked facilities in the country. The Houthis, an Iran-backed group, have also gained significant technological prowess in their operational capabilities, such as drones. Barbara Leaf, the US State Department’s Senior Middle East official has highlighted that the drones being used by Iran-backed militias in the region were coming from China and that it was ironic that Beijing was doing nothing to control this, whilst at the same time looking to sell defence technologies to Arab states that are pushing back against those very militias.
Recent reports claim that Chinese president Xi Jinping’s first overseas trip outside of China, since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, is going to be to Saudi Arabia and that unlike the sombre reception given to Biden, Xi is going to be welcomed to Riyadh with all the aplomb possible. The Chinese presence, even if comparatively small for the time being, is causing palpitations in Washington D.C., and beyond. Recent reports of a maritime port being developed by China in the UAE, that could be potentially used for military activities, caused significant friction in Abu Dhabi. The UAE, considered the most powerful state in the Arab world today and a close partner of the US, has used China to hedge its bets against the US, forcing Biden and his predecessors alike to deliver a much more equitable partnership instead of a lopsided one. The UAE had previously bought Chinese Wing Loong drones for its military after the US refused to supply its own MQ-9 ‘Reaper’ drones. More recently, reports also suggest that Abu Dhabi is set to buy Chinese L-15 trainer jets in a bid to diversify suppliers for its military. Many other countries in the Gulf today also bank on controversial Chinese technology giants such as Huawei to build their critical communications infrastructure, raising concerns over the possibility of data leaking into Chinese hands in the future.
"The UAE, considered the most powerful state in the Arab world today and a close partner of the US, has used China to hedge its bets against the US, forcing Biden and his predecessors alike to deliver a much more equitable partnership instead of a lopsided one."
However, Beijing has been careful in building its influence in what is a politically volatile geography, carefully managing the regional fault lines and remaining distant from getting embroiled in local geopolitics. China has learnt lessons from US interventionism, and for a large part, has stayed clear from overt military cooperation with the region, preferring to work largely behind the scenes. All of China’s outreach in West Asia as of today is designed for its own economic benefit. In 2021, China and Iran agreed on a 25-year cooperation agreement by some estimates is to be worth around US$400 billion. China has been looking to increase its cooperation with Iran since the 1980s, however, back then, the US reigned as the world’s only superpower. Today, the equations are much different. For China, Iran’s geography is critical for its expansive Belt and Road Initiative, and its natural resources, currently frozen by Western sanctions over the state’s nuclear program, can be exclusively accessed by China in the future. Meanwhile, for Iran, like the Gulf, China offers an alternative to its dealings with a West that is getting significantly uneasy over the rise of China, not just in Asia, but globally. The increasing cooperation between Iran, China and Russia, now being reflected at forums such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is being seen as an ‘alternative order’ to the ethos, ideologies and geopolitics of the West.
Israel, being the largest democratic ally of the US in the region, also pandered to the Chinese for potential markets and investments. For Beijing, Israeli technological supremacy, specifically in defence, can bolster its own technological development significantly. The US has actively worked to stall Chinese influence in Israeli tech since the 1990s, back when Beijing sought to get its first airborne early-warning (AEW) capability via Tel Aviv. The deal was eventually scrapped under US pressure in 2002. Fast forward many years later, the US is now known to be making progress once again by pushing Israel to shun Chinese investments in its technology sector.
"For China, Iran’s geography is critical for its expansive Belt and Road Initiative, and its natural resources, currently frozen by Western sanctions over the state’s nuclear program, can be exclusively accessed by China in the future."
The rise of China, and a view of curtailing this trend, is creating a patchwork of partnerships, alliances, and agreements. India is becoming a critical part and driver of this thinking from the ‘Quad’ in the Indo-Pacific to the I2U2 grouping (India-Israel-US-UAE) in West Asia, and this is including on a bilateral level, where New Delhi today conducts far more military exercises with the region than Beijing. China is now one more factor to respond to for India’s vibrant foreign policy design for West Asia.
Kabir Taneja (ORF)
13 September 2022