Mon. Oct 2nd, 2023

    China is succeeding in the Middle East because it learned from watching the US fail there for 20 years

    Iranian, Saudi, and Chinese foreign ministers during a meeting in Beijing on April 6.

    China has brokered a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, leading to a thaw in their relations.
    Chinese diplomatic advances have led to flawed assumptions about China’s intentions and US interests in the region.
    Natalie Armbruster is a research associate at Defense Priorities.

    Last week, Saudi Arabia and Iran formally quashed a seven-year freeze in relations and the world has Beijing to thank for brokering the breakthrough. However, not everyone is so readily appreciative.

    Following Chinese diplomatic advances in the Middle East, many in the West fear that growing Chinese influence in the region constitutes a threat to US interests in the long-term and is a sign of American decline. However, this assumption is flawed.

    China’s success is not an indication of its aspirations to unseat the United States in the region but instead a direct byproduct of observing the past 20 years of US Middle East policy and correcting its approach accordingly. Thus, China’s achievement in the Middle East should not be defined by the brokering of this deal, but by its avoidance of America’s missteps over the past 30 years.

    Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Riyadh in December.

    America’s first mistake was its overreaching aims: attempting to exert its political will on the region by force and expanding its involvement in the Middle East beyond that which serves its security and economic interests. Conversely, China is clear-eyed about its interests in the Middle East and, more importantly, their limits.

    China is the largest importer of crude petroleum in the world and Saudi Arabia is China’s top supplier of crude oil. The hand is greased both ways: China is also the top destination for Saudi crude petroleum exports, accounting for $38.3 billion, or 27.8% of Saudi Arabia’s crude oil market in 2021. Similarly, China accounted for 30% of all of Iran’s foreign trade in 2022.

    Just as before, China’s involvement in the Middle East will continue to center around profit and energy security. In China and Iran’s 25-Year Strategic Cooperation Agreement, China indicated it was willing to invest $400 million in Iran’s economy, providing a much-needed lifeline to the heavily-sanctioned pariah, in exchange for access to Iranian ports and discounted oil.

    In fact, most of China’s Belt and Road Initiative investments in the Middle East hinge on ensuring free trade in the Middle East and a steady energy supply, not security. The construction of ports or industrial parks in Oman or Egypt is neither random nor militarily valuable. However, they do orbit the vulnerable chokepoints for a steady supply of oil: the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, the Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Suez Canal.

    Iran’s then-president, Hassan Rouhani, with Xi at a summit in Shanghai in May 2014.

    America’s second mistake was choosing a side, stubbornly committing to a hard line against Iran and mounting obligations to Saudi Arabia. China, however, rejects this constraint of ideological politics, toeing the line between cooperating with both without alienating either.

    China’s role as a mediator today is not an aggressive pivot, but a continuation of China’s pre-existing policy of a friends-with-all approach. China has ensured that Saudi Arabia and Iran both know that Chinese investment is only an investment, not a political endorsement or security commitment as it is widely viewed when conferred by the United States.

    This clear division affords China more room to cooperate with adversaries and achieve what the United States cannot. However, let’s be clear: China did not achieve the impossible, nor did it do so alone. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been in talks for years, with Iraq acting as the mediator, as Saudi Arabia is anxious to disentangle itself from its proxy war in Yemen. Also, since 2021, it has been Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s stated objective to improve Iran’s relations with its regional neighbors.

    China’s deal did not magically solve the world’s ills or erase decades of tension. What China achieved was an agreement to talk: something both Saudi Arabia and Iran have an interest in doing. Thus, one must not overstate the significance of China’s brokering such an agreement when both parties had a vested interest in being amenable.

    President Joe Biden with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in July 2022.

    America’s third mistake was inflicting its moral compass onto its economic affairs. President Joe Biden’s narrative, a fight between democracies and autocracies in pursuit of a liberal world order, is a dangerous one, especially as American clients outside of the West grow weary of American chastisement and coerced human-rights concessions.

    China on the other hand seeks partners willing to agree to a policy of mutual apathy, a welcome respite to American partners trapped in the moral gray. China is willing to do business with countries without probing into their domestic affairs and expects the same courtesy, and lack of criticism, in return.

    As international scrutiny builds surrounding the Uyghur crisis, China is particularly keen on finding partners in the Middle East who will exchange silence for investment. With Saudi Arabia, which has its own skeletons in its closet, such a trade is tempting.

    For the past twenty years, China has watched the United States drain its resources, fight endless wars, and succumb to the hazards of exerting its political will onto a nonconsenting region. It is not anxious to repeat these mistakes and undertake a similar role.

    Instead of resorting to undue threat inflation, the United States may benefit from a corrective course on its history in the Middle East thus far.

    Natalie Armbruster is a research associate at Defense Priorities.

    Read the original article on Business Insider


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