Middle East stuck in sights of escalating US-China rivalry


Emerging from the crushing blows from the pandemic and four years of global turmoil during Donald Trump’s presidency, many countries in the Middle East have shown signs that this level of conflict simply cannot continue.

But as the year draws to a close and a whirlwind of diplomacy accelerates, another geopolitical fault line has emerged: The Middle East has become a political and economic battleground for the United States and the United States. China, despite its continued attempts to maintain this powerful rivalry.

In comments that show how worried this is for Middle Eastern leaders, a senior Emirati official earlier this month expressed a sense of desperation over the clash between the United States and China.

“What worries us is this fine line between acute competition and a new cold war,” said Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the leadership of the United Arab Emirates, in a speech at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. last week.

“Because I think we, as a small state, will be affected negatively by this, but in no way will have the ability to affect this competition, even positively.”

Gargash confirmed reports that the United Arab Emirates – a key regional ally of the United States – had shut down a Chinese facility over U.S. allegations that the site was being used as a military base. He made it clear that Abu Dhabi was just hugging US intelligence – the UAE actually disagreed with Washington’s characterization of the site. Abu Dhabi simply did not want to upset a strategic ally.

Asked about the installation, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said he was “unaware” of the details given by CNN, adding that China was “strongly opposed to the” intimidating “practices. of the United States, which exerted undue pressure. and interfered in China’s cooperation with the United Arab Emirates. ”

“China and the United Arab Emirates conduct normal cooperation within the framework of sovereignty, which is reasonable and lawful and does not aim or have anything to do with a third party,” the statement said.

But the United States will not always win the battle for influence in the country. Days after Gargash’s remarks, Abu Dhabi apparently decided to stop joking with America. It was suspending a multibillion-dollar purchase of US-made F-35 planes, the first such deal with an Arab country. The United States had made the sale on condition that the United Arab Emirates remove Chinese company Huawei Technologies Co. from its telecommunications network. Washington has claimed the technology poses a security risk to its weapon systems, especially for an aircraft the United States calls its “crown jewel.”

Abu Dhabi disagrees. Emirati official says ‘cost / benefit analysis’ was behind their decision to stay with Huawei at the expense of the F-35s. And while US officials have tried to downplay the importance of the event and insist the sale has not been killed, Abu Dhabi had set a new tone, Abu Dhabi does not intend to always bow to US demands on China, and it rejects Washington’s notions of Chinese trade deals disguised as covert military activity.

It is an event that could set the stage, not only for Gulf power, but for an entire region where China’s rapidly growing trade ties transcend old ones. geopolitical rivalries and where the United States’ long-standing hegemony could end.

“A theater of competition”

The Middle East has been rocked by geopolitical tensions arguably since Western colonial powers carved up the resource-rich region into spheres of influence over a century ago.

But the region had rarely seen violence of the magnitude of the 2010s, when simultaneous wars in four different countries – Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq – as well as long-lasting violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, turned vast swathes of the Arab world into a bloodbath.

It was a period that coincided with momentous political change – the United States was losing priority in the Middle East as it laser-focused on China. The chaos that followed was unprecedented and seemed to anticipate a major power vacuum in Washington’s wake.

The ensuing wave of regional diplomacy – hasty and at times haphazard – also seemed to depend on an alleged US departure from the region. All the while, China, once ideologically vilified by powers like Saudi Arabia, was working in the shadow of the Middle East.

Beijing has forged far-reaching economic partnerships with countries like Riyadh and Tehran. It has strengthened its presence in economies that were already strong trading partners, such as the United Arab Emirates, where it is fast becoming the backbone of its telecommunications networks.

Accustomed to being the target of accusations of human rights violations, Beijing has vowed to remain silent on those in the Middle East and steer clear of its conflicts. He made the Middle East a key part of his Belt and Road initiative, a massive infrastructure project that connects East Asia to Europe (the Suez Canal in Egypt is the project’s only maritime connection. ). And above all, it was the opportunity to cover the region’s bets in the event of an American release.

“You have this scenario where this preeminent extra-regional power seems to be leaving, and then you have China, a major trading partner,” said Jonathan Fulton, a non-resident senior researcher at the Atlantic Council. “The area looks like a competition theater. It looks like the way it’s going to play out.”

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping after attending a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on July 22, 2019.

Analysts argue that if Washington forces the region to choose between the United States and China, the answer will be obvious: Friends of the United States in the region are loath to attract the ire of the superpower, especially since its military presence in the Middle East remains vast. But ultimately, the region may have no other choice but to take the Chinese carrot, even if it means submitting to the American stick.

The region’s gravity towards China, argues Fulton, is “the law of nature. This is probably how it will be in the next century ”.

The United States needs “real liquidity on the table”

The main weakness of the US proposal for China in the Middle East is that Washington offers no alternative to Beijing’s lucrative deals.

The United States may try to force the United Arab Emirates, for example, to withdraw from its deal with Huawei, but it is unwilling to give it a competitive second option. As Lebanon’s financial slump began in 2020, the United States pressured Beirut not to look to Beijing to invest in Lebanon’s decaying infrastructure, with US Ambassador Dorothy Shea issuing warnings televised on the dangers of China’s “debt traps”. The government of former Prime Minister Hassan Diab bowed to pressure, while the United States largely rejected his government, which it believed was backed by Hezbollah, and Western cooperation with the struggling economy was almost zero.

“American pressure has intensified in recent years, and especially since the start of the Belt and Road initiative in 2013,” said Tin Hinane El Kadi, associate member of the think tank. Chatham House. “However, in international politics you can only put pressure on countries when you have substantial power and the means to really come up with another deal.”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi greeted by Chinese President Xi Jinping during the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China on September 4, 2016.
Nor can the United States claim high moral standards on human rights issues or the spying it accuses Chinese companies like Huawei of carrying out. Recent scandals around Facebook, for example, weaken that position, argued Fulton.

“We watched what Facebook does… and after (whistleblower Edward) Snowden… it’s hard for them to say you can trust us because we’re reliable,” Fulton said. “If we are doing it for liberal reasons and they are doing it for authoritarian reasons, that is hardly an argument to make here.”

In the absence of a Western competitive alternative to Chinese cooperation, the handwriting appears to be on the wall. China’s roots in the region will only deepen and spread rapidly. Countries that have been drawn into largely unnecessary conflicts will choose options that serve their economic interests. And as Abu Dhabi’s worries about being caught in the midst of growing tensions between the great powers have shown, the appetite for conflict is quickly dissipating.

“Even though the United States right now, with very little influence, is forcing countries to choose between the United States and China, the fact that countries have more options, more loans than they can contracting from a variety of choices is a good thing, ”Kadi said. noted.

“Having more alternatives on the world stage can only be a good thing for the region and its stability.”

CNN’s Zixu Wang contributed to this report.


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