China in the Middle East: the US factor

27 Nov 2018

Shortly after hosting the seventh biannual Ministerial Meeting of the China-Arab States Co-operation Forum (CASCF) in Beijing in July this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the United Arab Emirates for three days. It was his second Middle East trip, after visiting Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt in January 2016. During the course of the visit, Xi and the current president of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, elevated the bilateral relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership, the highest level in China’s hierarchy of diplomatic relations. Mr Xi’s visit was well-timed; at the CASCF meeting, he declared the Arab states to be natural partners in his legacy Belt-Road Initiative (BRI), called for ‘comprehensive, co-operative and sustainable security’ and announced that China would provide loans, aid and development funding packages totalling US$23 billion ($32 billion) to be linked to efforts to stabilise the Middle East in order to facilitate the BRI. China seeks to emphasise development opportunities in its relationships, underscoring the observation of Ambassador Li Chengwen, the Chinese permanent representative to the CASCF, that ‘The root problems in the Middle East lie in development, and the only solution is also development.’

The larger question, however, remains: does China seek to nurture and develop its ties to the Middle East as a prerequisite towards supplanting the United States as the security guarantor and primary extra-regional power there?

Key points:

  • The United States has had a geostrategic interest in the Middle East since the Second World War.
  • That interest was based on its global aspirations as well as its energy dependence.
  • It has, more recently, witnessed a diminution of political interest in the region as well as reduced dependence on Middle Eastern energy.
  • That situation has caused concern among the rulers in the Middle East, who seek a security guarantor if the US were to withdraw from the region.
  • China has various reasons for wishing to replace the US in the Middle East.
  • Whether Beijing desires to achieve that goal, however, is uncertain.
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