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Will the Middle East be a flashpoint between the United States and China? | New




Eighteen months into his term, US President Joe Biden made his first visit to the Middle East earlier this month, a region that was once at the center of his country’s foreign policy.

But, even with these longtime allies, the subject of China was not far off.

We need to put ourselves in the best possible position to outperform China, Biden wrote before embarking on the journey.

There is a growing narrative within the US foreign policy community that tends to see the Middle East as a possible flashpoint for global competition between the US and China, as the footprint of China has become more visible.

From traditional areas of collaboration, such as oil and gas, to the new so-called Health Silk Road, where China is using the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to provide healthcare to countries in need, the world’s second largest economy has expanded its portfolio economy with the region and made it clear that it is here to stay.

This lays the groundwork for more intense competition between China and the United States, which sees the Middle East firmly under its global security umbrella.

As the footprint of China has grown, there is this romantic orientalism towards China and this [conception of] China as a potential alternative to the United States, as a wealthy power to substantially solve the region’s problems, said Mohammed Turki al-Sudairi, head of the Asian studies unit at the Research Center and Islamic Studies of King Faisal in Saudi Arabia. Arabia.

Yuan to replace the dollar?

This could bring the Middle East closer to China, some say, as the United States gradually shifts its foreign policy from the region and its energy focus away from oil.

In March, Saudi Arabia was considering accepting the Chinese renminbi (yuan) instead of the US dollar for Chinese oil sales, a major departure from the current dollar-based international oil trading system.

Saudi Arabia is China’s largest crude oil exporter: in 2021, for example, China imported 87.58 million tonnes of crude oil from the kingdom, topping the list of China’s crude importing partners, according to the General Administration of Customs of China.

Saudi Arabia and China see the benefits of such an arrangement, analysts say.

For China, trading the yuan would essentially protect the country from currency fluctuations and potential sanctions. On Saudi Arabia’s side, China is a major trading partner, and such a move could demonstrate its understanding of China’s concerns, according to Dawn Murphy, associate professor of national security strategy at the US National War College, who studies the China’s relations with the South. , including the Middle East.

Many analysts believe, however, that the competition between these two major powers in the region will not necessarily be in the energy sector, despite the Middle East’s automatic association with oil and gas in recent decades.

China’s growing authoritarianism, in stark contrast to what Biden described as American values, has sparked a new round of more intense ideological competition between the United States and China in the Middle East.

From its treatment of its Uyghur Muslim population and its crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong, China is fostering support in an era of emerging multipolarity as it becomes more likely to be able to compete with the United States on one foot. equal, according to Murphy.

China protects internal security by ensuring that there is no support for activities in Xinjiang from other countries, including Saudi Arabia, she said.

Mutual benefits

However, the heart of the zero-sum competition between the United States and China could end there: the idea that the United States is losing its dominant role in the region to China could be exaggerated and the presence of China and the United States in the region could easily be mutually beneficial, analysts say.

The idea that the United States risks losing the Middle East to China is too simple, said Guy Burton, an adjunct professor at the Brussels School of Governance who has studied China-Middle East relations in depth. .

China has already been present [in the Middle East] for a long time, and its economic footprint has expanded beyond just the energy sector and shifted into digital, healthcare and real estate, Burton said. But that doesn’t mean they [Middle Eastern nations] abandon the United States: they have good relations with the Chinese, but they do not expect the Chinese to replace the Americans.

As Bidens’ attempts to form a security alliance that would include Israel and Saudi Arabia to fight Iran show, the United States is still much more invested in the security aspect of the region than China, and that won’t change anytime soon, experts say. said.

China’s footprint in the Middle East is economic and not security, Murphy said. It’s not about providing that kind of commitment.

China has benefited considerably from the American security presence in the past: from Iraq to Kuwait, the premise for the expansion of Chinese investment rests on the security and stability of this country. In this sense, US and Chinese interests converge in some areas, according to Burton.

Meanwhile, China has long touted its ability to develop strong relations with various countries that are themselves sometimes adversaries, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, two of China’s biggest partners in the region.

So far, China has been very successful in keeping its foreign policy balanced, maintaining positive relations with countries in the region.

Beijing has signed deals with Israel and Saudi Arabia while entering a 25-year cooperation program with Iran, and has positioned itself well not to interfere politically in a region mired in conflict.

Yet, as both the United States and China become more determined to engage in competition, it is unclear how long China can continue to execute its purely economic foreign policy in the region.

China’s past success in maintaining a relatively neutral stance has garnered support. Saudi Arabia appreciates that China doesn’t care about Riyadh’s human rights record, and that Iran isn’t treated as an international pariah and given some respite from sanctions.

Still, some analysts have expressed doubts about the likelihood of China strictly enforcing the policy.

Economically, as you invest more, you’re going to become more regionally connected and more locked-in, and eventually you’re going to get sucked in politically, Burton explained. At the same time, you have Americans trying to push this new Cold War narrative trying to force their allies to make decisions now.

The world is now entering a phase with a greater degree of uncertainty, and for many countries in the region it is impractical to have to choose among some of the biggest players.

In a region going through a period of transition, people do not think in binary terms, namely the United States or China, al-Sudairi said. They need both.




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