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Coexistence with the United States: New Challenges in China’s Middle East Policy


A leading Middle East scholar at a Ministry of State Security-affiliated think tank explores scenarios for U.S.-China competition in the region. He argues that regional frictions between the two powers have remained relatively limited to date, in part due to diversified forms of engagement. Detailing debates on Middle East strategy in Washington and Beijing, however, he warns that relations may become more fractious going forward.

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The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is an important factor in once-in-a-century global changes. A century ago, a power transition occurred between the UK and the United States, and whether a power transition will happen between China and the United States in the future will become the most closely-watched international political matter of the 21st century. Currently, the United States views China as its biggest strategic competitor, and the situation of full-spectrum, global competition between China and the United States is increasingly becoming a reality. In the Middle East, the United States’ strategic contraction and the expansion of China’s influence demonstrate a trend of “China rising and the United States falling,” and the competition between China and the United States in the Middle East is gradually evolving from a media topic into a serious academic subject. How China and the United States coexist in the Middle East is a real and pressing issue. Changes are occurring simultaneously at global, regional, and bilateral levels, necessitating a new phase in the coexistence model between China and the United States in the Middle East.


I. An Increasingly Tense Global Environment


In May 2020, the U.S. State Department published the United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China, announcing that U.S.-China relations had moved from “engagement” to an era of “strategic competition.” The 2022 version of the U.S. National Security Strategy directly declared, “The post-Cold War era has ended, and the era of great power competition has begun,”1 elevating strategic competition with China to the theme of the era for the United States. U.S.-China relations have entered an era of strategic competition, the U.S.-Russia relationship is in a “quasi-war” state, and relations between major powers have never been as tense since the end of the Cold War. In May 2022, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered a speech on China policy, stating that strengthening the United States domestically, building a network of allies and partners externally, and shaping China’s external strategic environment are the basic paths of U.S. policy towards China.2 Reviewing the actions of the Biden administration over two years, the U.S. containment system against China can be divided into three major categories: first, establishing a technology alliance with developed countries; second, building a security alliance around China; and third, organizing a loose alliance to weaken China’s influence globally.


The tech war is at the core and forefront of U.S. containment of China, with Western developed countries as its main partners. The 2022 U.S. National Security Strategy emphasizes, “Technology is at the center of geopolitical competition and a reliable support for U.S. security, economy, and democracy.”3 On one hand, the United States is enhancing or adding anti-China functions to traditional Western alliances like the G7 and NATO. In June 2022, the G7 Summit for the first time included countries such as India and Indonesia, and comprehensively criticized China’s economic and technology policies. Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor to the White House, called the G7 Summit “a steering committee of the free world.” The United States has some advocates for expanding the G7 to a G12, inviting Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, NATO, and the EU to join. In the same month, the NATO Madrid Summit for the first time invited Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea to attend, declaring China a comprehensive “systemic threat” to NATO. The United States is also forming new alliances in key technology fields. In September 2020, the United States proposed the “Chip Four Alliance,” including the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. In June 2021, the United States led the establishment of the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council, which has held two ministerial meetings to date, coordinating positions on issues such as technology standards, investment review, export control, supply chain restructuring, and digital infrastructure. In October 2022, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce Alan Estevez revealed that the United States is consulting with Japan and the Netherlands on a trilateral chip mechanism to coordinate sanctions against China.


Establishing political, economic, and military encirclements is the United States’  geostrategic containment of China, with China’s neighboring countries as its main partners. Beyond traditional bilateral systems such as U.S.-Japan, U.S.-South Korea, U.S.-Australia, and U.S.-ASEAN, the United States frequently builds new multilateral systems. In September 2021, the United States, Japan, India, and Australia held the Quad Security Dialogue mechanism (QUAD) in Washington, engaging in exclusive cooperation in regional security, infrastructure, supply chains, and emerging technologies; the four countries also formed the “Quad Security Dialogue mechanism+” with Vietnam, New Zealand, and South Korea. In the same month, the United States, Australia, and the UK established a trilateral security partnership (AUKUS), with the UK and the United States assisting Australia in building a nuclear-powered submarine fleet and cooperating in digital security and other fields. In May 2022, the United States launched the “Indo-Pacific Economic Prosperity Framework” (IPEF) with 13 “Indo-Pacific” countries, targeting cooperation in trade, supply chains, infrastructure, clean energy, taxation, anti-corruption, and other fields. In September, the United States held a summit in Washington with leaders from 14 Pacific countries and economies, issuing the “U.S.-Pacific Partnership” statement.


Around trade rules, technology standards, market share, ideology, and other issues, the United States forms alliances globally to weaken China’s influence, serving as a supplementary mechanism in the U.S.’ containment strategy against China. The United States organizes networks of partnerships of various forms and sizes based on different issues, forming very loose relationships with members spread across the globe. In August 2020, the United States launched an expanded version of the “Clean Network” program,” mobilizing 60 countries to join, aiming to exclude Chinese technology and products from network construction. In September 2022, the United States held the first “Mineral Security Partnership” ministerial meeting, planning to reduce reliance on China’s supply chain in key mineral areas within 5-10 years. The United States also held the “Global Religious Conference” and “Global Democracy Conference,” representing a looser and vaguer anti-China mechanism.


The competition between China and the United States is becoming increasingly global, with all regions of the world involved in the U.S.’ strategic competition against China, although the degree and manner of involvement differ. Compared to others, the Middle East is less affected and has been passively involved. Geographically, the United States relies on Europe and “Indo-Pacific” core allies, with the Middle East on the periphery; functionally, the Middle East (except for Israel) is not part of the green alliance, the “democracy alliance,” the technology alliance, the Asia-Pacific alliance, or the U.S.-EU alliance. Clearly, in the U.S.’s three types of alliance systems against China, the Middle East ranks third and is in a marginal position.


From the Chinese side, with the unfolding of the global contest between China and the United States, the Middle East’s position in China’s global strategy has once again attracted attention. As early as the Yan’an period, the leaders of the Communist Party of China considered the Middle East as the “middle zone” of the superpower contest, where German and Japanese forces could converge against China, forming a joint encirclement.4 After 1949, China aimed to “prevent hostile great powers from controlling the Middle East, posing an indirect military threat to China.”5 In 1987, Deng Xiaoping pointed out: “We care about the situation there (in the Middle East) because it involves the issue of peace and war regarding the prospects of a Third World War. From the perspective of global strategy, we are concerned about the situation and outlook of this region.”6 After the end of the Cold War, the Middle East was no longer the main battlefield of great power games, and China mainly focused on the Middle East market, occasionally using the Middle East to coordinate China-U.S. relations. Currently, the importance of the Middle East in great power games has once again attracted attention from domestic and international academic circles, and the concept of the “middle zone” has re-emerged.7


II. A Relatively Relaxed Regional Environment


Compared to the increasingly tense global strategic environment, the situation of China-U.S. relations in the Middle East is relatively relaxed. In terms of regional affairs, there are no obvious conflicts between China and the United States. The United States is strategically contracting in the Middle East, and China maintains a relatively neutral and detached Middle East policy, resulting in little pressure for Middle Eastern countries to take sides. Of course, there are often frictions between China and the United States on certain regional hot issues, but these contradictions remain at the level of mutual accusations and non-cooperation, without escalating to direct confrontation. A report by the Council on Foreign Relations asserts that although China opposes the U.S. approach on issues like Syria and Iran, it has not directly challenged the U.S.’ regional dominance.8


From the perspective of great power games, the U.S.’ strategic contraction and China’s strategic caution create a relatively relaxed space for coexistence. From the attacks on 9/11 in 2001 to the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, the Middle East was once at the core of U.S. global strategy. Currently, Middle Eastern oil remains important, but the United States has achieved energy independence; Israel is still the United States’ most important ally in the Middle East, but Israel is fully capable of protecting itself; Middle Eastern terrorism is still a major security concern for the United States, but there have been no major terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in the past 20 years. The Middle East’s share in U.S. global strategy continues to decline, and both parties’ administrations have been implementing a strategy of contraction. A report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy states, “The debate in Washington is not about whether to contract, but how to do so.”9 If the United States has not yet decided what to do in the Middle East, what it does not want to do there is clearer. The United States will no longer fight a large-scale Middle Eastern war, nor will it fully reshape Middle Eastern society, let alone take on the responsibility of governing the Middle East. Obama once said, “The United States does not have the ability to govern the Middle East, and the idea of doing so is wrong; even if the Middle East is particularly important to the United States, there is no way for the United States to improve the situation there.”10 In the past decade, the United States has not led wars in Syria, Yemen, or Libya, and its support for key countries like Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon has waned. On the Chinese side, although there has been increased attention and involvement in regional situations, there has been no substantive intervention in any regional crisis. Regarding issues like the Astana process for Syria, the Vienna conference, the Quartet mechanism for the Israel-Palestine issue, the Paris, Palermo, and Berlin conferences for Libya, and the “Stockholm Agreement” for Yemen, China either did not participate or did not play a leading role. Therefore, contrary to the predictions of power transition theory, there has been no struggle between China and the United States for strategic space in the Middle East.


From the perspective of regional countries, these countries do not want to see China-U.S. strategic competition, are reluctant to take sides, and prefer to maintain a balance among major powers to enhance their own sovereignty. During the Cold War, Arab countries formed two camps around the U.S.-Soviet competition; after the Cold War, the United States dominated the Middle East, and Arab countries were divided into moderate and radical Islamic nations according to U.S. preferences. After the Arab Spring of 2011, non-Arab countries like Iran, Turkey, and Israel rose alongside Arab powers like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Qatar. These regional powers neither align with U.S. preferences nor choose sides between China and the United States, but seek a new balance among the United States, Europe, Russia, China, and India. The United States remains the most influential country, but the attractiveness of other countries is rising, with no Middle Eastern country fully betting on the United States. For example, the UAE simultaneously strengthens relations with China, India, South Korea, France, and Japan. In 2021, China was the UAE’s largest trading partner ($75.6 billion), India second ($61 billion), and Japan third ($37 billion), with India and Japan being the UAE’s largest export destinations, respectively. In December 2021, negotiations for the UAE to purchase U.S. F-35 fighter jets broke down, and in the same month, the UAE signed a $19 billion military procurement contract with France, followed by a $3.5 billion missile purchase contract with South Korea the next month, and an announcement to buy 12 Chinese L-15 training aircraft the following month. Although these military purchases cannot replace the F-35, the UAE’s intention to diversify its security is very clear. On the Libyan issue, the United States, Germany, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Qatar, the UAE, the EU, the United Nations, and NATO all have been involved, with the United States not playing a leading role, and the Middle Eastern political stage has never seen so many equivalent main actors. The increasingly diversified regional pattern reduces the regional driving force of China-U.S. strategic competition.


From the perspective of self-interest, China and the United States have broadly similar interests in the Middle East, with few points of conflict and a low degree of contradiction. In 2011, Obama defined U.S. interests in the Middle East as energy, counterterrorism, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and protecting Israel’s security and promoting Israel-Palestine peace talks.11 Ten years later, U.S. interests in the Middle East remain in these four areas, unchanged and rarely controversial. For China, energy security, counterterrorism, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and promoting Israel-Palestine peace talks also completely align with its own interests. In this regard, China-U.S. interests almost completely overlap. A report by the RAND Corporation states outright that China and the United States have consistent interests in most areas in the Middle East, and if the United States only views China through the lens of great power competition, it will miss many areas for potential cooperation.12 The United States aims to protect its Middle Eastern allies, mainly maintaining Israel and some Arab countries; China implements a non-aligned balanced policy, maintaining normal relations with all countries, without distinguishing between friends and enemies, which is the biggest difference between China and the United States. Even from this perspective, China and the United States are not completely opposed and occasionally have some space for cooperation. For instance, on the Iran issue, China and the United States have significant differences in stance: the United States views Iran as an enemy, while China sees Iran as a partner, but both China and the United States do not want to see Iran become a nuclear state, and regional stability is very important to China. Therefore, in the intermittent nearly 20 years of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, China and the United States have generally cooperated more than argued. In August 2022, Barbara Leaf, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, testified in the Senate, stating that, so far, the United States believes China is playing a positive role in the Iran nuclear negotiations.13 Even in areas where China and the United States have conflicting interests in the Middle East, there have been no active, initiative-taking actions to undermine each other’s policy goals. Overlapping interests form the basis for China and the United States to coexist peacefully in the Middle East.


From the perspective of regional influence, the United States enjoys security advantages, while China has economic strengths. Neither country shows high enthusiasm for weakening or replacing the other’s advantages, lacking the will for comprehensive competition. The nature of China and U.S. influence in the Middle East is different, making it impossible for one to replace the other, and even the cost of challenging each other is prohibitively high. Economically, China’s trade with the Middle East increased from $15.2 billion in 2000 to $284.3 billion in 2021, while U.S. trade only grew from $63.4 billion to $98.4 billion over the same period. China imports about 5 million barrels of oil per day from the Middle East, compared to about 800,000 barrels for the United States. In terms of economic affairs, China’s importance is significantly greater than that of the United States, a result of the respective economic structures of the two countries, not easily changeable. In security, from 2017 to 2019, the Middle East purchased 140.6 billion yuan in arms, with 67% coming from the United States and 6.7% from China. China’s arms exports to the UAE are less than 2% of those from the United States, and to Saudi Arabia less than 1%. The United States maintains tens of thousands of combat troops in the Middle East, while China has no stationed forces. The United States has military bases or facilities in Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE, whereas China does not. The United States has seven major non-NATO allies in the Middle East, while China adheres to a non-aligned policy and has no allies. Clearly, China cannot match the United States in terms of security influence. China’s economic relationships with Middle Eastern countries are mutually beneficial; the Middle East will not abandon China simply because the United States is dissatisfied, and challenging China would require the United States to incur substantial political and economic costs. Likewise, China neither desires nor has the capability to challenge the U.S.’ security position. The United States spends $75 billion annually on regular military expenses in the Middle East, which is 15% of its total military budget, not including war costs,14 while China’s total military budget in 2020 was only $178.6 billion. U.S. officials judge that China is unlikely to challenge the United States in the security field, where the U.S.’ strategic advantage is very prominent.15 Dawn Murphy, an associate professor at the U.S. National War College, states that China’s presence in the Middle East is economic, not security-related, and China has not moved in that direction.16


Despite this, the tense global strategic relationship spills over into regional affairs, influencing China-U.S. attitudes in these matters and raising some unsettling signals. Since 2015, with Russia’s intervention in Syria, cooperation between Israel, Arab countries, and the United States has increased, and Iran, Turkey, and Russia have also coordinated to some extent, creating a two-camp pattern, although China has not been involved. After the Ukraine crisis in 2022, the United States has increasingly viewed China, Russia, and Iran as a camp, signaling a return to a sort of “small Cold War” in the Middle East. United States scholars list China alongside Iran, terrorism, and oil supply as one of the United States’ concerns in the Middle East.17 In July 2022, before Biden’s visit to the Middle East, he wrote in The Washington Post, “Countering Russia’s aggression, better competing with China, and making the Middle East more stable are why I am visiting Saudi Arabia.”18 Afterward, discussion of the great power game in the Middle East intensified.


Currently, these signals are sporadic and intermittent, sometimes even barely perceptible. Overall, conflicts and contradictions in regional affairs between China and the United States are still not prominent, and Middle Eastern affairs themselves are unlikely to lead to China-U.S. conflict. However, it is noteworthy that outside of regional affairs, Chinese and U.S. political, economic, and security activities in the Middle East increasingly display opposition and even conflict.


III. Increasingly Sharp Bilateral Contradictions


For over two thousand years, trade has been the primary link between China and the Middle East, transitioning from jewels, spices, and silk in the past to oil and industrial products today. However, in the past decade, China’s engagement with the Middle East in finance, investment, technology, arms sales, politics, and security has increased, transforming the bilateral relationship from one dominated by economic trade to a comprehensive one, climbing from the lower to the higher end of the production chain. This shift has led to a change in China-U.S. relations in the Middle East from complementary to homogenous competition, with inevitable tensions and contradictions. The United States is not concerned about China replacing its position, nor does it believe China can fully challenge its dominance. However, in the context of a tense global strategic environment, these contradictions are sufficient to stimulate the United States to adopt a policy of skepticism and hostility towards China.


In the technological field, the United States’ exclusive competition against China is intensifying, mixed with economic interests, political suspicion, and security dilemmas, steering China-U.S. relations towards zero-sum competition. Traditionally, the United States has been at the upper end of the supply chain, engaging in energy exploration, finance, insurance, design, regulation, management, and consulting, while China excels in mining, infrastructure, production, and processing, with more complementarity than competition. In recent years, China’s technological content in trade, investment, and project contracting has continuously increased, gradually moving up the supply chain and becoming more competitive in fields like the digital economy, aerospace, clean energy, and the defense industry, rapidly expanding the scope of China-U.S. economic competition. This is the natural logic of economic development. However, globalization and technological progress have blurred the line between economy and security, especially against the backdrop of a tense global strategic environment, where the United States often views economic competition from a political and strategic perspective. Barbara Leaf stated that over the years, the United States and the Middle East have formed a large system or ecosystem composed of infrastructure, military equipment, high-tech products, and dual-use technology. Now, as China aims to break through this system, the United States is concerned about the security of the system and even more worried about China replacing the U.S. system.19 Clearly, the United States wants to maintain the exclusivity of this system. Both China and the United States are competing for technological access and standards, which are at the heart of competition in 5G, space technology, ports, and weaponry, and represent the sharpest contradictions between China and the United States in the Middle East, with almost no room for reconciliation. For China, it is inevitable to expand into investment and high-tech fields while maintaining its trade advantage, extending from the economic to the political and security fields, which is both the natural logic of economic development and an inevitable choice for a major power to expand its global influence. Chinese companies have signed 116 “Smart City” and “Safe City” projects globally, with 17 in the Middle East, making it the region with the most such projects. Huawei has signed 5G cooperation agreements with 11 telecom companies in Gulf countries, making the Middle East a key area for China’s overseas 5G construction. China’s Beidou and the U.S. Global Positioning System compete in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Turkey signing digital Silk Road agreements with China’s Beidou. In these areas, the United States explicitly demands Middle Eastern countries choose sides. The United States has successfully excluded Huawei equipment from Israel’s 5G network and requested the UAE do the same by 2025. In July 2022, during Biden’s visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel, he signed technology cooperation memorandums with both countries, proposing to build dependable 5G and 6G networks, excluding Chinese technology and equipment. The 2022 U.S. National Security Strategy explicitly proposes a “national industrial policy,” reversing the tenets of free-market capitalism, strengthening the government’s role in international economic competition, and using state power to intervene in market competition, further blurring the lines between domestic policy, economy, and diplomacy. In the future, conflicts between China and the United States in this field will only intensify.


In the soft power domain, the influence of China and the United States wax and wane, constituting competition between two models, whether by active choice or natural outcome. Given the clear differences in ideology, political systems, economic systems, and diplomatic values between China and the United States, the rise of the “Chinese model” inevitably means a decline in the “American model.” Although few believe weakening the United States is the main goal of China’s Middle East policy, most think China’s actions objectively erode U.S. influence. International organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund set preconditions for economic aid, but China-led institutions such as the BRICS New Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the New Silk Road Fund explicitly state no political conditions attached. China-led international financial institutions and the Shanghai Oil Exchange are exploring yuan pricing, challenging dollar hegemony. In response to the Belt and Road Initiative, China has established new mechanisms for resolving trade and investment disputes, weakening the trade system dominated by the West. China also offers Middle Eastern countries an alternative development model to the West, the “Chinese-style modernization” path, achieving economic growth while maintaining political stability. Compared to technological competition, the impact of China’s soft power is subtle and will not shake the U.S.-dominated political and economic system in the short term, “with no signs, except for some technological factors, indicating that the Chinese model poses a challenge to the United States in the Middle East.”20 However, ideological competition is very sensitive, largely a matter of sentiment and psychology, and even minor quantitative changes can easily trigger panic reactions. A poll in early 2022, the “Arab Barometer,” showed that more than half of Arab people believe democracy is not conducive to economic development, prompting a British scholar to lament, “Arab nations may lean more towards the Chinese system.”21


In the field of diplomacy, the fundamental principles of China and the United States collide head-on, leading to diametrically opposed positions on certain regional matters of contention. Unlike the United States, China has not directly involved itself in these issues. However, as an emerging power approaching the center of the Middle Eastern political stage, China adheres to its principles on every major issue. China has proposed the “Five-Point Peace Initiative” on the Israel-Palestine conflict, the “Three Basic Principles” on the Libya issue, the “Six Proposals” on the Syria issue, and the “Five-Point Initiative” for security and stability in the Middle East. Although these initiatives and principles have not had a substantial impact for the time being, they highlight the stark differences in approaches and practices between China and the United States, with both sides vying for the moral high ground. On the Israel-Palestine issue, the United States has long favored Israel, while China consistently supports the Palestinian cause; the United States almost always votes against UN resolutions condemning Israel, while China votes in favor. On the Iran issue, the United States spares no effort to build a political, economic, and military cordon to contain Iran, while China insists on maintaining normal political, economic, and military interactions with Iran. On the Syria issue, the United States employs a combination of economic sanctions, military intervention, and political isolation to attempt regime change, while China has vetoed U.S. interventions in Syria 10 times in the UN Security Council. China does not directly challenge the United States, but consistently portrays itself as an alternative to the United States, questioning American development models and intervention policies.22 As China’s involvement in Middle Eastern affairs increases, conflicts between China and the United States in this field are likely to increase accordingly.


In the military domain, the United States regards the Middle East as a no-go zone, and any China-U.S. competition in this area would lead to sharp contradictions. Military security is a pillar of U.S. policy in the Middle East and a primary means of influencing the region. U.S. officials have repeatedly stated that the economy is one thing, but the military is another. Currently, the United States has recognized China’s leading position in trade and energy and may in the future recognize China’s advantages in investment. However, the United States is not willing to relinquish its military superiority and remains highly vigilant, even considering this a “red line.” An article in The Economist suggests that if China constructs dual-use ports or engages in sensitive technological cooperation, the United States will demand its Middle Eastern allies to choose sides.23 As early as 1999, when Israel sold reconnaissance planes to China, the United States exerted significant pressure, forcing Israel to terminate all military cooperation with China, a stance that remains to this day. In the spring of 2021, U.S.-UAE negotiations over the sale of F-35 fighter jets broke down, with the United States citing concerns not only about 5G but also about the UAE’s defense cooperation with China.24 In recent years, due to the cost-effectiveness of Chinese drones, countries like Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have purchased them from China, and in 2017, Saudi Arabia and China discussed establishing a joint drone production factory, the third such project globally. In response, in 2020, then-CENTCOM commander Kenneth McKenzie stated in a video conference that one of his responsibilities is to prevent Gulf countries from buying armed drones from China.25 So far, China’s involvement in the military affairs of the Middle East has been limited, with the United States maintaining a significant advantage, and conflicts between China and the United States in the military domain are not prominent, with only individual isolated incidents occurring.


In the area of strategic security, both China and the United States worry about the Middle East becoming a card in the other’s hand, potentially creating a classic security dilemma. The United States, as an existing superpower, often has excessive anxiety and a sense of peril, tending to exaggerate the power and intentions of rising nations. China, as a rising power, is often eager to showcase its strength and status. The Middle East, as a third party, worries about the United States’ contraction and is eager to use rising China to balance the United States, also willing to exaggerate its own influence. The possibility of the United States cutting off energy supply lines is a persistent shadow over China, which is China’s primary concern regarding the Middle East. Senior U.S. Middle East expert Gause points out, “Overall, if U.S.-China relations deteriorate, and the United States can control the oil-rich areas, it gains an additional card.”26 Conversely, the United States also worries about the Middle East becoming increasingly reliant on China for energy, potentially becoming a card in China’s hand, with Gulf countries increasingly dependent on the Chinese energy market. The United States is concerned about China controlling Gulf energy technology standards, forming exclusive trade groups.


These contradictions are inevitable. If regarded as the primary contradiction in China-U.S. relations in the Middle East, they hold strategic significance. Currently, both China and the United States view these contradictions as tactical, not altering their respective Middle East strategies. If managed properly in the future, these contradictions will not harm the overall China-U.S. relationship; however, if they are allowed to worsen or are deliberately magnified, they could easily escalate into a strategic conflict.


IV. A Critical Crossroads


Historically, the relationship between China and the Middle East can be divided into three stages. From 1949 to 1978, China actively participated in the great power politics between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Middle East. From 1978 to 2013, the focus of China’s Middle East policy was on energy and trade. Since 2014, the relationship has entered a third stage, evolving beyond energy and trade to include finance, investment, technology, and culture, becoming more comprehensive. Whether the relationship will advance to a fourth stage, transitioning from an economically dominated relationship to a more balanced engagement including political and military aspects, remains an open question.


Correspondingly, China-U.S. relations in the Middle East have also evolved. Between 1949 and 1970, the relationship was antagonistic. From 1970 to 1990, there was sporadic cooperation, and from 1990 to 2018, the relationship was characterized by parallel engagement. During this period of parallel relations, China’s approach was not to cooperate with, support, or confront the United States, and not to consider the United States as a primary factor in its Middle East policy. Currently, the strategic confrontation between China and the United States on a global scale is becoming increasingly apparent. On the regional level, however, there is good compatibility of interests and strategic space, with limited conflict. On a bilateral level, structural contradictions and security dilemmas are evident. As tensions in the upper and lower layers of relations increase, the core middle layer is pressured and impacted, making the current state of parallel relations unsustainable. A new phase in China-U.S. interactions in the Middle East is inevitable. Global, regional, and bilateral levels are just the objective environments faced by Sino-American relations, influencing but not determining policy. The interpretation of these environments involves considerable subjectivity, and the choice of policy involves significant agency.


From the U.S. perspective, marked by the 2022 version of the U.S. National Security Strategy, U.S. policy towards China has crossed a critical juncture and entered an era of strategic competition. The China-U.S. relationship has many characteristics of the Cold War but is more complex than the U.S.-Soviet relationship. Whether it will evolve into a global and comprehensive confrontation remains flexible. Even if a form of Cold War does develop between China and the United States, it does not mean that the United States will allocate resources evenly across all regions and issues globally; such decisions will be context-specific. The United States has only a vague concept of the model of coexistence between China and the United States in the Middle East and is unwilling to see the reality of “China rising and the United States falling.” However, how much of a threat this poses to the United States and how many resources the United States is willing to invest in response are hotly debated issues within the United States.


Within the United States, there are varying assessments of the importance of the Middle East and China’s policy in the region. One view sees the Middle East as a new frontier or even a key area in global competition between China and the United States, urging the United States to stop its strategic contraction and reorganize its Middle East strategy to contain China. This perspective believes that China views the Middle East as a strategically significant area, second only to the Western Pacific,27 and that China-U.S. strategic competition in the Middle East is a reality that U.S. policymakers are reluctant to acknowledge.28 Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Zakheim criticized the Biden administration for recognizing China’s challenge as global but focusing only on Asia-Pacific, leaving opportunities for China in the Middle East.29 Some even argue that the Middle East is not just a new frontier in China-U.S. global competition, but also a crucial area. If the United States concedes the Middle East to China, China could become the dominant power in Eurasia, contesting Eurasian dominance.30 U.S. Central Command chief Michael Kurilla suggested that the Middle East is the center of global competition between China and the United States, both substantively and symbolically.31 This view holds that the United States cannot continue to ignore China’s strategic expansion in the Middle East and must adjust its current policies.


A second perspective argues that the United States can safely engage in strategic contraction in the Middle East and quickly shift its global strategic focus to the Indo-Pacific. This view posits that with U.S. energy independence, the importance of the Middle East has declined. The United States does not need to control or dominate Middle Eastern affairs but only prevent any hostile country from doing so. According to this opinion, the United States should acknowledge the end of its domination in the Middle East and allow global and regional powers to form a new balance of power, with the United States being just one of many players. There is no great power competition in the Middle East; Russia is merely a disruptor, and China has not transformed its economic resources into political or military influence. Moreover, China and the United States have similar interests in the Middle East.32 Harvard Professor Stephen Walt suggests that Middle Eastern countries are simply playing a balancing game between China and the United States, and the United States should be cautious and not satisfy all their demands because of their flirtations with China.33 On the contrary, if the United States opts to contain China, it could only provoke China into military competition, potentially making China a real military threat. The United States needs to learn to coexist with China, and there are many areas where cooperation is possible.34


A third view suggests that the United States should both contract its strategy in the Middle East and be wary of China filling the vacuum. This perspective maintains that the energy transition is uncertain and the importance of the Middle East hard to judge. Historically, the Middle East has always attracted U.S. strategic attention. As former U.S. diplomat Elliot Koss says, “You may not be interested in the Middle East, but the Middle East is interested in you.”35 China’s strategy is also unclear, a composite of economic, energy, political, and security factors, with dynamic changes in the importance, reality, and strength of these factors. The United States must prepare for both scenarios. The rapid U.S. strategic contraction over the past 20 years was a mistake that allowed China and Russia to expand their influence in the Middle East.36 In the future, the United States should slow its contraction pace and build a regional environment conducive to great power competition. This “look both ways” attitude is actually a hedging strategy that seems ideal but is in fact conflicting in its objectives, high in cost, risky, and difficult to balance. Georgetown University Professor Mark Lynch warns that as China’s involvement in Middle Eastern affairs increases, the United States, in seeking a balance between regional interests and competition with China, could face dangerous misunderstandings.37


Similarly, in China, there are three views on its Middle East policy. One is to prepare for a major Sino-American competition in the Middle East, re-emphasizing great power competition as a key consideration in China’s Middle East policy, significantly elevating the importance of the Middle East in international political struggle, and accordingly advancing the Middle East in China’s global strategic order, increasing economic, political, and military resource investment in the region. To some extent, this would be a return to China’s pre-1980 Middle East policy. The second view continues to see the Middle East as an important economic partner, avoiding a major China-U.S. competition in the region as much as possible. Since the end of the Cold War, the Middle East has been an important source of energy supply and a commodity export market for China, as well as a good partner in international politics, serving as an “ecological conservation area” for China’s peaceful development. The value of the Middle East lies in its own economic and political impact, not in the role it plays in great power competition. As China’s influence increases, it will naturally weaken the U.S.-led order, a result of natural formation, not a deliberately pursued strategic goal. As Professor Dawn Murphy of the U.S. National War College says, China does not seek to replace the existing order or confront the United States, but China has established its own system, which could confront the United States in the future.38 From 1980 to the present, China’s Middle East policy has largely been as such. The third view is to adopt a hedging strategy, focusing on the economic potential of the Middle East and also preparing for a major Sino-American competition in the region, preparing for the best and the worst, a compromise and mix of the two aforementioned choices. China’s establishment of an economic, political, and security system in the Middle East to hedge against the United States, while not confronting or challenging the United States, seems to be the safest choice, but it is not without cost or risk. Ultimately, it may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy – by worrying about and preparing for confrontation, it leads to confrontation. Whether the first or third choice, both would significantly change China’s current Middle East policy. China’s Middle East policy has been distant from great power competition for over 30 years, and whether it needs to change is a significant question.


If China prematurely or excessively prepares for a China-U.S. competition in the Middle East, it would incur unnecessary costs and exacerbate the risk of regional conflicts. Conversely, a delayed response could result in strategic passivity and missed opportunities. Adopting a hedging strategy would also face cost and risk challenges. China’s economic influence naturally transforming into political influence and thereby weakening American influence is one thing; deliberately arranging economic activities to enhance political influence and aiming to weaken America’s dominant position is another. Taking the oil yuan as an example, the U.S. dollar accounts for 60% of global reserve currencies and 40% of payment currencies, while the yuan accounts for about 3% in both areas, making it unlikely that the yuan will challenge the dollar’s position in the short term. However, the oil yuan has become a sensitive topic and even a focal point of contention in the trilateral relationship between China, the U.S., and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. suspects that China and Saudi Arabia are promoting the oil yuan for political and security reasons, whereas China believes the United States is suppressing the yuan for similar motives.


Energy security is of utmost strategic importance to China in the Middle East, being a cornerstone of its Middle East strategy. Currently, China’s dependence on foreign oil exceeds 70%, with the Middle East accounting for about 50% of this. Traditionally, China has secured Middle Eastern oil through various means to ensure a stable supply. However, oil sanctions post-1973 have generally been consumer countries sanctioning producer countries, not the other way around. More importantly, these sanctions have all been initiated by the West The last decade has shown that only the U.S. has the capability to implement oil sanctions against China, integrating oil, finance, insurance, shipping, and technology, and only the U.S. has this capacity. Thus, ensuring China’s energy security primarily targets the U.S., not the Middle East. The question of which China-U.S. coexistence model in the Middle East benefits China’s energy security is a topic worthy of in-depth study.


Long-term involvement in Middle Eastern economic affairs means that if China intends to prepare for major power competition, it needs to adjust the priorities and allocation of its global strategy. Economically, China can maintain balanced relations with all regional countries, but once it enters the deeper waters of military and political domains, such relations become nearly impossible to sustain. It can be predicted that without major sudden events, China is unlikely to proactively make significant adjustments to its current Middle East policy, instead cautiously observing and adjusting within the dynamics of China-U.S. interaction. If China and the United States can seize opportunities and make the right choices, they can avoid a continuous crisis management mode of conflicts and contradictions in the Middle East. If they miss future opportunities, the region may tilt towards comprehensive competition. Currently, the Indo-Pacific and Europe have already entered a mode of strategic competition between China and the U.S., and the future direction of the Middle East may offer insights for Latin America and Africa.


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Cite This Page

牛新春 (Niu Xinchun). "Coexistence with the United States: New Challenges in China's Middle East Policy [与美国共处:中国中东政策的新挑战]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in Contemporary International Relations [现代国际关系], November 1, 2022

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