The US and China in the Middle East: Rivals or Partners?

Main Image Credit Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on 22 July 2019. Courtesy of Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo

The US bridles at China’s growing Middle East footprint. But the two are not necessarily doomed to be regional rivals.

Last month the Wall Street Journal reported that a planned sale of F-35 fighter aircraft and Reaper drones by the US to the UAE might fall through. The story was prompted by the arrival of two Chinese People’s Liberation Army aircraft at an airport in the country, where unidentified material was carried off. The newspaper also recalled that Chinese military interest in the UAE was not new. Last year, the Pentagon published a report which claimed that China was looking to increase its military presence in the Middle East and establish an additional logistics and operational base to add to its current one in Djibouti, perhaps in the UAE.

A week after the release of that Pentagon report, Dana Stroul, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, was asked about China’s presence during a Middle East Institute (MEI) webinar. She said that the US was in competition with China globally and that this could have regional repercussions. And she warned some countries in the region against trying to hedge between the US and China. Admitting that some of these US allies and partners were keen to build their economic and cyber relationships with Beijing, Stroul said that the development of such ties could be risky. Chinese investments might not only expose those countries to security threats, but also the US as well. This point was made in the more recent Wall Street Journal article, where US officials expressed their concern that the Chinese might gain access to the F-35 technology through the Emiratis.

Such fears resulted in the US administration requesting that the Emiratis restrict Chinese access. Arguably, such conditionality – along with the request not to use the equipment in Yemen and Libya and the US’s desire not to reduce Israel’s qualitative edge over its potential Middle East opponents – could well grate on the Emiratis, especially if they feel that the purchased aircraft and drones should be used as they see fit.

Looking to counter such irritation, US officials like Stroul and her military colleague in the webinar, Brigadier General Duke Pirak, the Deputy Director for Strategy, Plans and Policy at CENTCOM, are keen to stress the quality of the US relationship over what China could offer. Pirak noted that while China could offer ‘material solutions, it had no customer care plan’ for after-sales. Stroul went further, pointing out that there was ‘no comparison’ in terms of what the US could offer versus the Chinese, from the quality of the equipment to the opportunities for military training and education.

Growing Fears

These warnings and efforts at persuasion are not new. US fears regarding China have grown in recent years, especially in relation to the largest recipient of US assistance in the region, Israel. There, the US had reservations over Huawei’s possible development of the country’s 5G network and the agreement between Haifa and the Shanghai International Port Group to build and manage a new port, which would be near to where US Sixth Fleet ships dock. Following US pressure, the Israelis agreed to set up an advisory panel to monitor foreign investments.

These US measures have not gone unnoticed by the Chinese. Beijing has criticised US activity in the region, claiming that it has been a major source of instability. It has also sought to distinguish itself from Washington by emphasising its commitment to non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries – an appealing prospect for the region’s regimes who tire of Western demands on human rights. To this may also be added an absence of any conditionality regarding the use of Chinese technology; indeed, part of the US decision to sell its drones to the UAE is an attempt to claw back market share from the Chinese, who have increased their sales to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iraq and Jordan without any end-use requirements.

Limited Rivalry

Despite the differences between the US and Chinese positions and approaches in the region, the two are not destined to always be in competition with each other. There is scope for cooperation as well, especially since the two share some common interests at the regional level.

At the start of her remarks in the MEI webinar, Stroul pointed out that President Joe Biden’s policy is to de-escalate tensions and conflict in the region and boost stability. The US is anxious to halt the spread of violent and terrorist organisations like Al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State.

Biden’s goals are not so different from those of the Chinese. At the end of March, Foreign Minister Wang Yi put forward a five-point plan for security and stability in the Middle East ahead of his trip to the region. The content of the plan was largely overshadowed by the signing of a long-term partnership with Iran during the trip – although the scope and substance of the latter have been disputed. For Wang, collective security will require ‘dialogue and consultation’ and a commitment to eliminating terrorism and radicalisation.

Finally, even on issues where the US and China sit on opposite sides – as in the case of Iran – there is still scope for cooperation. Whereas the Chinese blame the US for being a disruptive regional force, the US sees Iran as occupying that role. Despite this, both Beijing and Washington agree on the need to return to the nuclear deal as a way to reduce instability. Their perspectives on how to achieve this differ, however. Beijing wants the US to make the first move and end its sanctions against Iran. Meanwhile, the US wants to widen discussion beyond Iran’s current commitments on freezing its nuclear programme to include its development of ballistic missiles and its role in the region.

Notwithstanding the differences between the US and China over how best to proceed, there is no sign yet of either side scuppering the indirect talks taking place in Vienna. Indeed, should the talks eventually prove successful, they could well point to a future model of cooperation between the US and China in the Middle East. In short, while their wider relationship will most likely continue to be confrontational and abrasive, the two powers should be able to find points of common interest where they can collaborate within specific limits.

Guy Burton is Adjunct Professor at Vesalius College in Brussels, and Visiting Fellow at Lancaster University.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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