A New Strategy to Counter China in the Middle East
Collaboration with allies is the only way to provide Middle East partners with sufficient investment and trade alternatives to China.
American officials continue to harangue Middle East leaders, suggesting that economic, trade, and investment ties with China’s technology companies are risking their security ties with the United States. They are being shrugged off.
America’s fundamental challenge is Middle East countries don’t want to choose between the United States or China. They believe that a bifurcation is possible: engage with China on commercial matters and simultaneously with the US on traditional national security challenges. Emirati senior Diplomatic Advisor Anwar Gargash said recently that “…economic ties can exist separately from [security and political] concerns.”
For Washington, economic security is national security. There is not and cannot be a meaningful distinction. At the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain last November, U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl warned that China “pursues ties based solely on its narrow, transactional, commercial, and geopolitical interests, period.”
It’s not that Middle East actors see Beijing as a benign power, offering win-win cooperation and no-strings-attached economic benefits. There’s a long history of extra-regional powers in the Middle East and most know an opportunistic outsider when they see one. But they don’t see China as a threat, or at least not in the same way Washington does.
China is their largest trade partner, a great power with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and a technological giant that has transformed itself from third world to first in a single generation. After several years of warnings from the Trump and Biden administrations, and the case for disengagement with China still no better defined, officials in the region are simply tuning out the United States on the issue.
The US won’t stop pressing these countries over their ties to China, of course. American politics demand it. Letting up would also risk implying that U.S. concerns have diminished. But simply continuing to pressure MENA states is not going to be enough to change MENA countries’ views, behavior, or relationships with China.
Washington needs a new strategy.
The binary construct in which the US is Arab states’ security partner and China is the economic one ignores the substantial roles that US allies and partners play as trade, investment, and contracting partners throughout the Middle East.
The UAE, for example, China is its top trade partner, but India is a close second with Japan third, followed by the United States. Importantly, India and Japan also have problems with China. For Saudi Arabia, China is its biggest export destination; but the United States, UAE, Germany, and India round out the top five.
A smarter approach would be for the US to end the bilateral strategic competition narrative and instead leverage its networks of allies and partners to quickly develop more multilateral coalitions—like the India, Israel, UAE, U.S. grouping (I2U2). This would address the economic and developmental requirements that make China an attractive partner to Middle East countries.
Australia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and India have all experienced the sharp end of China’s economic statecraft and the raft of problems associated with an embrace of Chinese technology.
Canberra can help cut further into China’s lead on critical minerals. There should be a formalized agreement with Seoul and Taipei as global, non-U.S. alternatives on semiconductors, given Samsung, SK Hynix, and TSMC’s leadership in the field. Tokyo is already leading on 6G and could be brought into Saudi-US agreements for joint cooperation on the topic. And India can be even more of an alternative for production, and consumption, given its population rivals that of China’s.
The knock against the United States is that it makes strident demands not to work with China without offering reasonable alternatives. Fair or not, to have any chance of diminishing the relationship between MENA states and China, viable, alternative markets are the key and US allies can provide them.
These new constructs would not mean the US is giving up its own efforts in these sectors; it would be recognition that it can’t go it alone. Collaboration with allies is the only way to provide Middle East partners sufficient investment and trade alternatives to China in these sectors, while also protecting US national security concerns.
The message from Washington isn’t resonating with Middle East allies right now; it’s time to better partner with U.S. allies and let them do some of the talking.
Jonathan Fulton is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council and host of the China-MENA Podcast. He is also an assistant professor of political science at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi.
Jonathan Panikoff is the director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative and a senior fellow in the Geoeconomics Center at the Atlantic Council. Previously, he was the deputy national intelligence officer for the Near East and oversaw the U.S. intelligence community’s efforts on foreign investment.
The views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not imply endorsement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or any U.S. Government department/agency.
Image: Flickr/State Department.