Great power competition over the Middle East is as old as history, as testified by the imperial ruins and lines on maps left over millennia. They are monuments to how great powers get entangled in the region, whether as a place for transit, a landscape to protect allies and battle rivals, or an object of desire for its qualities and resources. America’s success in the Cold War, including in the Middle Eastern arena, gave Washington thirty years of global unipolarism and a degree of influence in that region that is still formidable today. However, with influence comes burdens requiring the deployment of military assets, which many would argue are needed in the Pacific to deal with Chinese aggression. Meanwhile, Sino-American competition has become more evident in the Middle East itself. Consequently, it is timely to consider how to place that region in our global strategy to compete with China.
The pivot to East Asia is a rational maneuver much discussed over the past decades but of only recent and somewhat sticky execution. However, it should not entail abandoning America’s considerable allies and assets in the Middle East, where U.S. interests remain vital, in jeopardy, and relevant to the global contest with China. What is needed is a sense of proportion and conceptual coherence for the post-pivot partnerships between America and like-minded Middle Eastern states to protect those interests. A pivot that creates a vacuum in the Middle East for ready exploitation by China or Iran is hardly a step forward in America’s global competition with Beijing. Washington has yet to develop a framework that places the region’s competitive great power environment in a global context. The Middle East has for so long dominated the American vision of its threats that it has come to distort the latter’s picture of the globe. A correction should rank the Middle East at the right level of priority—and create conditions that allow the redistribution of America’s instruments of power elsewhere without damaging enduring U.S. interests in that part of the world.
China and the Middle East, and America’s Reaction
A New York Times headline on March 11, 2023, declared a “Chinese-Brokered Deal Upends Mideast Diplomacy and Challenges the U.S.” in reference to the normalization between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It described China as “the new power player,” sidetracking America after seventy-five years of centrality in the Middle East. The irony here is that many who advocated the pivot are crestfallen when the United States is no longer the indispensable partner for everyone and at center stage for everything. In any case, seven months later, Hamas attacked Israel, and all eyes turned to Washington—not Beijing—to develop solutions to a grave situation for the whole region.
That is because China’s engagement in the region so far has shallow roots and few assets. Until recently, meaningful Sino-Arab connectivity was limited to energy interests. China’s relations with Iran were more substantive but derived from opportunism. As the United States sought to isolate revolutionary Iran, Tehran and Beijing worked together in energy, nuclear cooperation, and military modernization. Sometimes, China cooperated with American plans toward Iran. More often, it tried to thwart them. Until the March deal, China’s mounting opportunism and assertion of presence and influence in the region went mostly unnoticed in Washington. When observed, it prompted in some American quarters a naïve view that Chinese diplomacy could bring regional stability, the same thing America seeks. According to this argument, both Washington and Beijing had a shared interest in a Middle East free from nuclear proliferation and terrorism while remaining a reliable energy provider and transportation hub. This rosy vision masks the reality that Chinese and American leaders have very different ideas about what “stability” entails.
Chinese actions in the region will not mirror those of the United States, not just because Chinese statecraft has a different style, but because it has different goals. Chinese officials are unlikely to plunge into nation-building and are at ease working alongside fellow authoritarians with deplorable human rights records. They are more likely to enliven tedious diplomatic dinners by swapping tips on repression rather than indulging in lectures on ethics. China is unencumbered by the United States’ perpetual anxiety over a perceived conflict between its values and its interests when it comes to the conduct of foreign policy in the Middle East. That does not mean they will successfully advance their interests in a deeply troubled region. Still, because there is little expectation that Beijing will improve governance in the Middle East, few will feel hostile toward it for its association with despotism. A countervailing force is America’s “soft power” brand: a way of governance and life that inspires hundreds of millions. American values—adherence to the rule of law, the will of the people, and the peaceful transfer of power—resonate. China cannot compete in that league, however much it tries with disinformation, social media subterfuge, and doublespeak.
While the Chinese will seek to assert their image as “the new power” in the area, they are unlikely to put skin in the game. Providing real security to the states of the Middle East, durable diplomatic solutions to their problems, or humanitarian relief has so far been absent from Chinese initiatives. Beijing is likely to fall well short of Arab needs. In fact, regional leaders have their own interests to pursue. Watching the U.S. approach to Iran, many no longer feel secure under an American umbrella. That condition leads them to reduce risk; they do so not because of Chinese encroachment but because of American detachment.
For Saudi Arabia, de-risking has meant an attempted ceasefire and diplomatic exit from the war in Yemen and reduced tension with Iran. While Washington struggled to find a coherent strategy as Tehran balked at returning to the JCPOA nuclear deal, Riyadh and Tehran normalized relations. Both were reacting to American incoherence—Tehran to exploit it, Riyadh to shield against its consequences. Chinese involvement was useful for the Saudi “pariah” and Iran to show the Biden administration they had options. But the Saudi-Iranian rivalry will roll right along.
The Iranian-backed assault by Hamas against Israel in October, which some saw as a response to emerging Saudi-Israeli normalization, was a reminder of the fault lines that Iran can exploit. However, without an American strategy that deals with the core threats posed by Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons capabilities and its regional interference, our partners will draw their own conclusions on how to defend their interests. So long as the United States accommodates Iran, so will many others.
The campaign since October against Israel and the United States, choreographed by Iran, is setting the pace for regional diplomatic and military activity. Holding sway in four Arab capitals—Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sanaa—Iran is well positioned for this effort. U.S. military deployments and solidarity with Israel have been essential moves. Iran and its allies still retain the initiative, keeping America and its allies in a reactive mode.
Moreover, U.S. actions lack the context of a comprehensive strategy to constrain the Iranian threat. Instead, Washington continues to downplay the Iranian dimension of the current crisis. It is wise not to tumble into a war with Iran at this juncture. Yet, it is inaccurate and dangerous to fail to recognize that the Middle East is a single campaign theater and Iran is the primary adversary. Until America and its partners re-establish deterrence, Tehran will continue to identify where and how much pain will be applied to them. A return to a maximum pressure strategy on Iran would regain the confidence of our partners and give Washington added leverage to demand hard work among them to build their collective defenses. Otherwise, American withdrawal will continue to create opportunities for Chinese and Iranian diplomatic and strategic opportunism.
A Balanced Response: Statecraft, Engagement, and Flexibility
A starting point for a response would be integrating U.S. strategies for the Middle East with those to counter China. After all, the Persian Gulf and Red Sea states are part of the Indo-Pacific. They will have a role as we deal with China globally. The Middle East will be of vital interest as long as the United States seeks a stable global market economy. China’s reliance on direct energy imports from the region is one of its greater vulnerabilities, making the Gulf a potential area of future Sino-American tension. The “sinification” of the Gulf’s energy supply chain would enable China to bully the global economy and should be prevented. America’s continued support for the security of the Gulf will remain a fundamental U.S. interest to ensure China cannot even aspire to dominate that area.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi seek the status of major global powers despite limited demographic potential. Gulf leaders want more options, leverage, respect, and markets for two-way trade and investment. China may see opportunities to enhance its influence in that process, but Saudi and Emirati leaders will not willingly compromise their independence. The volume of commerce and investment with China is impressive but does not give China strategic advantages the way it can in the developing world. The United States should focus on the nature, not the volume, of Gulf State trade and investment with China. U.S.-Arab-Israeli dialogue on the risks related to sensitive technology transfers, as well as Chinese intelligence and military exploitation of communications and transportation infrastructure, should figure prominently in any post-pivot strategy.