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Middle East Crisis: China Assumes Global Leadership at America’s Expense

Dec 01, 2023

In his oft-cited essay, “The End of History” (1989), which was later expanded into a full-blown book, Francis Fukuyama emphasized the importance of distinguishing between ephemeral and fundamental changes. Writing in the twilight years of the Cold War, he triumphantly predicted the comprehensive victory of the West as the ultimate model of social organization. 

Accordingly, he argued that the impending collapse of the Soviet Union will precipitate a new era, whereby America will become the undisputed power in the world. Drawing on the works of continental philosopher such as G.W.F. Hegel and Alexandre Kojève, Fukuyama argued that the West’s ultimate strength was its ideology, namely the fusion of liberal democracy and free markets. 

Over the next decade, a whole host of neo-conservative thinkers spoke of a “unipolar moment” of unparalleled supremacy, although Muslim powers and China were expected to pose a partial challenge to Western hegemony. With that triumphalist state of mind came a whole series of disastrous imperial interventions, beginning from America’s invasion of Iraq in early-2000s to its ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan two decades later. Though the U.S. remains an economic and military behemoth, its diplomatic capital is past its peak. 

This was painfully obvious during President Joseph Biden’s visit to the Middle East following a new round of deadly violence between Israel and militant groups in occupied Palestinian territories. Arab leaders snubbed the visiting American leader, instead -- along with other rising powers from Turkey to Indonesia – gravitating toward China’s broadly neutral and constructive stance on the decades-long conflict. As a result, China has not only attained some semblance of moral leadership among so-called “Global South” nations, but has also consolidated the  “Marching Westwards” strategy, which aims to enhance Beijing’s influence across the Middle East region. 

America Alone 

Eager to once again shield its key Middle Eastern ally, Israel, against international criticism amid the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, the United States risks growing diplomatic isolation. During an emerging United Nations Security Council (UNSC) meeting shortly after a deadly explosion at a hospital in Gaza, which claimed hundreds of lives, the U.S. singularly opposed a Brazil-led draft, which called for a ceasefire for humanitarian purposes.

"We are on the ground doing the hard work of diplomacy…We believe we need to let that diplomacy play out," argued U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, after voting against the majority of the 15-member council, including France. “Yes, resolutions are important. And yes, this council must speak out. But the actions we take must be informed by the facts on the ground and support direct diplomacy efforts. That can save lives. The council needs to get this right," she added. 

For critics, however, the U.S. appeared to be simply shielding an ally, which seems bent on carrying out a campaign of revenge against the Hamas militant group to the detriment of millions of innocent civilians, half of whom are children. Ahead of the UNSC vote, U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths warned, “We urgently need a mechanism agreed by all relevant parties to allow for a regular provision of emergency needs throughout Gaza."

In fairness, Biden constantly emphasized the need to protect innocent civilians and even partly succeeded in convincing Israel to allow for a partial delivery of humanitarian relief in Gaza; he reportedly advised against a full-scale invasion of the occupied territories behind-the-scenes. But the diplomatic damage has been done, with countless Muslims blaming Israel for the deadly strike at the Al-Ahli Hospital, despite contrary claims by Western sources. During an emergency meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Riyadh, which brought regional and Islamic heavyweights from across Asia together, there were open discussions of an oil embargo against Israel. 

At the very least, it looks like Israel faces renewed diplomatic isolation in the region for the foreseeable future. Saudi Arabia has effectively abandoned ‘normalization’ talks with Tel Aviv, while other Arab friendly countries are coming under growing public pressure to reconsider the Abraham Accords. Massive protests and even attacks on U.S. embassies in the Arab world are a telltale of the increasingly hostile mood in the region. 

March to the West 

In stark contrast, China has not only taken a ‘neutral’ position on the crisis, refusing to condemn Hamas for the violent attacks in Israel, but it has also increasingly emphasized the plight and rights of the Palestinian people. 

During a conversation with his Saudi counterpart, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, made it clear that “China believes that the historical injustices against Palestine have lasted for more than half a century and cannot go on.” China’s Special Envoy on the Middle East Issue, Zhai Jun signaled proactive diplomacy, maintaining that Beijing will “further strengthen coordination with all parties in the direction of a ceasefire, the protection of civilians, de-escalation and the promotion of peace talks.” 

China has reasons to be buoyant. It successfully brokered peace between Middle Eastern heavyweights of Iran and Saudi Arabia last year, something hitherto unimaginable. Earlier this year, China doubled down on its regional diplomacy by successfully lobbying for the admission of Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt to an expanded BRICS (Brazil, Russia, China, India, South Africa) power grouping. 

Although critical of China’s refusal to squarely condemn Hamas, even Israel and the U.S. welcomed a peacemaking role for the Asian powerhouse, which enjoys warm ties with Hamas-backers such as Iran, Qatar, and Syria. China’s proactive diplomacy amid the latest round of conflict in the Middle East fulfills multiple objectives at once. 

To begin with, it allows China to pushback against accusations of systematic repression of its own Muslim minority groups, but it also enhances its diplomatic ties with pivotal states, which are crucial to the fulfillment of its “Marching Westwards” strategy, in general, and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in particular. 

After all, the Middle East connects China to the West, with key states such as Iran, situated in between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, playing an indispensable geographic and geopolitical role. Meanwhile, China can also rely on wealthy Arab states to help finance its ambitious and often fraught BRI projects. As one Saudi expert put it, "The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) can be in harmony with the Saudi Vision 2030, and benefits are always expected," referring to the Riyad’s plans to build a modern, sustainable economy within the decade.  

Even more immediate are China’s insatiable hydrocarbon needs, given the Asian country’s gigantic manufacturing base and accelerated push for high-tech industrialization.

To put things into perspective, China imports close to half of its total oil from Muslim-majority nations in the region, underscoring the importance of maintaining friendly ties. 

Ultimately, China’s growing influence and ostensible peacemaker role in one of the most vital yet troubled regions on earth served an even grander strategic objective. In many ways, it dramatically strengthens China’s diplomatic voice in an increasingly multipolar, post-American international order. With the U.S. bogged down in an intractable diplomatic tango, China is deftly presenting itself as the voice of the Global South and cementing its fruitful ties with energy-rich Muslim powers. 

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