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Will the US-Iran Crisis Raise China’s Mideast Profile?

Feb 02 , 2020

The death of Iranian Quds Forces Major General Qassim Suleimani pushed the Middle East closer to the throes of war. Can and will China act as a broker of peace, or will it simply let the US get bogged down in another Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan?

China’s increasing overtures in the Middle East mean the stakes are getting higher should US policy towards the energy-rich region fumble. While its alleged treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang did stir concerns among Muslim countries, Beijing’s lack of historical baggage, its tradition of non-interference and neutrality in the region’s conflicts, and its burgeoning economic ties with all sides make it an influential player in the convoluted region. Thus, continued setbacks in America’s Mideast policy, from the withdrawal from both Syria and the Iran nuclear deal, to heightened tensions post the Suleimani assassination, may create spaces for China to fill. But while it is tempting to play an enlarged role, lessons from America’s experience may temper such desire. China’s influence outside strategic issues and economics will likely remain subdued.

While the killing of Suleimani dealt a big blow to Iran’s proxy warfare in the region, it may not end Teheran’s ambitions and will likely expose US interests to retaliation especially in the short-term. The network of logistics, infrastructure and alliances with numerous non-state groups that the slain Iranian commander had built overtime will continue to provide Iran the capability to project power in its neighborhood. Domestically, his death may have a rallying effect among Iranians who were since November protesting against the government for high fuel prices, economic hardships and, curiously, the drain on Iran’s resources from its involvement in regional conflicts, among others. The Iranian leadership can tap, this domestic legitimacy, to respond to US actions, as the immediate missile attacks against two US bases in Iraq have demonstrated. This said, the mistaken downing of a civilian airliner gave new cause for the protesters. Iran-backed militias from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq may also undertake sympathy attacks against US targets. While efforts to de-escalate are at play and leaders of major powers called for restraint, both Suleimani’s deep personal ties with militia leaders and popular demands for revenge, which have also been met by US retaliatory threats, suggest that tensions will not dissipate easily. Thus, far from winding down its presence, the US may just find itself committing more resources to secure its interests in the region.

From the lens of major power contest, getting a rival entangled in a peripheral theater may work to one’s advantage. But the Middle East is no unimportant periphery and China’s gambit in the region had been building in recent years. In 2004, the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, a high-level dialogue mechanism that covers wide ranging fields from politics, trade, development and cultural exchanges, was established. In 2017, China built its first overseas base in Djibouti and played an active role in anti-piracy missions in the Indian Ocean. The 2019 China-Arab States Expo held last September in Ningxia province highlighted cooperation in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, 5G, virtual reality and space navigation. In late November, a week after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the controversial announcement that Israeli settlements in the West Bank do not violate international law, Beijing hosted a Middle East Security Forum. Among those who attended included former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, former Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Jawad Anani and Prince Turki Al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia. Over 200 participants from Arab countries, Iran, Turkey, Russia, the UK, the European Union and China joined the forum. Finally, a week before the killing of Suleimani, China joined Russia and Iran in late December in unprecedented naval exercises off the Gulf of Oman with Iranian state television describing the development as the “new triangle of power in the sea.”

Given Teheran’s influence over Hamas which governs Gaza, the Suleimani assassination may also adversely affect President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” which raised expectations for a breakthrough in the elusive quest for enduring peace between Israel and Palestine. In fact, even before the onset of the crisis, Palestine already broke off ties with US after the latter moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Palestinians also see Trump’s proposal as buying them off, diminishing the geographic scope of their national aspirations in return for a promised economic windfall which they feel unacceptable. Closing the office of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Washington, defunding the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine and recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights, which was seized from Syria in the 1967 war, all raises concerns about growing US bias for Israel. Probably sensing an opening, China, during its hosting of the Mideast forum in November, lost no time in proposing a “New Idea,” largely anchored in a broader conception of security, the critical role of development, fair resolution of disputes, civilizational dialogue and counterterrorism cooperation. But while Beijing’s confidence is certainly growing, it remains to be seen whether it is prepared for the region’s complexities.

Many factors are feeding growing resentment in the Middle East towards Washington’s role in the volatile region. This includes growing partiality for Israel, fear of US support for regime change especially during the Arab Spring, shifting policy towards Iran, involvement in the Yemen tragedy through arms sales to Saudi Arabia and continued instability in Iraq post-Saddam Hussein. Furthermore, America’s re-emergence as the world’s largest oil and gas producer and its growing prioritization of great power competition in the Indo-Pacific theater may also wither the Middle East’s significance to US foreign policy. All these factors may provide fertile ground for China’s advances. But while China does possess some advantages, its Mideast foray is also bound to meet challenges.

China’s emphasis on non-interference and preference for economic development, as opposed to democracy and human rights promotion, enhances its appeal among regional capitals in the Middle East. Beijing’s support for the region’s authoritarian regimes puts Washington in a tight spot. Its continued advocacy for a two-state solution sustains its positive image among Palestinian, Arab and Muslim audiences. It is a major buyer of Mideast crude and gas and a major builder of regional infrastructure critical for resource-based economies aspiring to diversify. Chinese investments and markets provide relief to countries facing Western sanctions, and the development of the petroyuan may weaken US’ economic and financial clout, as well as reduce the potency of US-imposed embargoes, including against Iran and potentially Iraq, going forward. Additionally, given its energy reserves and strategic location, the Middle East is certainly an important geography for the Belt and Road Initiative. Dubai, for one, is becoming a base for Chinese investments targeting Africa. A shared tradition of authoritarian governance, absence of adverse Chinese entanglements in the region’s troubled modern history and China’s economic wherewithal all bolster its credentials among regional countries. However, concerns over Chinese investments in some Muslim countries like Pakistan and the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang may create irritants, as was occasionally the case between Turkey and China. Regional rivalries like that between Riyadh and Teheran, aspirations of middle powers like Turkey and Iran, and the complex tapestry of ethnic, religious and sectarian dynamics also pose challenges to Beijing’s growing interest in the region.

US long attempted to extricate itself from the Mideast quagmire and Washington’s experience may provide plenty of cautionary tales for Beijing. While having a deep interest in the region’s geopolitics, the US arguably did not intend to get sucked in the intricacies of its local politics. Whether China can avoid the slippery slope remains to be seen.

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