China and up against America: The Tribune India
China and up against America: The Tribune India

China and up against America: The Tribune India

Manoj Joshi

Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation

It is almost a truth to say that the world is undergoing enormous changes, perhaps without precedent in a century. Nowhere are geopolitical tectonic plates shifting most markedly than in the Middle East. The change is not surprising, since the world’s leading power, the United States, more than ten years ago had promised to turn away from the region to East Asia. But the process itself has been messy and incomplete.

US policy of denying Egypt and Saudi Arabia weapons, imposing restrictions on Iran and disciplining the UAE has not won it friends.

The countries of the region, as well as interested regional powers such as China and India, which are dependent on the region’s oil, have responded with political changes to strengthen ties with the region, where we are witnessing something of a backlash from the United States.

Washington’s primary interest today is the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Iran’s nuclear deal. It is otherwise clear, after withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, that its areas of interest lie in the Indo-Pacific and Europe. It has also reduced arms sales in the past to Egypt and more recently to the Saudis, and even pulled its advanced ballistic missile defense systems out of Riyadh.

Under these circumstances, the possibility of an agreement between the United States and Iran leading to a reinstatement of the JCPOA, the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia encourages reaching out to China, which has already gained significant influence in Iran. In March 2021, Iran and China signed a 25-year strategic partnership, which seeks to improve the latter’s access to oil and in return supply Tehran with Chinese investments in energy and infrastructure. There is also an unspecified but important military relationship. Given Tehran’s developed defense industry, it can be serviced by technology transfer rather than traceable products.

There was a time when India successfully balanced its Middle Eastern ties by managing good ties with Israel, the Arab world and Iran. But New Delhi lacks the economic or military weight to compete with China. Today, Beijing seems to have taken a leaf from India’s playbook and is following the same delicate path of balancing its relations around.

The Gulf is the most important outer region of India, given India’s dependence on oil from there, the fact that almost 8 million Indians work there and that the UAE is a major entrepot for Indian trade. In the last few years, the United Arab Emirates has been developed by the Modi government as an important focus for India’s reach to the region.

In October, India joined Israel, the United States and the United Arab Emirates to create what was termed the Middle East Quad. Many, especially in India and the United States, saw this as a setback to the growing Chinese influence in the region. But like the Indo-Pacific Quad, its Middle Eastern counterpart is more of an economic and political forum than any kind of military alliance.

But where the former clearly aims to curb Chinese influence, its Middle Eastern counterpart has no such ambitions, as neither Israel nor the United Arab Emirates have any desire to contain China. Both have good ties to Beijing, although they are under intense US pressure to withdraw on these. But the logic of their relationship comes from their growing Chinese trade and investment ties. China (minus Hong Kong) is currently Israel’s third largest trading partner. The UAE, on the other hand, is China’s largest investment destination in the Arab world and the second largest trading partner in the Arab region.

But now the flames of the US-China conflict have begun to lick at the feet of the sheik of the Persian Gulf. In November, the United Arab Emirates was forced to halt construction of a facility in the Chinese shipping port near Abu Dhabi following allegations that this was a military facility. Days after confirmation that construction had stopped, the UAE withdrew by suspending negotiations on U.S. F-35 aircraft it had planned to acquire because the United States imposed the condition that the UAE drop Huawei Technologies from its telecommunications network.

Since the 2000s, even when the United States was busy with conflicts in the region – in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq – China, with its penchant for not interfering in internal affairs, was building its trade and economic relations. Where the United States, which has a huge military presence in the region, has used diplomatic coercion, as in the case of the UAE, to get its way, China has offered trade and investment. The United States has pressured Abu Dhabi to drop Huawei, but it has no competitive option to offer. Last year, the United States angered Lebanon for accepting Chinese investments in its infrastructure, but it has not yet offered anything to the failing country’s failing economy.

There are other signs of the signs of the times. Earlier this month, China and the Gulf Cooperation Council agreed to establish a strategic partnership whose main goal is to increase trade through a free trade agreement between China and the GCC. All Sheikhs in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia are members of the GCC.

So far, Beijing’s foothold has been flawless, all it has had to do was follow where the United States refused to go. Its policies – Egypt and Saudi Arabia deny arms, impose an embargo on Iran and discipline the United Arab Emirates – have not won the country friends.

Even now, there is still one joker in the geopolitical herd – Donald Trump. With the Biden presidency slowly imploding, the prospect of Trump’s return is rising. This could once again torpedo the JCPOA and create yet another uncertain upheaval in the geopolitics of the region.

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