Between Opportunity and Unpredictability: China’s Middle East in the Biden Era
The new US administration's swift reversal of some of its predecessor's policies in the Middle East is a source of optimism for Beijing, which cautiously hopes Biden's steps will eventually benefit Chinese interests in the region. In the meantime, Beijing's "Vaccine Diplomacy" is received with open arms by many Middle Eastern countries, though others remain hesitant. US-China tensions, ultimately, are not likely to subside, and Israel - increasingly caught between their conflicting interests in the region - will need to navigate these rough waters better than it has so far
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (L) accompanies Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) in Beijing, March 2017 | Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
China has become increasingly active in the Middle East over the past decade following the Arab Spring. Its approach to the region gravitates between a sense of opportunity to expand its reach and influence and a wariness of its inherent instability. While its footprint in the region is undoubtedly increasing, it always calculates its steps with the U.S in mind. The new administration of President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. has reversed course on many of its predecessor’s foreign policies, including in the region. These will affect Beijing’s approach in the upcoming years.
In his first major foreign policy speech at the State Department on February 4th, Biden described China as the “most serious competitor” the United States is currently facing – a position shared by most of the American political system. Indeed, the new administration will need to carefully consider China as it devises its foreign policy, including in the Middle East.
Following four years of the Trump administration’s unpredictable foreign policy, China is currently assessing the strategic implications of a Biden presidency – including in the Middle East
China’s engagement in the region grew substantially since it announced its new Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. Estimated to cost over $1 trillion, it seeks to connect around 65 percent of the world through 125 countries that have signed BRI related agreements.
The Middle East’s central position in the plan indicates its growing significance for Chinese interests and foreign policy. Beijing’s traditional focus on energy has evolved and diversified, and today it is involved in numerous infrastructure projects, Smart Cities, innovation centers, and 5G projects. In 2016, it also became the region’s largest foreign investor.
Following four years of the Trump administration’s unpredictable policies in the region, China is currently assessing the strategic implications of a Biden presidency not only to its bilateral relationship but also in the Middle East.
The Abraham Accords
The Trump Administration’s approach to the Middle East, where he had most of his foreign policy achievements, presented both challenges and openings for China’s regional ambitions.
On the one hand, China relished what appeared to be a continuation of U.S disengagement from the region that began during Obama’s tenure. On the other hand, Trump’s hardline policies against Iran, including his withdrawal from the JCPOA, his unequivocal support of Israel, and, most recently, the administration’s push for the Abraham Accords, raised concerns in Beijing.
Blindsided by the Abraham Accords, China believed this supposed paradigm shift would benefit neither the region nor itself and was planned mostly with Trump’s reelection bid in mind. Beijing, which successfully balanced its relationship in the region and developed ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and Israel, was perhaps even more concerned the Accords would lead to the establishment of a new, regional anti-Iran coalition led by a resurgent U.S. that would endanger Beijing's interests in Iran’s resources and long-term cooperation and hinder China’s ability to work with all sides of the divide, a critical aspect for its BRI project’s success.
Despite its initial fears that the Abraham Accords will spell more isolation for and regional hostility towards Iran, China has some reasons for optimism. The Biden administration is now openly discussing a resurrection of the Iran nuclear deal, or at least a restart of the dialogue. Admittedly, the nuclear deal’s technical bar has gone up significantly in the past four years, making such progress more difficult. However, for China, early signs of potential openings and adjustments by the US could mean Iran’s isolation and hardship may be nearing its end.
A return to the nuclear deal would most likely remove pressures from relations between Tehran and Beijing. As of now, China has been hesitant to finalize its 25-year agreement with Iran. Not only would its seat at the table at a new P5+1 agreement solidify its international standing, but a less excluded Iran would also allow China to broaden its cooperation with Tehran - one that it values for its oil resources and its central position in the Belt and Road Initiative.
The Biden administration - an opportunity for Beijing?
In that sense, China views the Biden Administration as good news for its regional interests. A potential return to the JCPOA and Biden’s less enthusiastic attitude towards aligning U.S and regional allies against Tehran work in China’s favor.
One of Biden’s first decisions in office was to freeze arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE temporarily and review arms sales packages approved by the Trump administration. Moreover, he halted U.S support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen that for six years has wreaked havoc and famine on the country. For the Chinese, who view the arms sales as emboldening Saudi Arabia and the UAE in their bitter conflict with Iran, Biden’s attitude suggests a return to a more balanced and measured approach. Meanwhile, a more strained U.S-Saudi and U.S-UAE relationships under Biden could strengthen these countries' relationship with China.
Chinese and Syrian representatives sign an economic cooperation agreement in Damascus, March 2020. China goes to great lengths to remain on good terms with all sides in the region | Photo: Ammar Safarjalani/Xinhua via Getty
The new administration’s support of the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, which the Trump administration all but abandoned, also signals a return to a more familiar Middle East policy. Beijing has criticized the Abraham Accords, signed last September, claiming that "the so-called peace deal between the Israelis and the Arabs is not peace for the Palestinians.” While some in the region might see China’s concern for the Palestinians more as lip service than genuine concern, Beijing, balancing its relationships with both the Arab World and Israel, has a clear interest in reduced tensions between the parties. A return to the two-state solution path brings things back to China’s comfort zone.
Beijing hopes that a return to a more predictable U.S approach to the region will place it on more solid grounds, a status quo which China has become familiar with and effective in navigating. While China does not want to see a resurgence of the U.S in the region, it is cognizant of the benefits American military presence provides, allowing Beijing to foster economic relations without getting drawn into regional conflicts.
Early signs seem to indicate that the Biden administration’s approach to China is not likely to differ much in essence to its predecessor’s, but it will be communicated differently, focusing on creating coalitions and alliances to counter China.
Most recently, Beijing has demonstrated its willingness to fill this void left by the U.S absence. China has managed to take advantage of the US preoccupation at home with the political and pandemic crises to strengthen its regional position through effective use of COVID-19 diplomacy.
After initially taking the blame for the pandemic and facing a severe domestic crisis that followed its outbreak, China has managed to leverage the crisis to accelerate its ascent and solidify its position in the Middle East. Its “vaccine diplomacy” and gifting campaigns have strengthened its image as a global power. While the U.S and Europe have bought most of the “Western” vaccines like Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna, China has been making its state-owned “Sinopharm” vaccine available to countries in the Middle East.
A region accustomed to looking to the U.S. in times of crisis, the Middle East has now found itself dependent on support from other powers, such as China and Russia
Building on the positive reception in the region of its shipments of medical supplies at the beginning of the outbreak, China has used countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Jordan for its phase III vaccine trials. Bahrain and the UAE, both using Sinopharm’s vaccine, are only slightly behind Israel in their vaccination rates.
A region accustomed to looking to the U.S. in times of crisis, the Middle East has now found itself dependent on support from other powers, such as China and Russia, or global initiatives like COVAX, an initiative guided by the WHO that aims to provide access and fair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. It remains difficult for many countries in the region to gain access to desperately needed vaccines, with the US nowhere in sight. As China levers its vaccine diplomacy to solidify its regional position, the new U.S administration might find it difficult to rebuild trust.
While China sees Biden inheriting the enhanced influence and achievements Trump had harvested in the Middle East, the path forward will not be easy for the new administration. Improving relations with Iran without souring those with Israel and Saudi Arabia will be challenging. The Israel-Palestine peace process as well will not render any quick wins for Biden any time soon.
How the new administration will juggle among competing priorities and tackle the profound geopolitical conflicts in the region remains a mystery that the Chinese would like to see unfold. President Biden’s early hardline messages towards Saudi Arabia may spell an opportunity for China to wedge its foot in the door, as bilateral trade and investment flow between China and the Kingdom has already increased substantially in recent years.
China is likely to adopt a wait-and-see approach. A return to the pre-Trump era status quo on both the Iran nuclear deal and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could alleviate many of China’s recent concerns. But President Biden’s focus on China as the primary strategic challenge to the United States, and his vow to focus on rebuilding coalitions to counter the Middle Kingdom's ascent, could raise a fresh set of challenges for Beijing’s regional aspirations.
Yun Sun is a Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the East Asia Program and Director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Gedaliah Afterman is head of the Asia Policy Program at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy, IDC Herzliya.