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Will there be a conflict between US and China over the Middle East?

Will there be a conflict between US and China over the Middle East?

Will China step up to fill the void if the US decides to shift its focus away from the Middle East?

After 18 months in office, US President Joe Biden travelled for the first time to the Middle East, a region that had earlier dominated his country’s foreign policy. However, even with these close ties, China’s concerned.

Before leaving on the trip, Biden wrote, “We have to… put ourselves in the best possible position to outcompete China.


As China’s imprint has become increasingly apparent, there is a rising narrative within the US foreign policy community that tends to have the Middle East as a potential hotspot for global US-China competition.

China, the second-largest economy in the world, has increased its economic portfolio with the region and signalled that it is here to stay. This has happened in a variety of ways, from traditional collaboration areas like oil and gas to the new so-called “health silk road,” where China takes advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to help developing countries with healthcare.

This is laying the groundwork for China and the US’s more heated confrontation, which sees the Middle East as squarely falling under the scope of international security.

According to Mohammed Turki al-Sudairi, director of the Asian studies division at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Saudi Arabia, “as China’s footprint has grown, there is this romanticised Orientalism towards China and this [conception of] China as a potential alternative to the US, as a wealthy power to address the issues in the region in substantive ways.”

To replace the dollar, the yuan


According to others, as the US steadily changes its foreign policy focus away from the region and its energy concentration away from oil, this could bring the Middle East closer to China.

Saudi Arabia reportedly considered accepting the Chinese renminbi (yuan) in place of US dollars for Chinese oil sales in March. This would be a significant departure from the current international oil trading system, which is based on the dollar.

According to China’s General Administration of Customs, Saudi Arabia is the country that exports the most crude oil to China. In 2021, for instance, China imported 87.58 million tonnes of crude oil from the kingdom, placing it first on the list of countries that China imports crude oil from.

Analysts claim that such a deal would benefit both Saudi Arabia and China.

China would be adequately protected from exchange rate fluctuations and any penalties by yuan trade. Saudi Arabia’s action could “demonstrate its awareness of China’s worries,” according to Dawn Murphy, associate professor of national security strategy at the US National War College who specialises in China’s relationships with the Global South, notably the Middle East.

Despite the  Middle East’s automatic identification with oil and gas in the last decades, many observers think the fight between these two main regional powers will not necessarily be in the energy sector.

China’s increasing authoritarianism has sparked a new round of more severe ideological conflict between the US and China in the Middle East, which contrasts sharply with what Biden has referred to as “American ideals.”

According to Murphy, China is “fostering support in the period of growing multipolarity” as it becomes more likely to be able to compete with the US on an equal footing,” as evidenced by its treatment of its Muslim Uighur people and its crackdown on dissidents in Hong Kong.

She claimed that by making sure that no nation, including Saudi Arabia, supports action in Xinjiang, China is preserving domestic security.

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Mutual benefits

Analysts feel that the US and China’s presence in the region might easily be helpful to both countries and that the notion that the US will lose its hegemonic status in the region to China may be overblown. However, the essence of the US-China rivalry may have reached its conclusion at that point.

Guy Burton, an adjunct professor at the Brussels School of Governance and a specialist in China-Middle East relations, argued that the notion that the US is in danger of losing the Middle East to China is oversimplified.

China has already been there [in the Middle East] for a considerable amount of time, and its economic influence has grown beyond the energy industry to include the digital, healthcare, and real estate industries, according to Burton. Although they have good relations with the Chinese, Middle Eastern countries do not anticipate the Chinese to take the place of Americans, therefore this does not imply that they are abandoning the US.

The US is still far more heavily committed to the security element of the region than China, and that will not change anytime soon, experts said, as evidenced by Biden’s attempts to create a security alliance that would include Israel and Saudi Arabia to oppose Iran.

“China has an economic presence rather than a security one in the Middle East, according to Murphy. “That type of involvement is not being provided in that manner”

China has benefited greatly from American security presence in the past; China’s rising investment is predicated on the security and stability of those countries, from Iraq to Kuwait. In that regard, according to Burton, there are some areas where US and Chinese objectives coincide.

Meanwhile, China has long praised its capacity to forge close ties with other nations that are occasionally rivals of its own, most notably Saudi Arabia and Iran, two of China’s most important regional allies.

China has been quite successful up to this point in adhering to a balanced foreign policy and keeping good relations with its neighbours.

Beijing is in a good position to avoid interfering politically in a strife-torn area because it has agreements with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE as well as a 25-year cooperation pact with Iran.

However, it is uncertain how long China can carry out its solely economic foreign policy in the region as the US and China both grow more motivated to participate in the competition.

Support has been gained due to China’s historical achievement in upholding a largely neutral attitude. China’s disregard for Riyadh’s human rights record and the fact that Iran is not recognised as an international pariah and is given some relief from sanctions are both appreciated by Saudi Arabia.

However, several observers have expressed scepticism about the probability that China will adhere to that strategy strictly.

“According to Burton, as you invest more financially, you will become more entangled and trapped in and finally be lured into politics. Meanwhile, Americans are urging their allies to make decisions soon away to advance this new “Cold War narrative.”

Now that the world is moving into a more uncertain phase, it is impractical for many nations in the area to have to choose between some of the larger powers.

“In a region that is going through a shift, people aren’t thinking in terms of either the US or China, according to al-Sudairi. Both are necessary.

edited and proofread by nikita sharma



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