By: Joline Rukab
To maintain its seat at the head of the table, the United States must play its cards right to address growing global acceptance of a multipolar world order and adapt its foreign policy game accordingly. The United States has long been the hegemonic power and a world leader in mediating regional disputes. As the United States reduces its footprint in the Middle East, an ambitious China stomps in to fill the void and challenge U.S. primacy. China’s recent success in brokering a deal between long-standing rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran has been downplayed by the current administration, but Beijing’s growing reach in the Middle East and Central Asia, which goes beyond energy security and economic ties, is a matter of grave concern.
That China is having more than just “a PR moment” should not be news to policy makers. China’s reach and influence in the region were established long before the Saudi Iranian agreement. The Belt and Road Initiative [BRI], launched in 2013, was followed by a series of major strategic partnerships and investments in technology and infrastructure projects across states in the region, including Iran, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates. China also launched a new Global Security Initiative in September 2021 in which Xi Jinping’s presented the guidelines for China’s role in maintaining world peace, preventing conflicts, and upholding multilateralism and international solidarity. Furthermore, there has been a spike in trade with Arab countries that amount to $330 billion as of 2021, replacing the U.S. as the major trade partner. Additionally, China’s investments and contracts in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region totaled $273 billion from 2005 to 2022. China is also intertwining its BRI projects with regional development strategies like the Saudi and Qatari 2030 Visions.
China has been growing closer ties with Iran which has been subject to sanctions by the U.S. and its allies. China is Iran’s largest trade partner and provides a substitute for the markets and resources that have been cut off by sanctions. Additionally, Saudi Arabia, with its souring relations with the Biden administration and lack of confidence in American security guarantees, is seeking to diversify alliances and is turning to China for an alternative supply of weaponry, technology, and leverage over Iran.
More recently, China’s attempts to broker a Russian-Ukraine agreement signal a steadfastness presence in global affairs. Despite denying ulterior motives for its interest in mediating political conflicts, China can build on the momentum to portray a positive image as a mediator. China deploys its allegedly “non-interventionist” attitude to foster relations and forge trust in the region, an attitude that differs from the United States’s overtly interest-guided intervention policy. Although China may not have an explicit interest in Middle Eastern affairs, its growing network of projects certainly influences the region.
China’s efforts clearly go beyond economic interest and will have serious economic and geopolitical implications, not only for the United States but also the Western world in general. For starters, increased Chinese exports to the region could shrink the market for U.S. and Western goods and services. Increased Chinese investments could also lead to an increased demand for oil from the region and impact the U.S. energy market. Geopolitically, China’s increased investment would have security implications as it would naturally seek to protect its interests through military means. China has already established a base in Djibouti and has restarted construction of another in the UAE, and has resumed conducting joint military exercises with Russia. Furthermore, China’s leading role in the BRICS growing forum indicates a shifting alignment of countries that have historically relied solely on the United States for economic and security aid. These developments signal that U.S. unipolar dominance is diminishing, and a multipolar distribution of power is emerging.
China will not take over the world militarily any time soon, and its economy is still trailing behind the United States, although it is catching up. But the ramifications of China’s expanding influence in the Middle East and Central Asia should prompt the United States to reframe its approach to China. Remarks by top U.S. officials – like National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, who clarified that the United States seeks to de-risk rather than decouple, along with Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yelling’s remarks that a healthy economic relationship with China is possible through a rules-based global economic order seem to be out of touch with reality. Embracing the new reality, a multipolar world order will require a sophisticated grasp of evolving geopolitical power dynamics, skillful diplomacy, economic flexibility, and a willingness to think out of the box.
About the Author
Joline Rukab is a Palestinian American born in Jerusalem. She has a background in aviation, conflict resolution, and media. She holds a bachelor’s degree in aviation management and is graduating from Seton Hall University with an executive master’s in diplomacy and international relations, specializing in international security, and global negotiations.