Between Opportunity and Unpredictability: China’s Middle East in the Biden Era
China has become increasingly active in the Middle East in the last decade, especially since it announced its new Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013.
Estimated to cost over $1 trillion, the BRI seeks to connect around 65 percent of the world. The Middle East enjoys a central position in the initiative and in China’s plans to expand its global outreach, as indicated by the fact that in 2016, Beijing became the region’s largest foreign investor.
However, China remains wary of both the region’s inherent instability and American dominance in it. The Biden administration has so far reversed course on many of its predecessor’s foreign policies, including in the Middle East. These will affect Beijing’s strategy in the upcoming years.
The Abraham Accords
The Trump administration’s approach to the Middle East, where he secured most of his foreign policy achievements, presented both challenges and openings for China’s regional ambitions.
China relished what initially appeared to be a continuation of American disengagement from the region that began during President Obama’s tenure. However, President Trump’s hardline policies against Iran, his unequivocal support of Israel, and, most recently, his 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. Perhaps of greater concern for Beijing, which successfully balanced its relationship in the region and developed ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and Israel, was that the Accords would lead a resurgent US to head a new regional anti-Iran coalition.
China feared this would endanger its interests in Iran’s resources and long-term cooperation, and hinder its ability to work with all sides of the divide, which is critical for the BRI to succeed.
Iran and a possible return to nuclear deal
Despite its fears that the Abraham Accords will spell more isolation for Iran and increase regional hostility against the Islamic Republic, China now has some reason for optimism. The Biden administration is 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 finally be nearing its end.
A return to the nuclear deal would most likely remove pressures on Tehran and Beijing’s relationship. As of now, China has been hesitant to finalize its 25-year agreement with Iran. A seat at the table of a new P5+1 agreement will solidify its international standing, and a less-excluded Iran will allow China to broaden cooperation with Tehran, which is central to its BRI initiative.
An opportunity for Beijing?
The new administration’s reluctance to align the US and its regional allies against Tehran also works in China’s favor. One of President Biden’s first decisions was to freeze arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE temporarily. Moreover, he halted American support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The US also recently released an intelligence report which accused Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of direct responsibility for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. For China, Biden’s attitude suggests a return to a more balanced and measured approach to the region. Meanwhile, a more strained US-Saudi and US-UAE relationship under Biden could strengthen these countries’ relationship with China.
The new administration’s support of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian 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.” 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 brings things back to China’s comfort zone.
While China does not want to see a US resurgence in the region, it is cognizant of the benefits the American military presence provides, which allows Beijing to foster economic relations without getting drawn into regional conflicts.
Meanwhile, Beijing has taken advantage of the US’ preoccupation at home with the political and pandemic crises to strengthen its regional position through the effective use of “vaccine diplomacy.” While the US and Europe have bought most of the “Western” vaccines like Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna, China has been making its Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines available to countries in the Middle East. Building on positive reception in the region for its shipments of medical supplies at the beginning of the outbreak, Chinese vaccines have been approved and are being rolled out in the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Turkey, Morocco, and Jordan.
China believes that Trump increased the US’ influence in the Middle East, and that Biden is inheriting his achievements. However, Biden’s path forward is not an easy one. Improving relations with Iran without souring those with Israel and Saudi Arabia will be challenging. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process will not award Biden any quick wins either.
China is waiting to see how the new administration juggles competing priorities and tackles profound geopolitical conflicts in the region. Biden’s early hard-line message towards Saudi Arabia may spell an opportunity for China to wedge its foot in the door, as the 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 status quo on both the Iran nuclear deal and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could alleviate many of its recent concerns. But Biden’s focus on China as the primary strategic challenge to the United States, and his vow to rebuild 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, Israel.
The full article can be found in the latest issue of “The Arena – Diplomacy and Foreign Relations magazine,” published by the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy.