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Will China repeat America’s mistakes in the Middle East?

Great Power Competition 2022: China a better Middle East Partner than America?

On January 14, 2022, Beijing’s Global Times published a significant article: “Iranian FM visits China 4 days after GCC trip: China has no enemies, only friends in Middle East,” Other Chinese media picked up the story. Global Times is owned by the Communist Party’s People’s Daily. When China wants to communicate its positions to the wider world, it often does so in English via this paper. h

The tone of the article is anti-American, a response to America’s trade, political, and psychological belligerence. “The US continuously cultivates the [Middle East] region for its own interest …creating chaos and conflicts,” but as the US presence is now shrinking, “the tensions in the region are cooling down.” The article claims that China is “more trustworthy” than the US – an invitation to the region to turn toward China because it carries no colonial burden, its investments also benefit its partners, and it does not “meddle” in the internal affairs of others (meaning it does not raise human rights issues).

But no, China is not at all “seeking to take up the power vacuum left by the US” as the West claims. In protesting a bit too much, Global Times risks convincing the reader of the contrary: in fact, China is entering the Middle East, and it does want to replace the United States in the long run. As China’s links with the Middle East expand, its presence is becoming a strategic issue.

Global Times praises Iran first. Its foreign minister has just been in Beijing to discuss the implementation of the 25-year Strategic Partnership Agreement signed in 2020. Second, equally important are the Arab Gulf states. Their foreign ministers, too, visited Beijing for assurances of Chinese support. Half of China’s essential oil imports come from Iran and the Arab Gulf. And oil is the “elephant in the room.”

During the same timeframe, Turkey’s Foreign Minister arrived. The Chinese appreciate that Turkey will allow “no terrorist activities” against China. Global Times has friendly words for two more countries, war-torn Syria, which will receive China’s assistance, and Russia, with which China will maintain close coordination.

What about Israel? No words of friendship, cooperation, or historical links, but a dry factual statement, an afterthought: “China and Israel are also expected to celebrate 30 years of diplomatic relations, which falls on January 24.” Perhaps an implicit disapproval of Iran’s denial of Israel’s right to exist, but nothing more. However, a few days later, China’s ambassador to Israel publicly voiced exuberant praise for the “thousand-year long, everlasting friendship” between the Chinese and the Jews, and the “ever increasing political mutual trust” between China and Israel’s leaders. Two messages for two audiences, one for Iran and the Arabs, another for Israel.

Of course, Global Times knows that the Middle East is a “powder keg, given geopolitical, religious, cultural and ethnic complexities.” But China touts its positive relations with all because it has “no enemies, only friends” and “does not take sides on regional issues.” Except of course, its permanent, conspicuous public support for the Palestinians at the UN. But Palestine is never mentioned in the paper, nor is the collapse of Lebanon – two significant omissions. Global Times also asserts that China tries “to mitigate regional conflicts” – for which there is scant evidence.

Great Power Competition 1955: America a better Middle East partner than the Soviet Union?

Those who remember the Cold War will have a feeling of déjà vu. In the 1950s President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles decided to push back Soviet and Communist “encroachments” in the Middle East. In 1955 Turkey, Iran, Great Britain, Pakistan, and Iraq signed the “Baghdad Pact.” The US State Department called the Pact “a defensive organization” comparable to NATO. As it turned out, the analogy was wrong. Most NATO members had strong historical, cultural, religious, or linguistic links. The rifts in the Middle East were much deeper. Turkey was a secular NATO member, Iran a Shiite monarchy hostile to Arabs and Turks, Iraq a Sunni bulwark against Iran, Pakistan was obsessed only with India, and the United Kingdom was distrusted by everyone. Israel was excluded from the pact, and the most important Arab country, Egypt, refused to join and tried to undermine it. The United States argued, as China does today, that it was the most appropriate partner for the countries of the region because it had no colonialist past. Also, the West would help them safeguard their independence against anti-religion Soviet Communism.

In 1958, a revolution in Iraq put an end to the Hashemite monarchy there, and a year later, Baghdad formally withdraw from the pact. It had done nothing to stop the advance of the Soviet Union and its local allies.

Two completely unexpected events foiled the Soviets, the wars of 1967 and 1973 – which Israel won. The historian and former Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael B. Oren, speaking of the Baghdad Pact, excoriates “the guilelessness with which Americans continued to view the increasingly complex and morally ambiguous Middle East.” “Distinguishing Middle Eastern myths from realities, however, remains the most daunting challenge facing Americans.”

China has a different approach, but great power competition in the Middle East is ultimately not about helping the region.

Will Chinese historians, many decades hence, repeat Oren’s words when describing China’s Middle East policies of the 2020s? Comparing the policies of two very different great powers in the same, always changing region after a hiatus of 70 or 30 years, is very hazardous. And yet it should be attempted because policy makers can learn from their own mistakes and from those of others. There are obvious differences between the two stories. Today, China is more popular in the Middle East than the West had been in the 1950s and later. China does not promote a formal pact to bind its various “friends” together – this is the Western approach. This is a creative departure from traditional great power politics. China has economic cooperation agreements with Middle Eastern countries that sometimes also mention defense cooperation. But until recently, defense was not the decisive motivation as it was in the Baghdad Pact.

In one respect, the West’s Middle East policies during the Cold War and China’s today are identical: these policies are not about the Middle East and the well-being of its peoples. Great power politics is about promoting self-interests and defeating rivals, then and now, and the Middle East is a means toward this end. The United States put Turkey into the center of the Baghdad Pact because its military was a powerful asset against the Soviet Union, while Arab hostility against Turkey was regarded as irrelevant. China is treating Iran as a good friend because it wants to buttress America’s worst enemy in West Asia, irrespective of the fears of Iran’s neighbors.

The US and the West have made mistakes because regional differences and antagonisms were overlooked or not properly understood. Also, in addition to great power geopolitics, “faith and fantasy” (Oren’ phrase) sometimes dominated policy. Americans are convinced that freedom, democracy, and human rights as defined in the West are the best solutions to the world’s ills. But forceful advocacy for these values comes with a price in a Middle East were cultural and religious values are different.

Is China better prepared for the Middle East?

Is China better prepared to enter and remain in the Middle East? Is there no “faith and fantasy” in China’s policies? Have the Marxist-Communist doctrines that Chinese decision makers study in their younger years lost all influence? Emphasizing the economy and overlooking religion comports with Marxist dogma, which sees all history driven by economic factors. For Marx, religion is part of the ideological “superstructure” that depends on and follows the material “substructure.” Yet religion has shaped the old and new history of the Middle East independently and perhaps more than any other factor. China has many universities that study the Middle East and world religions. But Chinese policy experts admit that they still have difficulties understanding the Middle East and need to learn more. Mistakes could also occur as a result of China’s autocratic tradition. Whatever the quality of expert advice, it is unlikely that it can always be presented openly and reach the top decision makers.

In fact, this is true for many countries, but under China’s current president, the space for policy dissent has been shrinking. Questioning the top leader’s foreign policies is not advisable. In addition, the absence of free speech and unfettered media allows decision makers to get away with the most egregious policy contradictions. This will undermine any country’s credibility. In the West, journalists and opposition politicians would tear such contradictions to pieces. Examples abound. China “does not take sides” in internal Middle Eastern conflicts, to quote the Global Times again, but always supports the Palestinians against Israel in the UN. China condemns all threats against the security and integrity of Middle Eastern countries but fails to denounce Iran’s threats against these countries. China promotes peace in the Middle East but its first reaction to the “Abraham Accords” (which has since changed) was not publicly favorable.

All countries with foreign interests have to cope with contradictory policy priorities in a conflict-ridden world. In the Middle East, until recently, China did not seem to be bothered by priority conflicts. Is this changing now? Recently, China was reported to be helping Saudi-Arabia build ballistic missiles. The only country that has already used such weapons against Saudi-Arabia is Iran. Does China now feel compelled to join the traditional game of balancing local powers by playing one against another? China will learn that it is walking on thin ice. The region is gripped by fears. Existential fears. Fear of Iranian expansionism and subversion. Fear that the US will tip-toe out of the region to focus its efforts against China. If China can enhance the chances for peace, everybody would be grateful. If not, something could and probably will go wrong, particularly with Iran. There could be war, or upheavals, with unforeseeable consequences. Historians may come to discover that there was a measure of “faith and fantasy” in China’s policies too.