Shift of US Focus May Mean China’s Growing Influence in the Middle East: Expert

June 4, 2021 Updated: June 4, 2021

As the United States shifts its focus to domestic issues like combating the pandemic, one expert says China would inevitably take over the Middle East.

The Middle East is historically a global crossroad for trade and energy due to its abundance of fossil fuels. For a number of years, the United States and China, among many other countries, have relied on energy trades from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Qatar.

Karim Sadjadpour, a policy analyst at the Carnegie Endowment, believes that the United States is shifting its focus away from the Middle East. During a panel discussion hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on May 27, Sadjadpour said the United States is no longer as energy dependent on the Middle East because America has an enormous amount of energy resources.

In the past, the United States has played a major role in ensuring Israel’s security when conflicts arise among the Middle East countries. Israel’s security still remains an important issue for Washington. But according to Sadjadpour, some progressives believe that Israel can take care of itself and no longer requires as much commitment from the United States.

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Streaks of light are seen as Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepts rockets launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel, on May 12, 2021. (Amir Cohen, Reuters)

“As the U.S. kind of reduces its presence in the region, which creates a vacuum for outside powers to fill that vacuum, I think it is inevitable that China is going to play more of a role in filling some of these vacuums, and it’s going to get entangled in the politics of the region in different ways,” Sadjadpour said.

In the past, Beijing’s main goal in the Middle East was to ensure the free-flow of energy from the region into China. For this to happen, there must be harmony among the nations in the Middle East.

Sadjadpour said China’s strategy in the Middle East has changed from an apolitical, transactional relationship to a more politicized relationship. In recent weeks, China has been more involved in the region’s issues. He added that Beijing has criticized Washington’s approach toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while calling for justice for the Palestinians—despite the fact that China also has close relations with Israel, he said.

Sadjadpour is also an expert on Iran. He used Iran as an example to explain why he believes China will face backlash, similar to the backlash received by the United Kingdom, France, and the United States in the past. The Iranian people are concerned that China is providing economic and strategic support to Iran, and the technology to repress its own citizens. The Iranian regime uses oppressive tactics to stay in power.

“China is standing between them [Iranian citizens] and a freer society,” Sadjadpour said. “As China’s presence in the region increases, it’s not going to be possible for China to simply be an apolitical economic player in the region, and it’s going to come with some costs and some backlash.”

He recalled that during the 2009 uprisings in Iran, 3 million people protested in the streets over the rigged re-election of then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In July 2009, crowds gathered at Tehran University for a Friday prayer, which turned into a big demonstration. The prayer lyrics were not the usual slogans “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” and instead the anti-government crowd chanted “Down with China” and “Down with Russia,” because they saw China and Russia as the enablers of the authoritarian regime, Sadjadpour said.

Iran has considerable influence over neighboring countries, with militias in Iraq and Yemen. Iran’s attack on the oil company Saudi Aramco in Saudi Arabia in September 2019 caused a temporary spike in oil prices globally. These issues created instability in the region. Sadjadpour believes it is impossible for China to remain apolitical while balancing sovereignty and stability.

Epoch Times Photo
Helicopters launch rockets during the “Caucasus-2020” military exercises gathering China, Iran, Pakistan, and Burma troops, along with ex-Soviet Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus at the Kapustin Yar range in Astrakhan region, southern Russia, on Sept. 25, 2020. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images)

Under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, also known as One Belt, One Road) the transfer of resources between China and the Middle East is guaranteed. Launched in 2013, the BRI aims to extend the Chinese communist regime’s economic and political influence to countries in Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East by recreating ancient China’s silk road and maritime silk road for trading in the 21st century. The BRI invests Chinese capital in the construction of various high-cost infrastructure projects in more than 60 participating countries.

In recent months, China’s State Councillor Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi have visited Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman. Their tours touched upon the range of interests that China has in the region today, including a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement signed between China and Iran in March. The deal involves economic activities such as oil and mining, infrastructure, tourism, and cultural exchanges, among other things.

Sadjadpour believes that things will become more difficult for the Chinese regime as its influence grows in the Middle East. China will find popular backlash as the European powers did in the past and “China is just about to enter that ballgame now,” he said.