China’s unconventional weapons are winning the Middle East
Throughout his campaign, President Joe Biden diminished the threat that China posed to the United States. Now that he’s back in the White House, Biden will have to come to terms with the stark reality that China could indeed “eat our lunch.”
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has indicated that the Biden administration is willing to impose costs on China — but will they apply hybrid and irregular warfare, as the Chinese have done?
Indeed, China has mastered the art of slowly and meticulously shaping the conditions for its interactions with the United States, gaining an advantage. From a military perspective, the Chinese have smartly diagnosed America’s strategic reliance on conventional overmatch in order to deter major conflict. Instead, they have sought to achieve their objectives through unorthodox approaches that limit the effectiveness of our preferred conventional toolkit.
Countering China requires the United States to project influence far beyond our current focus on conventional military capabilities. Because Beijing aspires to achieve global leadership via the Belt and Road Initiative, the United States will also need to counter it on the global stage. The Biden administration has pledged to reinvigorate the United States as an Indo Pacific power. This is not enough. U.S. attention and resources should be prioritized to strategically counter China beyond the Indo Pacific.
As laid out in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, our unique system of alliances and partnerships around the world is one of our strongest assets — one that no revisionist power or rogue regime can match. The deep relationships we have built over the years can serve as a bulwark against the malign influence of our competitors. In doing so, we amass the greatest possible strength for the long term advancement of our shared interests.
That said, China has made substantial progress in building relationships and gaining ground, quite literally, with some of the United States’ closest partners in the Middle East.
The Department of Defense has redoubled its focus on deterring conventional threats from near-peer competitors and other adversaries. In the Middle East, for example, our main strategic focus must remain on Iran and the arc of influence and instability that it has asserted, using state-sponsored terrorist activities, a burgeoning network of proxies and its missile program to vie for regional hegemony.
At the same time, the United Arab Emirates is the prime target for China’s aspirational strategic footprint in the Middle East. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, China sought to exploit the very disaster it mismanaged to expand its influence. The UAE, with China’s help, opened the largest COVID-19 testing facility outside of Beijing in Abu Dhabi. The UAE, shortly followed by Bahrain and Morocco, were the first countries to approve a Chinese vaccine by state-owned company Sinopharm. Notably, all countries are part of the Abraham Accords — an August 2020 declaration for maintaining peace in the Middle East — along with Israel and the United States.
The recent announcement that the Biden administration has placed a hold on the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE (also related to the Abraham Accords) is only likely to encourage the Emiratis to broaden their relationship with China. Post Abraham Accords, the UAE is also likely under an increased threat from the Iranian regime. If we are no longer willing to provide them with advanced capabilities to defend themselves, China would surely offer to fill the gap.
These episodes demonstrate the need for sustained support and engagement from the U.S. to keep all these countries fully aligned for the accords to realize their full success and to offset encroachment from Beijing.
While there is recognition of China’s culpability for the pandemic and a real understanding that the U.S. is the exponentially more desirable “partner of choice,” a Biden administration that disengages from the Middle East in general and UAE in particular could have devastating long term consequences to our interests in this strategically vital region.
Though significant, China’s attempts to run COVID-19 damage control are just the latest in its efforts in making inroads into the Middle East.
The introduction of Chinese 5G cellular technology in the region presents major security and intelligence risks to national governments and those they partner with, including the United States. During travel to Israel in 2019, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy John Rood, pointedly cautioned, “China and Huawei have stolen technology from countries like T-Mobile. This is a substantial concern because of the risk to our close friend and ally Israel in terms of usage of that type of technology.”
As in many other parts of the world, China seeks to expand its global footprint through trade and infrastructure development. Nowhere is this more evident than in the UAE.
In addition to China being Abu Dhabi’s largest trading partner, in 2017, the UAE and China signed a $300 million deal to build a manufacturing operation in Khalifa Port Free Trade Zone. This deal comes on the heels of a previous deal in which China’s COSCO Shipping won the rights to develop and operate a new container terminal at Khalifa Port. If there’s any question as to how host governments fare when it comes to making infrastructure deals with the Chinese, ask Sri Lanka, which lost control of its port to Chinese operators.
With many urgent national security issues demanding attention, it remains an imperative for the United States to counter China in the Middle East. While we believe we face a more competitive and volatile global security environment than seen in a generation, we are also uniquely prepared to address these challenges. We must continue to work to transform and pursue innovative solutions to ensure we do not cede critical strategic relationships.
If the Biden administration continues to dismiss the threat that China poses, it will do so at the cost of America’s global leadership.
Simone Ledeen is the former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for the Middle East. Morgan Lorraine Viña is the former chief of staff for International Security Affairs at the Department of Defense.