As China thrives in the post-9/11 Middle East, the US must counter

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, America’s foreign policy establishment rallied around a belief that the West was in an intractable conflict with the radical Islamic world. The United States’s support for Israel, Washington’s backing of autocratic Middle Eastern governments, and a vast cultural divide explained why al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations repeatedly launched attacks on American and European targets, the conventional wisdom held.

But 20 years on, with the rise of China as a superpower, offers a very different lens through which to view Mideast and global politics. And it highlights a stark reality: Raw economic and diplomatic might and incentives, more than religion or culture, are what really drive international events in Asia and the Middle East. Washington’s narrow counter-terrorism focus has failed and is woefully out of date. 

Beijing in recent years has forged close diplomatic and economic ties with most Muslim nations, and has been spared any major attacks by al Qaeda, ISIS or other Islamist terrorists. This, despite credible evidence that China is running an ethnic-cleansing campaign against its Muslim-minority Uyghur population that includes forced sterilizations, “re-education” camps and a vast surveillance state in the western Xinjiang province. Beijing also has strongly supported the Myanmar junta, which has slaughtered the Rohingya Muslim tribes that are fighting an insurgency against Yangon.

Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Egypt and Turkey — all nations that profess to speak for the world’s nearly 2 billion Muslims — have refused to publicly condemn China’s actions while drawing ever closer to Beijing economically and diplomatically through its Belt and Road Initiative. In January, representatives of the six oil-rich Arab monarchies expressed support for Beijing’s “legitimate positions on issues related to Taiwan, Xinjiang and human rights,” China’s Foreign Ministry announced.

Equally noteworthy: Pakistan and Afghanistan’s Taliban, the two political bodies most responsible for aiding and abetting al Qaeda’s rise, have pledged to work with China to prevent the Uyghurs from using Central and South Asian territory to train or radicalize their ranks.

Facing this new dynamic, the U.S. and its allies must radically alter their strategy for competing with China in the Middle East and broader Islamic world. This includes accepting that the post-9/11 framework failed and that many of the West’s key assumptions about the region and Islam were wrong. Allied nations can start by mobilizing in these key areas:

Economic development: China has integrated itself into the Middle East and Central Asia through its Belt and Road Initiative that seeks to invest $100 billion annually in regional infrastructure. It’s also binding Beijing to its trading partners through China’s 5G telecommunications networks and a string of commercial port projects. But Washington has its own trade and investment initiatives that it needs to promote and grow to compete.

The most promising are the Abraham Accords, initially brokered by the Trump administration, that have led Israel to normalize relations with four Arab countries — the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan — since 2020. But there’s the potential for the U.S. to grow this bloc and stimulate high-technology and investment across the Middle East and into India, Africa and Central Asia. Many of these countries are wary of Chinese power, and the Accords could serve as a natural counterweight, even if not stated as such.  

Security cooperation: China is growing its military presence in the Middle East and Central and South Asia through the positioning of a network of Chinese naval facilities, known as the “string of pearls,” and its arms support for countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. China also is providing nuclear energy assistance to the Saudis, stirring regional fears that Riyadh’s ambitions could expand into pursuing atomic weapons to challenge Iran. Beijing in past decades helped Pakistan develop nuclear bombs through the transfer of highly-enriched uranium.

But China’s efforts to essentially back opposing sides in the Mideast’s major conflict — in this case, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel against Iran — isn’t sustainable. The U.S. should build on the security cooperation that is taking place between the members of the Abraham Accords and seek to create a more formal security and diplomatic bloc, along the lines of a regional NATO. This alliance should include the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. As tensions between Iran and its largely Arab neighbors continue, if not increase, China can’t or won’t serve as a reliable security partner.

Human rights: China’s singular focus on economic growth and the acquisition of raw materials, as well as its treatment of the Uyghurs, is alienating Muslims worldwide, even if their governments are staying silent. The U.S. should continue its historic role of speaking out for democracy and human rights and rally support for the Uyghurs, Rohingya and others suffering as a result of Beijing’s policies. 

This may place Washington at odds with its Mideast allies, some of whom have their own human rights issues. But this could help restore America’s role as a moral voice in the international community after decades in which it was attacked for its post-9/11 policies. It also could highlight Beijing’s increasingly belligerent role on the world stage.

Jay Solomon is an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the author of “The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles and the Secret Deals That Reshaped the Middle East.” Follow him on Twitter @jaysolomon.

Tags Abraham Accords Al Qaeda Belt and Road initiative China Middle East Uyghurs

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