China opens new doors in the Middle East

The State Department this week issued a report that once again rejects China’s claims to exclusive sovereignty over the South China Sea — the so-called “Nine-dash line.” It is the first such report to appear in several years and is yet another indication of Washington’s ongoing concern over China’s aggressiveness in East Asia. Ironically, on the same day that the report appeared, Beijing continued to fill the vacuum that the United States has been creating in the Middle East: In Damascus, the government of Bashar al-Assad announced that Syria has joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative, while in Wuxi, China, Beijing and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) issued a joint statement calling for a strategic partnership, to include, among other things, an eventual free trade area.

Washington’s primary concern in the Middle East appears to be a revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. Beyond reaching a renewed nuclear arrangement with Iran, the Biden administration has made it clear that East Asia and Europe are its priority concerns. And both China and regional actors have not failed to take notice.

Syria’s interest in the Belt and Road Initiative has been driven by its vulnerability to American and European economic sanctions. As the government’s official mouthpiece, the Syrian Arab News Agency said “the initiative … helps open broad horizons of cooperation with China … including the exchange of goods, technology, capital, activating the movement of individuals, in addition to cultural exchange.”

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Several Middle Eastern analysts have pointed out that Chinese leaders are comfortable with dealing with another corrupt regime, and indeed one that has successfully resisted American efforts in support of regime change. Moreover, China is deeply concerned about the presence of members of the Uyghur independence movement in the Syrian city of Idlib, and what it perceives to be links between these individuals and Turkey. China’s relations with Turkey are quite brittle; China has publicly criticized Turkish operations in Syria and Iraq. Beijing looks to Assad to rid the Uyghur elements from Syria.  

These reasons are secondary, however, to Beijing’s employing its traditional approach to penetrating economically weaker nations and then exploiting them politically. With Washington unlikely to support anything other than humanitarian aid to Syria, the door is open for China to have a major role in Syria’s reconstruction — and ultimately to expand its political influence in Damascus, as well.

Unlike Syria, the GCC states are certainly not economically weak. But they are increasingly uneasy about America’s reliability and will be even more so if Washington does reach a nuclear deal with Tehran. China’s pro-government Global Times reported GCC Secretary-General Nayef bin Falah Al-Hajraf as saying that “the GCC greatly appreciates China’s important influence and positive role in international and regional affairs.” The import of his statement is abundantly clear, and the fact that Nayef has been accompanied by the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman indicates that he is not speaking simply on his own behalf.

The Biden administration recognizes that China’s threat is global, not regional. It has not acted consistently on the basis of that reality. While it has indeed moved Europe to restrict China’s access to its infrastructure, it has been far less active to assert its concerns in the Middle East. It is not merely a matter of stationing more or fewer forces in the region. More importantly, the administration must cease to signal that the Middle East somehow has become a lower priority for the United States. If it continues to do so, more regional doors will be open to a predatory China, with serious repercussions for America’s national security in the years ahead.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.