China eyes the Middle East
Big investments across the region raise concerns about Chinese influence and intentions
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Stopping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon has been a top priority for the Biden administration, and for good reason: Iran is far closer to a nuclear weapon now than it was a year ago.
But Blaise Misztal, vice president for policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, doubts whether renegotiating a nuclear deal with Iran will stop Tehran’s progress—and China is part of that equation.
“One of the reasons that Iran has been able to withstand the pressure of U.S. sanctions and perhaps is therefore less willing to compromise at the negotiating table is because of the economic support it receives from China,” he said.
The United States has played a strategic role in the Middle East for decades, but alliances in the region are shifting. Governments from Tehran to Jerusalem are striking deals with China—and that country’s growing influence in the Middle East is causing concern.
Last year, China and Iran signed a comprehensive cooperation agreement that includes economic development and joint military activities—and the $400 billion agreement has emboldened Tehran’s stance against the United States. Meanwhile, Iran has also been selling higher quantities of its oil to China, in violation of U.S. sanctions.
China is also pouring money into Israel, investing in everything from ports near Israeli naval stations to cybersecurity startups. “There is a real fear that they’re going to be stealing that intellectual property and exploiting it for their own growth and their own benefit, which is also going to be to our detriment,” said Misztal.
China is investing in Saudi Arabia, too. The gulf country is a major oil and gas producer, but it’s also becoming oriented toward technology under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Arthur Herman, an analyst with the Hudson Institute, says the Saudis would love to have the United States as a partner in this development, but the Biden administration has stiff-armed Riyadh due to concerns that getting too close to Saudi Arabia could harm the prospects of a nuclear deal with Iran.
The Chinese are helping the Saudis build their wireless 5G advanced technology network, which Herman says will leave the country at risk of Chinese espionage. Beijing also built a missile production facility in Saudi Arabia that became operational at the end of last year.
“What we’ve seen over the last couple of months is more and more initiative on the part of China in finding ways to encourage the Saudis to think about them as their strong partner in reshaping the Saudi economy and in turning Saudi Arabia into really an economic powerhouse for the Middle East … across a wide variety of sectors,” said Herman.
Then there’s the United Arab Emirates. Washington repeatedly asked the Gulf nation to drop China’s Huawei telecom network or risk the sale of U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets. Abu Dhabi last month decided to suspend the U.S. deal and stick with China’s inexpensive 5G network.
China has also been building a secret military port near the country’s capital, according to a U.S. intelligence report released last year. The Chinese claim they’re using the port for commercial purposes only, but it is one of many ports Beijing is building across the region as part of its trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.
Blaise Misztal says these revelations should remind us that we can’t ignore the wider geopolitical implications of China’s reach into the Middle East. He sees a double challenge for the United States—not only to make sure China isn’t drawing resources out of the region at cut-rate prices, “but that it’s also not stealing their intellectual property and gaining an illicit foothold in the economies of our allies.”
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