China could enter the choppy waters of the Middle East. Multiple crises and conflicts are likely to shape its relationship with major powers in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey.
The long list of pitfalls for China includes fallout from the war in Ukraine, strained US relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Turkish opposition to Finland and Sweden’s membership at NATO, the threat of a new anti-Kurdish Turkish incursion into northern Syria, and the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program .
Drowning out the noise, one thing that becomes apparent is that neither the Gulf states nor Turkey intend to fundamentally alter their security relationship with the United States, even if the dynamics in the Saudi cases Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey is very different.
Saudi Arabia recognizes that there is no alternative to the US security umbrella, regardless of any doubts the kingdom may have about the US commitment to its security. With President Joe Biden visiting Saudi Arabia next month, the question is not how US-Saudi differences will be covered up, but at what cost and who will foot the bill.
Meanwhile, China has made it clear that it does not wish and is not yet able to replace the United States. He also said that for China to engage in regional security, states in the Middle East should first get their differences under control so that conflicts do not spiral out of control. Measures to reduce tensions between Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt by focusing on the economy are a step in this direction. Yet they remain fragile, with no issues causing the differences having been resolved.
A potential failure of negotiations in Vienna to revive the Iran nuclear deal could upset the plow. This would likely push Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to tighten security cooperation, but could threaten rapprochement with Turkey. It could also increase tensions in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq, where Iran supports various political actors and militias. None of this is good news for China, which, like other major players in the Middle East, prefers to stay focused on the economy.
The dynamic with Turkey and Iran is of a different order. China may look on with glee at Turkey’s stonewalling of NATO, but even if Turkey seeks to chart an independent path, it does not want to sever its umbilical cord with the West rooted in its NATO membership.
NATO needs Turkey even if its center of gravity, for the moment, has shifted towards Eastern Europe. Likewise, Turkey needs NATO, even if it is better placed to defend itself than the Gulf States. Ultimately, the haggling will solve NATO’s most immediate problems due to Turkish objections to Sweden and Finland joining NATO.
The threat of Turkey’s anti-Kurdish incursion into northern Syria would be an escalation that neither side, including China, wants. Not because it underpins Turkish opposition to Sweden and Finland joining NATO, but because the Syrian Kurds seeking the support of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the forces backed by Turkey and Iran could end up on opposite sides.
Finally, Iran. Despite the turmoil over the 25-year US$400m deal between Iran and China, relations between Tehran and Beijing are unlikely to fully blossom as long as Iran is under sanctions Americans. A failure to revive the nuclear deal guarantees that the sanctions will be maintained. China has made it clear that it is willing to push boundaries by violating or circumventing sanctions, but not to the point of turning Iran into another major sticking point in already strained US-China relations. China.
In a world where the bifurcation has been hastened by the war in Ukraine and the Middle East threatened by potentially heightened tensions in the absence of a nuclear deal, the Gulf states may find that increasingly the principle of ” you are with us or against us” becomes the norm. The Gulf states hedged their bets in the early months of the war in Ukraine, but their ability to do so may be coming to an end.
Already Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are beginning to make concessions on the issue of oil production, while Qatar is engaging with Europe on gas. The bifurcation would not sever relations with China, but would likely restrict technology cooperation and contain Gulf coverage strategies, including notions of granting military facilities to China.
Beyond the immediate geopolitical and security concerns, there are many other potentially problematic issues and powder kegs.
A major Saudi newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat, recently challenged the increasingly aggressive tone of Chinese diplomacy. “China is doing itself a disservice…Chinese officials seem intent on undermining their own case for global leadership…Somehow Chinese officials don’t seem to recognize that their belligerence is just as off-putting…than Western paternalism,” the newspaper wrote. said in an editorial.
China’s balance, especially between Saudi Arabia and Iran, could become more difficult. A failure to revive the nuclear deal will complicate the already difficult talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran aimed at easing tensions. It could also fuel a nuclear, missile and drone arms race accelerated by a more aggressive US-backed Israeli strategy to confront Iran by striking targets in the Islamic republic rather than with US backing. United, for example in Syria.
While Chinese willingness to sell arms may be strengthened, China may find that Saudi Arabia and Iran become more demanding in their expectations of Beijing, particularly if tensions escalate.
A wild card in the pack is China’s crackdown on Turkish Muslims in its northwestern province of Xinjiang. A majority of the Muslim world turned a blind eye, with a few, like Saudi Arabia, openly endorsing the crackdown.
The interest in doing so goes beyond Muslim-majority states that don’t want to risk their relationship with a China that responds harshly and aggressively to public criticism. Moreover, repression in Xinjiang and Muslim acquiescence legitimize a common opposition to any political expression of Islam.
The problem for Muslim-majority states, especially those in the Middle East, is that the era in which the United States and others could get away with the application of double standards and apparent hypocrisy in the Adherence to values could be coming to an end.
China and, for that matter, Russia are happy to benefit from the Global South’s reluctance to join in condemning the invasion of Ukraine and sanctions against Russia because the West refuses to enforce the universally, for example in the case of Israel or multiple violations of international law and human rights elsewhere.
However, China and Middle Eastern states are sitting in similar greenhouses. Regardless of how one judges the recent controversial statements by spokespersons of the ruling BJP party in India regarding the Prophet Muhammad and the Muslim faith, criticism of Muslim states rings hollow as long as they do not also resist the repression of the Muslims in Xinjiang.
For some in the Middle East, judgment could come sooner and later.
Turkey is a state where the Uyghur issue in China is not just a show away from my bed. Uyghurs play a role in the domestic politics of a country that is home to the largest Uyghur exile community that has long supported the rights of its fellow Turks in China and still has strong swathes of pan-Turkism.
These are all things that could come to the fore when Turkey heads to the polls next year as it celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Turkish republic.
The question is not whether China will encounter rough waters in the Middle East, but when and where.
Author’s note: This article is based on the author’s remarks at the 4th Roundtable on China in West Asia – Entering the Void? hosted by the Ananta Aspen Center on June 14, 2022 and was first published by the Middle East Institute in Washington DC.