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Video: Chinese Influence in the Middle East

Michael Doran

For the organization’s final webinar of the summer, The Jewish Policy Center welcomed Michael Duran to discuss Chinese influence in the Middle East. Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, specializes in Middle East security. He also served on the Bush White House National Security Council, as a senior advisor in the State Department,  and as deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Pentagon.

Doran began his presentation saying that Chinese influence over Middle Eastern countries is widespread but goes widely unnoticed in Western capitals. The Chinese military, commercial, and political presence have affected the actions of both U.S. allies and foes on issues such as trade routes, strategic waterways, Iran sanction, and Russian intervention in Syria.

The Belt and Road Initiative – The Middle East via Central Asia

China’s Belt and Road Initiative helps Central Asian nations develop infrastructure to increase trade with China. Such investments make local communities more dependent on China for growth, but it also increases Beijing’s political influence. These projects will help increase the stability of supply routes for raw materials to China, which are essential to not only keep domestic support for the communist party, i.e. keep the economy growing. 

Doran’s presentation echoed his article in Tablet Magazine, “China’s Emerging Middle Eastern Kingdom.” “The jewel in the crown of the Belt and Road Initiative is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor—a multibillion-dollar program to build highways, rail lines, and pipelines from the port of Gwadar [Pakistan] on the Indian Ocean to Xinjiang… While Beijing is now presenting Gwadar as an entirely commercial venture, upon completion it will certainly become a military base, which will assist Beijing in flanking India. CPEC will also shorten and harden China’s supply lines. Gwadar will serve as a transshipment hub for oil and natural gas and other raw materials that will flow overland through pipelines to Xinjiang, then on to points farther east in China.”

The total distance from “China to the Persian Gulf is over 5,000 nautical miles, through waters that, in time of war, will likely be impassable. By contrast, the distance from the Persian Gulf to Gwadar is less than 600 nautical miles.”

But Xinjiang is also part of the Uighur heartland. “The northern terminus of the corridor is Kashgar—a Uighur city which, with cameras in every crevice, is likely the most surveilled metropolitan area in the world. China is crushing the Uighurs, in other words, because their territory sits athwart China’s critical overland supply routes.”

Historically, the Chinese ethnic Han population has been large enough that they don’t feel threatened by the minorities. Some of these minorities are also very large by international standards and their persistence shows that genocide is not the norm in Chinese history. So why are they doing it to the Uighurs? Well, the answer is that the group is on the path between China and the Middle East. “How determined is China in its advance toward the Middle East? Determined enough to commit genocide.”

Djibouti – The Other Middle East Flank

Beijing put its first overseas base eight miles away from the only American military base in Africa. The Chinese naval facility in Djibouti guards the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, a chokepoint in line with the Red Sea and Suez Canal, ultimately connecting the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. It is a transit route for oil to Europe. 

Connecting the choke points near bases in Djibouti and Gwadar gives China a “thumb on the world’s windpipe. Which appears to be exactly the vision that shapes the ambitions of Chinese war planners.”

The Chinese behavior is increasingly aggressive. They use the facility to surveil the U.S. military and try to penetrate the base. On numerous occasions, they have harassed American planes by using military-grade lasers to flash in the eyes of American pilots and by trying to restrict U.S. overflights of the area. 

China’s Political Influence

With regard to a confrontation with American’s regional rivals, Doran said, “The benefits to China of the destabilizing activities of Russia and Iran in the Middle East are many and substantial. The strategy, first, exhausts America. The last two American presidents have been elected on platforms dedicated to reducing commitments to the Middle East. Sizable segments of both political parties do not understand why the United States is playing a major role in the region, and some significant portion of them advocate leaving it altogether.”

Second, they damage American prestige, particularly aggravating the failure of the U.S. to prevail and create stability in Iraq. Third, helping the Iranian regime helps Chinese forces in the region pin down the American navy, because it diverts American resources from the Western Pacific.” 

Doran did note that the 25-year China-Iran agreement – recently much ballyhooed in the press as a setback for the American Maximum Pressure Campaign against the Iranian regime – was actually signed in 2016, as the U.S. was supplying Iran with cash and resources. But disagreements between the United States and its European allies on how to handle Iran, as well as the Syrian conflict “has divided the Americans from their regional allies, especially Turkey, and it has sent very large refugee flows into Europe that has vexed the European Union and roiled its politics.”

He added, “Doubts about America’s long-term commitment to the Middle East forces major allies of the United States such as Saudi Arabia and Israel to hedge their bets by cultivating their ties with Beijing. For American allies, the best way to gain entry to Beijing without annoying the Americans is by accepting its open invitation to engage economically. Indeed, China is now the number one trading partner of Saudi Arabia, from which it imports more oil than from any other country. Israel, for its part, receives significant capital investment from China along with high-level visits from Chinese military brass, and is employing a Chinese company to develop the port of Haifa—despite repeated American requests to cancel the contract.”

Meanwhile in Iraq, Beijing increased its investment to more than $30 billion, up more than 1000% between 2008 and 2018. After Saudi Arabia and Russian, Iraq now accounts for the third largest exporter of oil to China, giving the country an important lifeline with oil prices near historic lows. Additionally, due to the influence of Shiite backed militias close to the Iranian government, American firms find the country an ever more difficult place to invest. 

China’s Dichotomy

Why does this matter now? For a long time, Washington policy makers have believed that China has no security interest in the Middle East, and that China’s economic interests make it content to have stability ensured by the United States. Stability and security are expensive, so, the theory went, Beijing would rather have Washington pay while they extract resources.

But the Chinese view the region with an eye to the East Asian balance. With a clear adversarial relationship between the U.S. and China in the Pacific, it is illogical to view Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean as otherwise. So, Doran posits, the Chinese actually have a contradiction at the heart of their policy. On the one hand, they want to be the dominant power in the Middle East, and they have a plan to get there. In the meantime, it is building up its strength while pursuing a surreptitiously anti-American agenda. If they were to try to go directly at us, to topple us, as the preeminent security power in the Middle East, their interests would be harmed. Instead, Beijing lets Moscow and Tehran directly challenge the American order while building relationships with some of America’s allies.

If trend lines remain the same, then it appears almost inevitable that the Chinese will replace the U.S. in the Middle East at some point, whether that be 2030, 2040, or 2050. 

But while that sort of straight-line projection is impossible, Doran concluded, the U.S. has to go on offense: avoiding direct military conflict, while continuing security cooperation with our Asian and Middle Eastern partners, and also taking an economic-based approach. There are flaws and weaknesses in the Chinese economy, suggesting specific things Washington and other western allies could do. Taking on China’s power in technology and innovation; limiting its ability to shape standards, and keeping it out of critical cyber infrastructure. And most important, disrupt the Communist Party’s civil/military fusion in their overseas ventures. The U.S. should remove Chinese influence from research institutions and college campuses. In the long run, “I don’t think they can innovate the way we can in their system,” Doran said.

Jewish Policy Center Senior Research Associate Michael Johnson compiled this report.