Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, spoke to participants in a September 4 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about significant shifts in China's foreign policy towards the Middle East and their implications for the United States.
Until recently, China's interest in the Middle East focused on two areas – importing oil and exporting arms.
That changed when President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013. Whereas the late Deng Xiaoping advocated adopting a low profile in foreign affairs so as not to "make waves" on the international stage, Xi reoriented Chinese foreign policy in a "more confrontational direction," Berman said, "in terms of the unfolding great power competition between China and the United States." This included a drive "to supplant the United States as the dominant strategic power in the Middle East."
Central to this new assertiveness is the Belt and Road Initiative, "essentially a full-court press by China diplomatically, politically, [and] economically to expand its influence." It accomplishes this with "infrastructure projects, [and] greater business development and loans" to governments seeking foreign assistance. This strategy has enabled China to engage with countries in the Middle East, as well as central Asia, Europe, North Africa, and Latin America.
China has positioned itself as a "key stakeholder" in Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030, the kingdom's "reform modernization plan," by engaging in more than $120 billion in trade deals there. China's "$400 billion strategic accord" recently reached with the Islamic Republic of Iran helps fill the void left by Washington's "maximum pressure policy" of economic sanctions against the mullahs.
Equally concerning to Washington is Chinese investment in Israel's high-tech sectors. China is positioning itself to become "the single largest nation-state investor in the Jewish state in the next several years, eclipsing the United States."
China's presence in Israel has become "a point of tension" between Jerusalem and Washington. The Israeli tech sector is not "hermetically sealed off" in terms of Israel's national security, said Berman, and Israel "does not currently have sufficient safeguards for monitoring Chinese investment into the country." Although many of Israel's Chinese partners are "ostensibly private entit[ies]," Chinese law mandates that all Chinese companies "pay deference to the state on matters of national security."
Israel's hi-tech sector is also engaged in many joint defense industrial projects with the United States, and Washington has legitimate concerns that China's "growing footprint in Israel" could adversely impact strategic cooperation between Israel and the U.S.
In 2015, the Israeli Ministry contracted with a Chinese company, the Shanghai Ports Group, to modernize its Haifa port. Once complete, China will run day to day operations of the port, which is not just a commercial hub, but the "staging ground for military exercises between the Israeli navy and the U.S. navy." U.S. military officials may rethink U.S. port visits to Haifa over worries that "the integrity of our military cooperation is going to be compromised by the Chinese presence there."
Many Middle East governments are eager to replicate China's "digital authoritarianism."
Another component of Chinese foreign policy in the Middle East is its exportation of the "digital authoritarianism" it has employed to suppress its own population. This was seen as far back as 2009, when Chinese telecom firm ZTE provided sophisticated surveillance technology to the Iranian regime during its crackdown on the Green Movement protests. With China's commercial telecom presence expanding into Iran, Lebanon, Egypt and North Africa, evidence suggests "China is slowly ... exporting its system of social control" to authoritarian and repressive regimes to "effectively monitor and surveil" their populations. Middle East governments are eager to replicate the so-called "Great Firewall of China" regulating China's internet, as well as its "social credit system" serving to "incentivize conformity with Chinese government policies." These "models" are "slowly, but surely, making [their] way ... towards the Middle East and North Africa," Berman said.
A major dividend Beijing derives from its investments in the Middle East is the "deafening silence" of Islamic governments about its repression of its Muslim Uighur population in Western China's Xinjiang province, which has strategic importance as a land-based corridor that will enable China trade access to central Asia and the Middle East. With more than a million Uighurs in "re-education camps," amid chilling accounts of sterilizations and slave labor, China has used economic incentives to "shape the conversation ... in Riyadh [and] Dubai," both of which have expressed outright support for China's handling of their co-religionists.
Although China insists its growing economic power in the region is benign, it has the potential to alter alliance structures and shape political outcomes in ways detrimental to U.S. interests. Unless America begins to significantly address China's power competition in the Middle East, it risks "being outmaneuvered" by the Chinese.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.