In the past few decades, the indications of US-China competition have been felt all across the globe. However, in recent times, this competition has taken a turn in the MENA region where acute political, economic, and strategic indicators of the rivalry have begun to emerge. Although historically, the United States has enjoyed an uninterrupted influence in the region presently China has begun to engage quite earnestly in the region through its economic mega-projects. Other than the utility of its extensive geo-economic clout, China has also sought to develop significant diplomatic and military influence in the Middle East. The region, therefore, can turn into a new competitive theatre for US-China competition.
The Middle East, a region that was previously under the US umbrella, is now being identified as an important hub of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In 2019, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates contracted Huwaei, a Chinese company, to build 5G telecom infrastructure amid US-led efforts to boycott the company internationally. More importantly, in 2020, Iraq signed a $ 3 billion agreement with the state-owned Chinese ZhenHua Oil Company. The United States has appeared to be highly concerned about China’s economic engagements in the Middle East and has applied pressure on its MENA allies and partners regarding cooperation with China in different sectors.
With regards to the strategic aspect, US Priority Theater has shifted to the Indo-pacific. While maintaining a deep strategic footprint in the Middle East is now strategically less important for the United States. The vacuum created by these developments has created room for China to flex its muscle. The China-Iran bilateral relationship is an apt manifestation of this new scenario. Both countries have signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) agreement. United States perceives this relationship between China and Iran as China supporting a revisionist threat to the MENA order. This relationship is, thus, bound to create new and dangerous flashpoints in the US-China rivalry.
Regarding security affairs, the United States has been the dominant security guarantor of the Middle East for the past half-century. However, recently, China’s engagements have come to encompass military-security affairs as well in the region. China’s profile in Gulf military-security affairs is heightening in areas of arms sale, weapons manufacturing, and military, and intelligence gathering installations. In 2021, it was reported by credible sources that Riyadh and UAE were developing military facilities with the assistance of China. These developments indicate that Beijing is more confident in pushing against US influence in MENA.
All these developments are being monitored by the United States with greater concern. It is exerting pressure on MENA countries to limit their cooperation with China: reflecting the ignition of severe competition. Concerns have led the United States to adopt policies that seek to blunt China’s efforts to achieve superiority in the region. It can be concluded that the onset of US-China competition in the Middle East has become evident as the United States is threatened by China’s inroads in the MENA region centered on the possibility of the new forms of Sino-Middle East cooperation combining Emirati and Saudi funding, and Chinese infrastructure, ultimately placing American interests at stake.
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