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HomeAsiaBiden, China, and the Middle East: An Inevitable Coexistence

Biden, China, and the Middle East: An Inevitable Coexistence

Image credit: Palácio do Planalto, Phil Roeder

By Jacopo Scita

Washington, in coordination with its regional and extra-regional allies, should progressively engage China and push it towards a more responsible engagement with the Middle East, leveraging Beijing to share the burden of being an active security provider in the region and a more effective diplomatic actor.

The election of Joseph R. Biden as the 46th US President came with a lot of expectations – but also question marks – about a re-adjustment of Washington’s Middle East policy after the seesawing experience of Donald Trump’s one-term presidency. Besides the urgency of the Iranian dossier and other unresolved regional issues, the new administration will also have to deal with a great power that is slowly but steadily enhancing its presence in the MENA region: China.  

While Biden is not likely to take a softer approach towards the PRC on the global stage, his strategy will probably be more refined than Trump’s spectacular but not so effective trade war, developing a more coordinated front with the European and Asian allies. The great power competition is set to remain Washington’s foremost strategic priority, influencing, at least to a degree, the US foreign policy towards peripheral regions. In other words, China will increasingly be a factor in the State Department’s strategic thinking of the Middle East.  

The pillars of Biden’s Middle East Policy

The Middle East policy of President Biden will diverge on several fronts from that of his predecessor, returning to a more sober style. While the historical alliances are still at the center of Washington’s regional strategy, the new administration will take a more nuanced approach, with a renewed interest on transatlantic cooperation, respect of normative values, and human rights. 

The Biden team has made a quite clear argument about re-engaging Iran after the Trump administration abandoned the JCPOA and embarked on the hawkish and substantially unproductive “maximum pressure” campaign. As Eurasia Group’s analyst Henry Rome put it, Washington and Tehran are likely to reach a “freeze-for-freeze” interim agreement during the first year of Biden’s presidency, which could eventually temper the confrontational path opened by the previous administration and re-build the transatlantic consensus on the nuclear issue. 

Arguably, Biden’s foreign policy in the Middle East will depart from the personalistic approach developed by Donald Trump. In fact, the former president has framed his foreign policy mainly towards the development of personal ties with the region’s strongmen. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Selman, Egypt’s president al-Sisi, Turkey’s Erdogan, and Israel’s Netanyahu among the others have mostly benefited from their direct relationships with Trump. Conversely, Biden will take more prudent stances, like calling off the “blank check” his predecessor gave to Saudi Arabia.  

On other issues, such as the normalisation process between Israel and the Arab world and the slow but progressive disengagement from the Middle East, Biden will follow the path set by Donald Trump, although in a less chaotic manner. How the new U.S. administration will face China’s presence in the region, though, remains uncertain. 

What a Biden’s Presidency Will Mean for China’s Middle East Policy?

In the last two decades, China has considerably extended its footprint in the region. Through the formalisation of bilateral and multilateral partnerships with the key regional actors, Beijing has slowly evolved its engagement with the Middle East, shifting from mainly economic, state-to-state relations to a more strategic and comprehensive outreach. Ultimately, the Belt and Road Initiative, launched by Xi Jinping in 2013, has reframed Sino-Middle Eastern relations within the global ambitions of a more confident great power. 

Regional countries have welcomed Beijing’s growing presence, finding in the Asian power an ambitious partner keen to build economic and political relations without interfering with domestic politics. Despite the observation that the quality and extent of the Chinese engagement with the wider Middle East is often theatrically exaggerated by the impact of few major foreign direct investments in the Persian Gulf, China is there to stay. 

Therefore, Beijing will remain on the path of building a stronger, multi-layered presence in the Middle East, carefully avoiding being dragged into regional conflicts. If Biden will adopt more confrontational stances towards countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which sit at the top of China’s partnership hierarchy in the region, Beijing will probably benefit from it, but it is unlikely that any great leap forward happens. Overall, Biden’s Middle East policy, as that of his predecessor, will have little effect on the pace of China-MENA encounter. 

A pragmatic approach towards China in the Middle East

Therefore, for the United States, any attempt to constructively engage China in the Middle East – and eventually create opportunities for cooperation – derives from two fundamental premises: the recognition of Beijing’s role in the region and, consequently, the development of a pragmatic approach intended to foster an effective coexistence. 

The Trump administration, which took a quite unprecedented aggressive posture against Beijing, has vocally pushed a zero-sum game narrative about the growing ties between its Middle Eastern partners and China. Meanwhile, the negotiation of a 25-year comprehensive agreement between the PRC and Iran increased the anxiety towards this emerging axis supposedly aimed at imperilling the US interests in the region. 

Yet, Washington should look at its partners’ relations with China – and even at Tehran’s all-in bid – in a less emotional way and understand it as a broader signal. Alienating Beijing from the Middle East is not a concrete option simply because regional countries want to deal with China, whether it is the only major international actor keen to (partly) circumvent U.S. sanctions or an additional partner beyond the traditional relations with the West and other Asian countries. 

Accepting this should lead the Biden administration towards a pragmatic coexistence that avoids the unproductive leverage posed by the zero-sum game approach, but, at the same time, that is not embedded into the naiveté of a passive win-win approach. In fact, Washington, in coordination with its regional and extra-regional allies, should progressively engage China and push it towards a more responsible engagement with the Middle East, leveraging Beijing to share the burden of being an active security provider in the region and a more effective diplomatic actor.


Jacopo Scita is a H.H. Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah doctoral fellow at the School of Government & International Affairs, Durham University (UK). He completed the MSc in Middle East Politics at SOAS, University of London and the BA in International Relations and Diplomatic Affairs at the University of Bologna. Scita’s doctoral project explores the role taken by China within Sino-Iranian relations from the 1979 Revolution to the 2015 JCPOA. His research interests include the international politics of the Middle East with a specific focus on the Chinese interests in the Persian Gulf, Iranian foreign policy, and the analysis of nuclear politics and proliferation in the MENA region. Scita’s written works have appeared on the Atlantic Council, ISPI, LobeLog, Bourse & Bazaar, the Global Policy Journal, and the LSE Middle East Centre.

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Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  

Panelists:

Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security

 

Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

Canada’s multicultural social landscape includes prosperous Middle Eastern communities. While such communities are often underrepresented in the Canadian political process, they are significantly impacted by different social, political, and economic developments in the Middle East. Simultaneously, such communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between Canada and the region. In this respect, multiculturalism can become a tool for advancing Canada’s business interests abroad.

Ottawa’s pro-immigration multicultural policies have helped attract skilled workers from the region, allowing them to integrate and become financially successful dual citizens. The federal government has an opportunity to seize this untapped potential and provide inclusive platforms that can help facilitate trade in the region, advocating business diplomacy between Canada and these immigrants’ home countries in the region.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions. 

Panelists:

Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.

 

Panelists:

Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 

Panelists:

Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 

 

Panelists:

Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.

 

Panelists:

Ferry De Kerchove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Bijan Ahmadi: Executive Director, Institute for Peace & Diplomacy

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.

 

Panelists:

Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor