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.