It is not clear how or to what extent the COVID-19 will affect the international order. However, it is clear that it will accelerate the disruption that was already well underway before the pandemic. Complexities and nuances aside the disruption implies a shift of influence in the Middle East and North Africa region away from the West (the United States in particular) toward China.
In the immediate post-pandemic lockdown period, Washington will be focusing on health and the economy – especially as the 2020 election approaches. China will inevitably consider this an opportunity to fill in the vacuum left by a retreating, or at least less focused, American power in the Middle East. Moreover, the Saudi led effort to smash the US shale oil industry by increasing crude production to levels that have created the paradoxical phenomenon of negative prices (because of insufficient storage capacity) will have further reduced the American public’s tolerance for their government’s dense role in the Middle East.
Nevertheless, Trump cannot back away from his stance on Iran, ostensibly aimed at triggering a ‘regime change’ through economic pressure, enhanced by ever stringent sanctions and its military presence in neighboring Iraq. Nor can the US simply walk away from the core Middle East issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; especially, after Trump unveiled his ‘Deal of the Century’ so-called ‘peace plan’.
Unlike Washington, Beijing’s focus will be more economic than military and framed in the context of its Belt and Road Initiative, even if it has built military bases in Pakistan and Djibouti – not the Middle East proper, but well within easy reach. The region is bound to experience shockwaves as hinted above, as regional powers from Turkey and Iran to Israel and Egypt might try to use a growing US vacuum to pursue strategic ambitions of their own from obstructing Kurdish nationalism to gaining more control over key resources such as water, oil and natural gas, or simply for the oldest of reasons: to distract populations from domestic problems, which the pandemic will have magnified. By way of comparison, the Middle East in 2020 could start to look like the Middle East in 1960 that is in the aftermath of the Franco-British failure to seize the Suez Canal and before the United States’ hegemony, which took advantage of Saddam Hussein’s misstep in Kuwait in 1990 to launch a hegemonic effort in the region.
China has quietly already been shoring up its role in the Middle East. And, at least for the time being, this role does not intend to overturn the existing order. Notably, while criticizing the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem and the Deal of the Century, Beijing has both reiterated its 1988 commitment to the establishment of an independent Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as capital, and kept close ties to Israel – signing multibillion-dollar contracts for the construction of key infrastructure, and even drawing Washington’s criticism – with the Jewish State. But, whereas, Russia has also pursued close ties with Israel for domestic (large Jewish population and high percentage of Russo-Israeli citizens among its financial oligarchs) and strategic reasons (limiting Israeli efforts in Syria and Lebanon to tactical rather than strategic moves), China’s goals, and its diplomacy, appear almost entirely commercially motivated.
In 2017 Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated his government’s position on the Middle East conflict in four points: To promote a political solution on the basis of the “two State program”.To ensure joint, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security. To coordinate the international community by expanding the peace-keeping force. To encourage economic development as the foundation of a lasting peace.
As of 2020, it seems that China has made no proposals to obstruct Trump’s machinations with the Israeli Government, including a de-facto annexation of some 30% of the West Bank, fully integrating illegal (under International Law) Jewish settlements, as part of the proposed Peace Plan. After backing the PLO and PFLP, China has all but eliminated any of the ideological links that kept it close to the Palestinian struggle in the 1970’s. Still, Beijing has good relations with Hamas, formally criticizing Israel in cases of its routine destruction of Palestinian property in the West Bank and Gaza. The ever practical Beijing understand that it can broaden its influence over the entire Middle East region, from where it satiates its enormous appetite for oil without the need for military interventions, bases or fleets, by observing wise policies. From a wider perspective, Beijing considers regional stability of utmost importance because it favors trade. It’s why Beijing has close ties to Tehran and Riyadh. Quite simply, China’s ambitious new silk route, the One Belt Road, passes through the Middle East on its way to Europe. The four-point program for Israeli-Palestinian peace was first revealed in 2013 just as Xi Jinping unveiled the One Belt Road project.
In that sense, Trump’s peace ‘Deal’, which essentially buries any remaining hope for Palestinian nationalism, as well as the US president’s pressure on Iran, compromise China’s effort by fueling tensions and conflict. China has criticized Trump’s plan because it undermines regional peace, potentially fomenting a new wave of extremism that could spread throughout the region. Trump’s Deal is largely designed for domestic consumption to court the Christian Fundamentalist/Evangelical vote in particular. His rival-apparent, Democrat Joe Biden, has expressed quiet skepticism over the plan, even if he said that, if elected President, he would not move the US embassy back to Tel Aviv, reversing Trump’s change. The Chinese have reason to back Biden, who would, presumably, be less interested in continuing the trade-war that Trump seems so keen on pursuing. The annexation of the West Bank also depends on the tenure of the Netanyahu-Gantz political alliance, needed to form a government after three inclusive attempts.
But, given the tentative support for the ‘Deal’ from prominent representatives of the regimes in power in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, China would likely choose a way to acquiesce to the plan without posing obstacles. Perhaps, if China could find a way to financially support Egypt and Jordan, it could obstruct the plan by allowing Cairo and Amman to make credible threats to withdraw from their respective peace treaties with Israel.
For all of President al-Sisi’s and King Abdallah’s objections to the ‘Deal of the Century’, both leaders know that so long as they receive aid from the United States. Yet, Beijing seems uninterested in altering the geopolitical framework of the region, preferring to honor the founding principle of its diplomacy: not to interfere in a country’s internal affairs. Of course, this does not preclude China from pursuing closer ties with both Cairo and Amman, just as it has done with Tehran, in order to gradually reduce US influence to the point where relations ‘naturally’ shift in a manner, which China can exploit geopolitically as well. Just as in the case of Iran, where Beijing did not wish to see a conflict between the US and the Islamic Republic, it will not deliberately try to displace the United States, risking the shockwaves of Washington’s withdrawal to send a spark in its direction.
The timing is inappropriate. The United States remains the main importer of Chinese goods. Beijing understands that after the 2020 election, whether it’s Trump or his Democratic rival sitting in the Oval Office, the ‘trade war’ with China will become less of a priority. For the time being, Beijing understand that its attempts to establish deeper ties with Middle Eastern States cannot come at the risk of aggravating relations with the Washington.
China is interested in maintaining peace in the entire region, which is essential to completing the One Belt Road project, which will help spread Chinese influence through investments and infrastructure, expanding a regional market extending from the Horn of Africa, to the Middle East, southern and central Asia. A gradual US disengagement from the region can only facilitate this process, and direct interference into US interests in the region could compromise it. The Chinese famously think long term. Legend has it that when President Richard Nixon began courting China in 1973, he asked then Premier Zhou Enlai what he thought about the French Revolution. Zhou responded: “it’s too early to tell”.