Duringg the closing days of the last year, President Biden and President Xi visited the Gulf States. Both want to extend their influence in the coastal and West Asian States, eyeing the strategic and energy resources of the region.
The visits are also germane to the emerging US and China foreign policy trends. Observers interpret the visits and the take from these as indicators of the policy of two superpowers at the two ends of the globe.
In an article posted on the WeChat social media platform a few days back, Niu Xinchun, the Director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at the China Institute of C Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), said that the country’s (China) Middle East policy was not expected to undergo a significant shift over the next few years as it would continue to focus on economic rather than military ties, even though some viewed it as competing with the US in the region.
He advised Beijing that when crafting its Middle East strategy, it should avoid being dragged into a “great power game” with the US —I-as had already happened in the Indo-Pacific region and Europe.”
Saudi Arabia has enjoyed close ties with the US since the beginning of the monarchy in 1930. One grouse against the Saudi monarchy, which Iran has never concealed, is that of becoming a tool of the US in the Gulf region.
Iran has always been apprehensive of US’ proximity to the Saudi monarchy. Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian Islamic revolution, went to the length of decreeing monarchy — wherever it existed — as un-Islamic. And this is the reason why Saudi Arabia is against Iran acquiring nuclear capability.
But Crown Prince Salman has changed the age-old conservatism of the leader of the Islamic world and made space for modernization and civil liberties. He also explored the prospects of diversifying his country’s trade relations.
He did not exclude China. He knows that the hydrocarbon reserves are not unending; as such, it is sheer prudence to diversify trade and commerce as pillars of a country’s economy.
China is a rising power based on trade. A country with a strong economy has the potential to become militarily also strong.
China took an additional step in fostering trade relations with Saudi Arabia, which became its major oil supplier. Thus, the US took the widening scope of trade and interaction with the Chinese as an affront.
The visit of President Biden to the Middle East and Saudi last year was meant to iron out angularities in Saudi – US relations. The differences were not removed in their entirety.
Beijing considered the Middle East situation akin to a vacuum or decreasing sphere of influence of the US in the Middle East. As such, the temptation was to see China’s footprints in as many Middle East States as could be possible.
Against this temptation, the think tanks in Beijing would suggest the government not make any hasty move of playing a strategic or military card in the Middle East region but confine its ventures to the trade and commerce fields only.
They contend that once China enters the deep waters of military and political spheres, it is almost impossible to maintain cordial and long-term relationships.
The Middle East is embroiled in several conflicts. Syria, Palestine, Jordan, and Yemen are the ongoing flash points. The US and Russia are directly or indirectly involved in these conflicts. Once China decides to play a political or a military role, which it has not played so far, she would lose receptibility in that region.
The prediction in some circles that the Middle East could become the next arena for competition between the two countries because China would continue to increase its footprints in the region is a contentious proposition.
The Middle East is where the two superpowers do not have significant conflicts. It is not a strategic region for either power. It does not possess vital resources like energy or mineral resources, which could cause conflict.
In other words, we may say that the two could coexist in the region without sporadic tussles and hassles. We do not mean to say that the interests of the two converge in the region. No, that is not the point.
US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Barbara Leaf, said, “America’s security and defense history in the region gives it a clear advantage over China. The US has been the Middle East’s biggest arms supplier for years, while China is the biggest purchaser of oil and gas from the region.”
It has to be recognized that many Middle East countries have had good relations with European countries for a long time. European and British influence has been of vital significance in the life and politics of the Middle East.
Trade and commerce are briskly carried between the two sides. China has good relations with most of the European Union member countries. Therefore, in an overall estimation, China will consider not disrupting the channels of relationship the Middle East has with the European countries.
In the final analysis, the world would be happier if the bilateral rivalry between the US and China was not carried to the Middle East region. The countries concerned are left to live normal lives.
- KN Pandita (Padma Shri) is the former Director of the Center of Central Asian Studies at Kashmir University. Views expressed here are of the author’s.
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