China in the Gulf: Challenger to America but not yet a contender

    Despite a perceived sense of US disinterest in the Middle East amid China’s growing influence, the last chapter of the story is yet to be written.

    From solar panels to arms sales and proposed solutions to the region’s long-standing troubles, China’s expanding role in the Gulf has transcended the realms of material gains or search for shared prosperity.

    During last year’s China-GCC Summit, President Xi Jinping’s invitation to the Global Security Initiative was a resounding signal of his ambition to influence the region’s security architecture. Then a China-brokered deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran provoked a tectonic effect on global affairs, signalling the rise of Chinese diplomacy.

    The prevailing narrative is that the United States sees the Gulf solely as an oil-rich haven and is gradually withdrawing due to its growing energy independence. However, this hypothesis is not sensible as the Gulf is still of primary importance not just in terms of energy supply but also in terms of its central geostrategic location at the carrefour of trade routes.

    Therefore, it is necessary to prospect an antithesis to the perceived US retrenchment from the region. Washington could well be luring Beijing into a complex trap.

    For decades, the Chinese leadership has avoided getting entangled with military conflicts overseas, preferring to allocate all their attention to economic growth.

    Thus, from the US perspective, to impede China’s rise, the country needs to take part in costly and protracted conflicts that will bleed its finances dry. And where best to start but the Middle East?

    Moreover, China’s pivot to the Gulf should not be evaluated in isolation from other initiatives. Its increasing visibility from the Indo-Pacific to Africa reveals a deeper issue beyond short-term gains: the challenge it poses to the norm setters of the international system.

    Rise of the dragon

    A GSI concept paper published by the Chinese foreign ministry last year illustrates Xi Jinping’s vision of China to set global norms. Underneath the familiar words we often hear – such as regional and international cooperation, peace, dialogue, and respect for sovereignty – Jinping’s world has no room for unfettered American supremacy.

    Prioritising economic gains is a tactic China employs in almost every diplomatic encounter. It is also gradually playing the game of soft power, as indicated by the opening of the first Confucius Institute in Riyadh last week.

    In the past decade, China has emerged as the Gulf’s favoured client, overshadowing the declining oil exports to the US. With its extensive BRI network, China has cultivated diverse relationships with every country in the region, skilfully maintaining a non-aligned and non-confrontational approach.

    China’s statecraft managed to juggle the Gulf on the one hand and Iran on the other. While economic ties have prevented serious security concerns, China’s strategic sales of drones, missiles, and aircraft and its rhetoric concerning the Palestinian issue signal a deeper engagement beyond mere financial transactions.

    Meanwhile, those who perceive America’s presence in the region as a pursuit of access to oil overlook the crucial reality that the US remains Israel’s foremost security partner.

    The prevailing narrative of American withdrawal combined with the growing presence of China has even led some to speculate about the potential rise of the ‘petroyuan’, replacing the dominance of the petrodollar.

    US and them

    The inherent strategy is not perplexing to grasp. Formerly the dominant force in a unipolar world, the US has belatedly realised it cannot maintain the same stance in a multipolar global setting. The discourse surrounding withdrawal is primarily driven by the desire to project a distinct image.

    Similarly cognisant of this multipolar environment, China is adeptly manoeuvring its moves. It has almost no rationale or strategic interest in challenging the regional security architecture from which it substantially benefits while dealing with lucrative transactions.

    Conversely, Washington wants to entice China into the Middle East’s conundrum. By doing so, China would promptly realise that it cannot actualise its declared ideals of security, peace, and stability, which are essentially rhetorical, in this highly turbulent area.

    Hence, the resumption of constructing a base near Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa Port does not contradict American foreign policy; rather, it aims to entrap China in the convoluted quagmire of the Middle East. China is well aware of its unpreparedness in this regard. Hence, it can only proceed cautiously, taking measured steps and refraining from exceeding limits.

    Saudi Arabia’s participation as a dialogue partner in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the upcoming Arab-China Business Conference appears to fall into the category of tolerable concerns for Washington.

    Saudi Arabia’s move towards economic diversification is, in a way, a natural outcome of global trade and, most importantly, a multipolar international system. While it remains uncertain where the competition in the Gulf will ultimately lead in the long term, China still has a long way to go to establish itself as a viable alternative.

    Some analysts contend that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud – popularly known as MBS – is attempting to create manoeuvring space by confronting the region’s two powers, similar to how the US drew China into the area.

    There are good reasons to think that playing this risky game might be unwise. Moreover, China’s approach to the Palestinian issue with a two-state solution is currently nothing more than words on paper.

    However, if China’s growing engagement takes shape in a way that enhances Tehran’s influence in the region—which is already a dominant actor in Damascus, Beirut, Sanaa, and Baghdad—it will likely overstep the tolerance threshold of Washington and change the course of US presence to contain Beijing’s reach.

    This article was originally published in the opinion section of TRT WORLD.

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