Sun Degang:A New Cold War or A Complementary Partnership?Sino-US Strategic Rivalry and the Middle East
17 Sep, 2020  |  Source:Fudan University  |  Hits:3950

In recent years, Sino-US strategic rivalry has exacerbated from a trade war to a technology war, with the US sanctions on Chinese companies, such as ZTE, Huawei and Tik-tok. At the same time, Washington is increasingly critical of Beijing on its policy towards Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan and the South China Sea. In July 2020, the Trump Administration abruptly demanded that China close its consulate in Houston under the pretext of “security reasons” and China, in retaliation, was compelled to order the US to close its consulate in Chengdu, albeit reluctantly. A “new cold war” between China and the US seems to be looming.


I. The Ideational Conflicts between China and the US in the Middle East

There is a huge concern among academia and policy-makers that Beijing and Washington are falling into the “Thucydides Trap”, and that their bilateral strategic rivalry will have a spillover effect on the Middle East. In particular, the US tends to sabotage its allies’ economic cooperation with China, diluting China’s economic buildup in the region. During his visit to Israel, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned his Israeli counterparts that their cooperation with China would jeopardize their strategic relations with the US. Partly due to US pressure, a Chinese firm failed to win the bid for the world’s largest desalination plant in Israel. What’s more, the Chinese company Huawei might be banned from participating in Israel’s 5G infrastructure network, as it already has been in the UK. Significant Chinese investments in the Middle East, particularly in seaports, telecommunications, civil nuclear power plants, outer space and medicine might be impaired, and the prospect of China-Middle East cooperation is uncertain as well.

Does the China-US rivalry resemble the Soviet-US Cold War in the Middle East? Indeed, they do share similar attributes. First, there exists a structural contradiction between the established power (i.e. the US as the largest economy) and the rising power (the Soviet Union six decades ago and China today, both being the second largest economies of their respective eras). Second, the established power is a western capitalist country, while the growing power is a non-western socialist country. Finally, the US and China have each established asymmetric relations with countries in the Middle East, as the US and the Soviet Union did during the Cold War. At present, although the US is pivoting from the Middle East to Asia, it boasts the most powerful military might. China, in contrast, is the largest trade partner of the whole region of West Asia and North Africa, and it has built a network of partnerships with over a dozen major regional powers, and in particular, its influence is aggrandizing.

China and the US have divergent outlooks on Middle East security governance. First, the US chooses sides in the Middle East conflicts, and divides the region into “a zone of peace and prosperity” and “a zone of conflict and chaos”. Washington thus strives to build a coalition with her allies, promoting an “Arab NATO” consisting of the GCC countries, Jordan and Egypt, and fosters a special relationship with Israel in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. On the other hand, China places emphasis on the principles of non-alignment and non-interference, seeking congenial partnerships with almost all interested parties, including those in conflict with each other, and including US allies as well as Iran, Iraq, Algeria and Sudan, the latter group being perceived as threats to the US. China complains that the US bias on the Palestine-Israel conflict has marginalized the disadvantaged group, and may create a time bomb for regional security.

Second, the US adheres to unilateralism, while China aims for multilateralism, highlighting that the JCPOA, Oslo Accords, and other UN-led mechanisms for regional resolutions should be followed. China has criticized the US for its unilateralism, complaining that its retreat from the JCPOA has caused a potential civil nuclear power race and, worse still, long-term nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. In August 2020, The UN Security Council overwhelmingly voted against a US resolution to indefinitely extend an arms embargo against Iran. China, together with Russia, vetoed the US-proposed draft, and criticized the Trump Administration for having unilaterally pulled out of the JCPOA.  

Third, the US combines economic and trade issues with politics, while China is opposed to the politicization of the economy and business, aiming to separate economic and trade issues from political issues. China is unhappy with the US decision to exert sanctions against Chinese companies that undergo normal business with Iran. China’s Huawei Company was charged by the US with having covered up its relationship with a firm that had “tried to sell prohibited US computer gear to Iran”. In December 2018, Mrs. Meng Wanzhou, Deputy Chair of the Board and Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of telecom giant Huawei, China’s largest privately held company, was arrested in Vancouver for extradition under US pressure. This is a heated dispute between China and the US related to Chinese companies’ business with Iran.


II. Conflicts of Interest between China and the US in the Middle East

In the past decade, no significant conflict between China and the US has occurred, and they have coexisted quite peacefully. However, since China put forward the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, and particularly since China became the largest trade partner of Iran, the second largest trade partner of the Arab League and the third largest trade partner of Israel and Turkey, China-US discords have been increasing. The US regards the Middle East as a “battlefield”, while China looks at the Middle East as a “market”. Therefore, Washington designates anti-American forces in the Middle East as troublemakers and as targets of “governance”; China however regards all countries and parties as real or potential political and economic partners.

With the deterioration of Sino-US relations, the peaceful co-existence of the two giants has begun to fall apart. The increasing economic engagement of China towards the Middle East has inevitably caused American anxiety, as the US interprets Chinese economic activity as a “prelude to military build-up”. The commercial ports built by China have been charged by the US Sixth and Fifth Fleet, with US officials claiming that they pose a threat to US military facilities. China’s seaport construction and operation projects in Port Haifa of Israel, Port Doraleh of Djibouti and Port Khalifa of the UAE, known as the extension of “string of pearls”, are perceived as a threat to the US military presence in the region in particular. China’s construction of 5G infrastructure in Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Egypt is regarded as a threat to the US “Monroe Doctrine” in the technological domain as well. David Schenker, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, warned American allies that they had to weigh their partnership with the US with their level of engagement in business cooperation with China. 

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