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China Comes to the Middle East

The Chinese era of Middle Eastern geopolitics has begun.
[additional-authors]
April 5, 2023
Tomas Ragina / Getty Images

Even while Israel continues to be roiled by their current internal political disputes, the country’s international challenges are not going away. Potential crises from Iran, Syria and other regional antagonists still loom on the near horizon, and the Palestinian menace is omnipresent as well. But there are broader and more sweeping changes coming too, which are likely to create a fundamentally different regional landscape for the Netanyahu government and its successors to navigate.

The Chinese era of Middle Eastern geopolitics has begun.

Over the course of Israel’s 75 years since independence, the Jewish state has navigated two distinct eras of global superpower involvement. For roughly Israel’s first forty years of existence, the Middle East was viewed by both the United State and the Soviet Union as one of many staging grounds for Cold War confrontations. The Soviets’ initial support for Israel was based on the belief that a socialist state in a key strategic location could be a valuable asset, but the USSR quickly switched sides and became a strong supporter of Israel’s Arab antagonists. After some periods of equivocation in the 1950s and ’60s, the U.S. ultimately emerged as Israel’s strongest diplomatic and military ally.

The Soviet/Arab and American/Israel faceoff continued until the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, when the U.S.S.R’s demise created a unipolar world in which the United States became the planet’s only true superpower. But the U.S. has never been able to gain sufficient credibility in the Arab world to act as an effective convening influence. So while there was not another country of similar size and strength to serve as a counterweight to the American presence in the Middle East, progress toward peace during these years was uneven at best.

We have now entered a new era of global power politics, as the People’s Republic of China has emerged as a counterbalance to the Western alliance. 

But we have now entered a new era of global power politics, as the People’s Republic of China has emerged as a counterbalance to the Western alliance. President Xi Jinping’s recent trip to Russia was carefully designed to show a world audience that China was much more capable than the United States of bringing peace to Ukraine. And Beijing’s role in brokering the diplomatic agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran last month signals the Chinese interest in becoming a key player in this region too.

The Middle East is a neighborhood where outside intervention from global powers has rarely succeeded. Until now, China has kept a safe distance from the region’s treacherous geopolitics. President Biden’s advisors have minimized the import of the role that China played in these negotiations, pointing out that the Saudis and Iranians had already been talking for some time and that Chinese diplomats only entered the conversations in their final stages. But more important than the size or impact of China’s presence in these discussions is the fact that Beijing has worked so hard to take credit. By positioning themselves as a peacemaker in a part of the world where America’s successes are now a distant memory, Beijing has obviously decided that a public presence in the Middle East is to their benefit.

Unlike the Soviet Union’s unabashed support for Israel’s Arab foes, China does not appear to be interested in taking sides. (In fact, the last two U.S. presidents have quietly warned Israel about getting too close to the Chinese.) There has not been a time in modern history when the world’s two superpowers have both declared an interest in the region without lining up on opposite sides. China and the U.S are motivated by very different interests.  But they both want to maintain some level of economic and security-based stability in this part of the world, even if only to serve their own purposes.

China is certainly no friend of the United States, and the competition between the two countries is growing more intense – and frequently belligerent — every day. But there has never been a time in modern history in which both of the world’s most dominant nations have overlapping goals in the Middle East. That could potentially create an opportunity for a diplomatic breakthrough — or make the region even more dangerous than it is now.


Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. Join Dan for his weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” (www.lawac.org) on Tuesdays at 5 PM.

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