May 23, 2019

Can China Stay Politically Neutral in the Middle East?

“China is making a risky bet in the Middle East. By focusing on economic development and adhering to the principle of noninterference in internal affairs, Beijing believes it can deepen relations with countries that are otherwise nearly at war with one another—all the while avoiding any significant role in the political affairs of the region. This is likely to prove naive, particularly if U.S. allies begin to stand up for their interests.

In meetings I attended earlier this month in Beijing on China’s position in the Middle East, sponsored by the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center, Chinese officials, academics, and business leaders expressed a common view that China can avoid political entanglement by promoting development from Tehran to Tel Aviv. China may soon find, however, that its purely transactional approach is unsustainable in this intractable region—placing its own investments at risk and opening new opportunities for the United States.

Over the past three years, China has charted an ambitious future in the Middle East by forging “comprehensive strategic partnerships” with Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. This is the highest level of diplomatic relations China can provide, and Beijing believes these four countries anchor a neutral position that will prove more stable over the long term than that of the United States. China has also made massive investments in infrastructure throughout the region, including in Israel, where China is now the second-largest trading partner behind the United States.”

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