These features of Chinese economic, diplomatic, and security engagement with the Middle East
AINUDDIN KIBZAI Current Affairs-2020 ESHAAL KIBZAIIBIBZAI292 form part of a deeper, broader, and more advanced strategy than might appear at first glance. China is changing gears, and leaders throughout the region are responsive to this. Why is China’s approach to the Middle East changing?The unipolar international order that emerged following the end of the cold war fundamentally shaped China’s approach to the Middle East. The US has been the dominant military power in the Middle East since Operation Desert Storm in 1990. With the US having established a regional security architecture that maintained the status quo it favoured, other foreign powers had to either work within that framework or challenge it. The US security umbrella helped China establish itself as a major economic and political power in the Middle East. Beijing has built its presence there through strategic hedging –steadily increasing in its economic engagement with the region, establishing relationships with all states there, steadfastly alienating no one, and avoiding policies that would challenge American interests in the region. This approach has created a widespread perception of China as an opportunist that takes advantage of the US security umbrella to focus on its economic projects while providing little in the way of public goods. As the architecture of the BRI takes shape, this perception becomes increasingly difficult to sustain. China’s infrastructure projects complement domestic development programmes throughout the region, while its substantial investments, trade, and aid come at a time when the West suffers from Middle East fatigue. Rather than free-riding, China is providing public goods that can contribute to Middle Eastern development and stability. More important, however, is Middle Eastern states’ perception of US retrenchment from the region. Many leaders in the Middle East felt that the election of Donald Trump as US president signalled a return to a robust American presence there –one that would support Gulf countries and Israel while boxing in challengers to the regional order, particularly Iran and its proxies. Since then, the Trump administration’s regional policy –or lack thereof –has confounded expectations. In pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the US applied pressure on Iran, but a lack of a clear policy to replace it has emboldened Tehran –as shown by the disruptions to shipping through the Strait of Hormuz in summer 2019. Trump followed up his threat to retaliate against Iran after the country shot down a US surveillance drone by calling off the planned strike, reinforcing the perception that the US commitment to stabilising the Gulf –which had remained steadfast since the announcement of the Carter Doctrine in 1981 –had diminished.