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Curbing China’s inroads in the Middle East

How can Washington counter Beijing’s growing influence in the Middle East without a pronounced military presence?

How can Washington counter Beijing’s growing influence in the Middle East without a pronounced military presence?

Last year’s US withdrawal from Afghanistan signalled a marked shift in Washington’s geostrategic priorities, ending decades of large-scale military intervention in the Middle East in favour of a pivot to the Indo-Pacific to thwart Chinese expansion.


This pivot was evident shortly after US President Joe Biden assumed office, with the administration forming a China Task Force — commissioning the Department of Defense (DOD) to assess Pentagon programs and processes put in place to respond to the challenges posed by Beijing. 

Specifically, the task force, described by DOD officials as a sprint effort, was charged with evaluating:

  • strategy;
  • operational concepts;
  • technology and force structure;
  • force posture and force management; and
  • intelligence. 

The taskforce was also responsible for examining alliances and partnerships, and their impact on Sino-American relations and DOD relations with China.

In lieu of this push, President Biden has actively sought to further enhance ties with key Indo-Pacific partners, notably via the Quad and AUKUS.

But has this hard pivot overlooked the strategic importance of the Middle East, allowing the very competitor the US is seeking to curb in the far-east to make inroads in the near-east?


According to Minxin Pei, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, traditional US allies in the Middle East could play the China card to convince President Biden to “re-engage” with the region during his visit next month.

The likes of Israel and Saudi Arabia could warn President Biden over the potential for China to fill a “security vacuum” in the region.

“Far from enabling the United States to focus on strengthening its position in the great-power competition with China and Russia, they might argue, strategic disengagement from the Middle East gives China an opening to bolster its own regional influence,” Pei writes in ASPI’s The Strategist.

Pei notes President Biden may not need much convincing, with the global energy crisis, exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine conflict, incentivising re-engagement with the energy-rich Middle East.

“It is sky-high energy prices that have forced Biden to try to patch up his relationship with Saudi Arabia,” he continues.

“Until recently, Biden was shunning Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler, over his alleged role in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey in 2018.

“Biden’s about-face highlights the extent of Saudi Arabia’s leverage. And the Saudis are likely to use that leverage to urge the US to sustain its military engagement in the Middle East.”

However, Pei argues Beijing is unlikely to establish a military presence in the Middle East, given it has formed key regional ties with nations on the opposite side of the geopolitical aisle — Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“While Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example, are willing to do business with the same actors, neither would maintain good relations with a country that was cultivating a substantial security relationship with its main rival,” he adds.

“China’s hesitation to advance its security interests in the Middle East suggests that it is well aware of this.

“Even in the case of Iran, which could serve as a proxy in China’s strategic rivalry with the US, China has avoided steps that could jeopardise its relations with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. For example, unlike Russia, it has refrained from providing advanced weapons to Iran.”

Further, Pei claims China does not view the Middle East as “critical to its security”.

“While the Middle East accounts for nearly half of China’s oil imports, the most important theatre in the unfolding US–China cold war is East and Southeast Asia,” he writes.

“China doesn’t want to expend limited resources in the Middle East any more than the US does.”

Rather than asserting its military presence in the Middle East, Pei argues, China would rely on “diplomatic and economic tools” to broaden its influence.

As such, if the US moves to counter Beijing in the near-east, it must outmatch Beijing’s soft power.

According to Pei, this would include “abandoning” Washington’s push to frame its strategic competition with China and Russia as an “ideological contest” between democracy and autocracy.

“After all, the vast majority of Middle Eastern countries are autocracies. The last thing the US needs is to alienate them with an overtly ideological foreign policy that enables China to portray itself as a more reliable, supportive and like-minded partner,” he writes.

Washington, Pei observes, should then look to undercut China’s economic offering to the Middle East.

“Economic engagement remains China’s most effective tool for expanding its geopolitical influence. In 2020, merchandise trade between China and the Middle East totalled US$272 billion,” Pei notes.

“…While America’s trade turnover with Saudi Arabia rose only moderately between 2000 and 2021—from US$20.5 billion to US$24.8 billion—China’s soared, from US$3 billion to US$67 billion.”

Further, Pei claims as a result of US and Western sanctions on Russian technology and financial institutions, Middle Eastern nations may fear being targeted themselves if they are perceived to have violated international norms.

He suggests this far could prompt the region to increase its dependence on Chinese technology to offset the impact of potential future sanctions.

“The West has long used sanctions as a tool for punishing ‘rogue’ countries, with Iran as a case in point,” he writes.

“…As China builds up its technological and innovative capacity, it can present itself as a more reliable source of technology and a safer investment destination.

“It is telling that no Middle Eastern country has banned the Chinese telecom giant Huawei’s 5G networks, despite strong American lobbying.”

Pei concludes by acknowledging that a repackaged Middle East strategy from the Biden administration would “meet significant resistance”.

“Befriending dictators will lead to charges of hypocrisy—the last thing Biden needs months before midterm elections in which his Democratic Party is unlikely to perform well—and protectionist sentiment remains strong in the US.

“But if Biden frames the shift as part of a larger strategy for winning the new cold war with China, he might have a chance.”

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Charbel Kadib

Charbel Kadib

News Editor – Defence and Security, Momentum Media

Prior to joining the defence and aerospace team in 2020, Charbel was news editor of The Adviser and Mortgage Business, where he covered developments in the banking and financial services sector for three years. Charbel has a keen interest in geopolitics and international relations, graduating from the University of Notre Dame with a double major in politics and journalism. Charbel has also completed internships with The Australian Department of Communications and the Arts and public relations agency Fifty Acres.

Curbing China’s inroads in the Middle East
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