Ever so deliberately, with a growing sense of relentless inevitability, China is replacing the US as the influencer in the Middle East. Beijing is not the least bit coy regarding its intentions. Together with the Iran-aligned countries, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is casting US military presence in the region as the cause of all the geopolitical turmoil. That message is taking hold in the absence of a compelling rebuttal from the Biden administration.
When the PRC inserted itself into the long-standing enmity between Iran and Saudi Arabia, resulting in an agreement to resume diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran, the US might have suspected Beijing was making a play for the region. The importance of the agreement for the US was not the substance of the return of normal country-to-country diplomacy or that Beijing had a hand in bringing the two countries together. What should be most troubling is the total absence of the Biden administration during the deliberations and the outcome. “The Americans, who have been the central actors in the Middle East for the past three-quarters of a century, almost always the ones in the room where it happened, now find themselves on the sidelines during a moment of significant change,” Peter Baker wrote for The New York Times.
When China Lays Out Its Game Plan, Believe It
In the Byzantine world of international diplomacy, a good rule of thumb is that if a country’s leadership puts its intentions in writing, believe it. For example, in July 2021, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin published a manifesto telegraphing to all the world the Kremlin’s intentions to reunite Ukraine with the Russian motherland; the Biden administration did not take him seriously, and now Ukraine is in its second year of conflict.
Wang Qiming, the Chinese Communist Party’s consul general in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, recently published an article laying out Beijing’s thinking on the Israel-Hamas war. Typical of CCP propaganda designed to ingratiate, Wang’s narrative portrays China as the honest broker pushing its brand of international law, justice, and peace. As the Institute for the Study of War explained in its analysis of the CCP consul general’s think piece:
“Wang’s article aligns with the PRC’s diplomatic and information lines of effort that aim to supplant US influence with Arab states by proposing what it claims to be a more inclusive and cooperative regional security framework. This involves portraying Washington as a self-interested and destabilizing influence in the region while simultaneously positioning Beijing as an altruistic and unbiased actor.”
For Americans and most Western nations, this comes off as “same ole, same ole,” but for Beijing’s Gulf region audience, the PRC becomes the adult in the room. A good barometer of what that audience is taking in is to look at what the target countries are reading. “In an attempt to salvage his country’s waning influence in the Middle East, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is embarking on a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia this week. But advancing ‘strategic cooperation’ with his Saudi and Gulf counterparts may well prove an uphill battle,” Marwan Bishara observed regarding Blinken’s June 2023 diplomatic outreach visit to Saudi Arabia.
Bishara is the senior political analyst for Al Jazeera, a Qatar-based news source with a global circulation. Regarding the PRC’s presence in the region, Bishara declared: “Beijing’s autocracy may actually be an easier and better fit for the region’s autocrats than Washington’s democracy.” When countries the US needs as allies and friends begin to question the fundamental and foundational democratic principles on which America prides itself, the Biden administration must realize it is doing something terribly wrong.
Iran Moves to Kick US Out of Middle East
Meanwhile, where the US does have influence, albeit only because of a military presence, America’s armed forces are in an increasingly precarious position. The US has approximately 2,500 troops in Iraq and 900 in Syria with an anti-ISIS mission. As Iran’s influence with the Iraqi government grows stronger, the Iran-inspired “axis of resistance” is becoming more compelling in its intent to drive US forces out of Syria and Iraq. Iran is focused on being the dominant regional power. Capturing the loyalty of the Iraqi government will allow Iran to span the Middle East from Iraq through its proxy militias, Syria through its Assad government alliance, across Lebanon by supporting its puppet Hezbollah, and in the southwest supporting the Houthi terrorist group in Yemen. In a video analysis of Iran’s strategy of influence among its neighbors, The Wall Street Journal explained that by having the string of client states and non-state militias under its influence, Iran can more easily move weapons among its allies and exert compelling influence to direct the geopolitical winds in its favor.
For US forces in Iraq, their mission may be on borrowed time. “Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammad Shia al Sudani formed a committee on January 5 to facilitate the withdrawal of US-led Coalition forces from Iraq,” the Institute for the Study of War reported. China would not stand in the way of that move. The Biden administration seems to be on the sidelines watching the action on the field. Iran and China, on the other hand, have well-defined strategies they are executing to achieve their objectives.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.