Pentagon warns of China’s growing influence in the Middle East
A top Pentagon official has warned that China’s increasing efforts to gain influence in the Middle East could undermine defence co-operation between the US and regional allies that grow too close to Beijing.
Defence officials are concerned about China’s “desire to erode US military advantages” in the Middle East, Michael Mulroy, the top Pentagon official for the region, told the Financial Times. He argued that Beijing could use investments in the Middle East for “economic leverage and coercion” and “intellectual property theft and acquisition”.
“Many investments are beneficial, but we’re concerned countries’ economic interests may blind them to the negative implications of some Chinese investments, including impact on joint defence co-operation with the United States,” said Mr Mulroy.
Beijing has long been investing in Middle Eastern countries through its $1tn Belt and Road infrastructure programme, through which it aims to finance roads, ports and power stations in some of the world’s poorest areas. Chinese companies are also competing with the US to sell weapons to Middle Eastern countries, according to the Pentagon.
China is one of the biggest trading partners of Iran and of Saudi Arabia, and has also forged close ties with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
As part of its push into the Middle East, Chinese companies have built ports in Israel, and invested in oil and petrochemical complexes in Saudi Arabia. Sinopec, the Chinese oil company, has several joint projects with Saudi state energy giant Saudi Aramco, including a large refinery in Yanbu.
The Suez Canal Economic Zone, launched by Egypt in 2015 to create an industrial and logistics hub around the Suez Canal, is another key Chinese investment. The canal is a vital shipping route connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.
Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, is home to a Chinese naval base, while China Merchants Port Holdings, a state-owned enterprise, is negotiating to take control of the Doraleh Container Terminal in Djibouti, one of the most strategically located ports in the Middle East region.
Lisa Blaydes, professor of political science at Stanford University, said China had also sought to increase its investment in the reconstruction of Syria, at a time when political instability had deterred other investors.
“Chinese willingness to bring development dollars to countries emerging from conflict could give Beijing an upper hand in terms of regional influence,” said Ms Blaydes. “Yemen, with its strategic location along Gulf shipping lanes, provides a future potential Chinese target.”
Although Washington remained committed to helping partners in the region “fight terrorism” and “promote stability”, the US was prepared to make “hard decisions” to protect US technology, said Mr Mulroy.
One example of the lengths to which Washington has been willing to go to keep sensitive technology out of foreign hands is Turkey, which was removed from the F-35 fighter jet programme after it bought Russian weapons. The US had argued that the Russian S-400 system bought by Ankara would allow the Kremlin to gather intelligence on the advanced fighter jets if they remained in Turkey.
Jon Alterman, Middle East expert and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the US and China saw the Middle East in different terms, and that the Chinese did not want to “replace” the United States.
“The American vision of Middle East is based on cold war competition, where there are red countries and blue countries. But the Chinese map is full of grey areas, there are hedges and counter-hedges.”
Beijing has faced accusations that its Belt and Road Initiative can create debt traps for host countries. In April, China said it would commit to more sustainable financing standards following criticism that many BRI projects leave host countries mired in debt, with Beijing offering financing on terms that some states have struggled to maintain.