FILE - A sign reading  "UAE Chinese Week" in Chinese and Arabic is projected onto the Bus Al Arab luxury hotel to celebrate the UAE Chinese Week in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, July 18, 2018.
FILE - A sign reading "UAE Chinese Week" in Chinese and Arabic is projected onto the Bus Al Arab luxury hotel to celebrate the UAE Chinese Week in Dubai, July 18, 2018.

As the Biden administration contemplates a return to Obama-era policies in the Middle East – from the Iran nuclear deal to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations -- it is finding those policies complicated by China’s rising role as an influential political player throughout the region.

China became the largest trading partner of Arab countries in the first half of 2020 with two-way trade of more than $115 billion. It has established strategic partnerships or a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with 12 Arab nations.

A recent survey conducted in the region found China is viewed more favorably than the United States. Arab Barometer, a research network based at Princeton University, polled citizens in six countries in the Middle East -- Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia -- to gauge their attitudes toward China and the U.S. "The survey results make clear that Arab publics prefer China," the organization said.

China’s government has made its “Belt and Road” infrastructure initiative a key part of its regional outreach. Although the U.S. still criticizes the plan for extending loans that some countries may struggle to repay, 18 nations have joined including Israel, Washington’s closest ally in the region.

Through this trillion-dollar initiative, China has invested throughout Asia, Europe and Africa. "To connect all these places, China is very active in building or helping to build or helping to finance ports and military bases and just striking up strong economic and strategic partnerships with the countries of the greater Middle East," Robert D. Kaplan, chair in geopolitics at the Pennsylvania-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, told VOA in a telephone interview.

By linking Europe with East Asia through the Middle East, China could dominate Afro-Eurasia trading routes —what the great British geographer Halford Mackinder labeled the “World-Island,” said Kaplan.

The U.S. regional withdrawal

The last two decades have seen Washington escalating and then winding down its presence in the Middle East and southwest Asia. After years of grinding wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, support for foreign military engagements in the region has dropped among members of both U.S. political parties.

Former President Barack Obama once described the region as beset by conflicts going back millennia, while Donald Trump repeatedly advocated that the U.S. should leave behind the "forever wars."

"I think that the Americans have been complaining and Americans in the national security community have been complaining for two or three decades now that the Middle East is a distraction from the things that we really need to commit to it," said Robert Farley, a senior lecturer at the University of Kentucky, in a telephone interview with VOA. Patterson is with the university’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.

Analysts say the fierce competition between China and the U.S. has reinforced Washington's desire to reduce the strategic importance of the Middle East, which some have been pushing for since the Obama administration’s "Pivot to Asia" 10 years ago.

Kaplan argued that as Beijing fills the Middle East vacuum, it will eventually pose a threat to the U.S.

"It's a threat because most of the talk in Washington over the past few years is that we need to withdraw from the Middle East, because we've been engaged there in the so-called endless wars. And if we truly withdraw, or even partially withdraw from the Middle East, that will open up a vast avenue of opportunity for the Chinese," Kaplan told VOA.

Iran - China's foothold

While China is happy to work with both foes and friends of Washington in the region, its tie to Iran holds particular significance for both countries. Burdened by sanctions and deepening isolation on the world stage, Tehran has turned to China for economic and military support while Beijing looks for cheaper energy resources.

After a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the two countries established a so-called Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2016, giving China a foothold in a region that has been a strategic preoccupation of the United States for decades.

Wojciech Michnik is an assistant professor of international relations and security studies at Poland’s Jagiellonian University. He said among the influential powers in the Middle East, Iran is China's natural partner.

“Iran is quite an important power, especially after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the fallout of the Saddam Hussein, Iran gained in terms of the relative power in the region. It has been using its proxies from Syria to Yemen," Michnik told VOA.

China is currently Iran’s largest trading partner and oil buyer, as well as Iran’s largest export market for non-oil products and an important source of foreign investment.  Bilateral trade was only about $400 million in 1994 but increased to $2.48 billion in 2000. By 2019, according to data release by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, the value reached more than $23 billion, an increase of nearly 10 times.

With the change in the U.S. administration and Washington's policy on the Iran nuclear agreement, the two governments have recently recommitted to strengthening their relationship.

Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf is the speaker of Iran’s hardliner-dominated parliament. Last month, he told Li Zhanshu of China's National People's Congress that "ties between Tehran and Beijing are not and will not be affected by the international conditions” and will continue to deepen.

Engagement redefined

While experts doubt the United States will be disengaging in any substantial way from the Middle East, Washington’s interests are likely shifting from a focus on terrorism to China’s growing regional influence.

"Yes, we do need to confront China, but now we need to pay attention to the Middle East, not because of terrorism, but rather because of China's growing influence in Iran, of China's developing relationship with Saudi Arabia, and so forth,” said Farley, who was also a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania.

He said that shift in thinking is reflected in other parts of the U.S. national security community, where analysts have begun to redefine what American engagement means in the context of China’s robust foreign diplomacy.