Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) listens to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi looks on during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 16, 2017. Since that meeting China's status has grown in the region. Photo: AFP / Lintao Zhang

China is kicking off 2022 with a flurry of diplomacy and partnerships in Africa and the Middle East that are ruffling some feathers.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has just finished a trip to East Africa on a charm offensive designed to shore up China’s presence on the Red Sea coast and solidify Bejing’s role in the Horn of Africa. At the same time, China is entrenching its position as a critical player in the Middle East and threatening America’s long-standing hegemony in the region. 

The Chinese are expanding their military assistance to more Middle Eastern nations at a time of heightened tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. As the United States continues to re-evaluate its arms sales to regional allies such as Saudi Arabia, China is increasing its export of military technology and hardware. This historic shift is part of a profound geopolitical reformulation in the Middle East. 

China’s interest in the Middle East isn’t new. As the world’s biggest importer of Middle Eastern crude oil, Beijing has long viewed the region as a strategic interest.

During the heated debates about Saudi Aramco’s initial public offering, China expressed a viable interest in becoming a primary investor in the world’s largest company. This position would have likely allowed China to upend the global dollar-denominated oil trade. The deal never happened, but the intention was clear.  

The shift taking place now is in military technology and partnership. Traditionally, Arab Gulf countries and Israel have relied on American military hardware and technology, but this is changing before our eyes, much to Washington’s chagrin. With the US reviewing certain arms sales over the ongoing conflict in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are changing their calculations and opening up to more direct Chinese influence.

Last month, CNN reported that Saudi Arabia had begun manufacturing ballistic missiles with China’s help. On several occasions, Saudi Arabia has purchased its ballistic missiles from China, but it hasn’t attempted to build its own until now.

The Chinese haven’t confirmed or denied if they are transferring any sensitive missile technology to Saudi Arabia. Instead, they have underlined the fact that the two countries have long been “comprehensive strategic partners” and “have maintained friendly cooperation in all fields, including in the field of military trade.”

The shift toward open military cooperation in Saudi Arabia likely prompted Israel to “promise” President Joe Biden’s administration to inform the US of any significant new deals with China. Israel has a long history of military cooperation with Beijing, but it has been mainly under the radar until recently, even though China is its third-largest economic partner. 

As China pushes deeper into the Middle East, Israel faces a complex calculation: Bring its relationship with Beijing into the open or attempt to continue business as usual. 

It appears to be choosing the former. Last year, Israel rejected an offer by the US to inspect the Haifa port. Chinese companies have been involved in expanding the port, and the US is concerned that the Chinese are using their position to monitor joint Israeli-American military operations.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that “Israeli officials were even told that the American Sixth Fleet would stop docking at Haifa port as a result of Chinese presence.” Despite intense pressure from the US, Israel rejected the inspection offer. 

Geopolitics stops for no country. Whether the US likes it or not, the Chinese footprint in the Middle East is growing thanks to decades of careful planning and quiet courtship. With Chinese purchases of Middle Eastern crude oil on the rise and the US divided on the future of its position in the region, Beijing’s influence will deepen and come fully into the light.

The key to China’s geopolitical success continues to be infrastructure development. Whether expanding ports in Haifa or providing missile infrastructure to Saudi Arabia, the Chinese have found great success in exporting infrastructure across the region and much of the world. If it’s not broken, why fix the policy?

The question is how the US will respond to this profound shift. The Donald Trump administration in essence gave Israel everything it had long desired in torpedoing the peace process with the Palestinians and moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem. Given America’s seeming inability to withhold military aid to Israel, what other carrots and sticks does the US have to use against deepening cooperation between Israel and China? 

Since the US has been reviewing military aid to Saudi Arabia, one can understand Riyadh’s interest in deepening its own military partnership with China, which comes with virtually no strings attached. 

Don’t expect the US to lose its dominant position overnight, but the tides are turning. Unless the Biden administration comes up with a creative new way to engage American allies in the region, China’s pull will continue to result in deeper partnerships and greater cooperation. The shift has already started. 

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Joseph Dana

Joseph Dana is a writer based in South Africa and the Middle East. He has reported from Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo, Istanbul, and Abu Dhabi. He was formerly editor-in-chief of emerge85, a media project based in the UAE exploring change in emerging markets.