The relatively recent election of Donald Trump to the position of President of the United States led to the upending of not just US foreign policy, but also the foreign policies of almost all major world powers. The long-standing global hegemony the US possessed was most prominently felt and noticeable in one particular part of the world, the Middle East.
This hegemony, however, is being seriously challenged, as President Trump’s protectionist stance creates a void that another global power seeks to fill, and that power is China.
Beijing is seeking to grow and strengthen its connections in the Arab world and the Middle East in general, through several main channels. The first is through the building of high-tech 5G telecom networks, with China being a world leader in its creation and implementation. These networks are highly sought after and are not simply used to increase internet speeds, they’re also used in an incredibly large number of highly beneficial ways.
Beijing’s One Belt and One Road (OBOR) initiative is an incredibly bold economic plan that seeks to form powerful and long-lasting trade networks across the globe, especially in the Middle East. This plan is highly ambitious and has already seen the construction and purchasing of ports and airports across the world.
China has also, for some time now, been building airports, railways, factories and communication networks across the world that bring with them large amounts of influence in their host countries, influence that’s used carefully by the Chinese government. These ambitious building projects lead to the creation of economic zones, with Australia being one of them.
The powerful and Chinese-run Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) was created with the specific purpose of servicing projects within the OBOR. The very first projects financed by the AIIB were in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Tajikistan, all countries that China is trying to include in its OBOR initiative.
Washington has shifted its focus – from strengthening its external relationships with inter-governmental organisations (IGO) such as the UN and NATO and maintaining a strong, but very expensive, position as global hegemon – to a more internal direction. This shift has naturally formed a void that China was more than happy to fill, but will China seek to prevent conflict and create a more stable Middle East? Or will its focus only be concerned with how Beijing can financially benefit?
The way in which China has traditionally conducted itself on the world stage may provide an insight into how it will conduct itself as the new hegemon of the Middle East.
China has traditionally placed a heavy emphasis on the use of soft power to achieve its desired outcomes. Soft power, for those unfamiliar with this term, refers to the cultural and social influence wielded by a particular society within another. This could be anything from pop stars to advertisements and movies and also financial and economic influence.
China has also shown it’s capable of aggression and even war, should the situation require it. The Korean War, minor conflicts with India and its aggressive stance in the South and East China seas, prove this.
Despite these signs and growing trade relations, there is still something preventing China from fully replacing the US in the Middle East, and that something is its relationship with Iran. These close ties make Arab leaders cautious when conducting deals with China, compelling them to maintain a productive relationship with the US, something that is still possible, for the time being.
The constant wars that the US has waged in the Middle East, for a variety of reasons, are largely seen not to have benefitted the US in any particularly significant way. This, then, makes the idea of pulling out of the Middle East completely, or at least mostly, an attractive policy.
Policymakers in Washington should, however, understand that this withdrawal is essentially handing over the position of regional hegemon to a powerful state with completely different, and perhaps disconcerting, interests.