China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Transforming the Middle East at a Cost to the U.S.
There is probably no other world region that would draw such big attention as the Middle East. Not only is the Middle East of interest to the majority of international actors, but it also plays a crucial role in providing the „fuel“ for the world economy, namely oil. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Middle East is an entanglement of disputes, ongoing conflicts, and personal grudges. Since the end of the Second World War, there has been present one particular state that asserts its role as a watchdog of the regional order in the Middle East, which is the United States of America.
It is pertinent to point out that the world has been running on a certain status quo for almost a hundred years. In no doubt, the United States became the leading power in the international system and has defended its position in it ever since. However, neither the regional nor global order exists in a static manner, but rather as an organic reality that is constantly evolving. The unipolar international system dominated by the United States has been evolving into a multipolar system that encompasses not only the US but also emerging/rising powers such as China, which can be perceived as a major threat to the American position. Both the United States and China are aware of the deadly consequences if they were to encounter each other directly. Nevertheless, China may have developed a strategy to strengthen its position in the international system and change the status quo without a direct confrontation with the United States, both on the regional and global levels. The instrument to reach this goal is called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and it represents one of China’s most successful soft power tools in the current world.
In 2013, China’s President Xi presented a giant project called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that should, in his words, focus on development, economic integration, and benefits to all engaged countries through win-win cooperation. This is a representation of one narrative of this China’s global project. The other narrative emerging dominantly from the Western spheres describes the Belt and Road Initiative as a strategy to deepen the dependence of the engaged countries on China, which could result in strengthening Chinese political, economic, and security dominance in a regional and global scene to the disadvantage of the traditional powers – the United States in particular. China wants to transform the existing world order through means of soft power, and the Belt and Road Initiative is a great instrument to challenge the established world superpower which is the US.
A general overview of the project can be summarized as a revival of the old Silk Road connecting China and the European continent predominantly from an economic standpoint. There are certain perceptions of the BRI as the Marshall Plan of the 21st century. However, the Chinese government is sensitive to such comparisons and claims that it is a project of inclusive cooperation, not a tool of geopolitics. The Chinese government has accentuated that the BRI is based on four main principles: openness, inclusiveness and harmony, market-oriented operations, and win-win cooperation for mutual benefits for participating countries. Even though the project’s intention is undoubtedly appealing and beneficial, there is one unwritten consequence that can rather be described as win-lose cooperation in favor of China. The BRI has a potential to create an asymmetrical complex interdependency space between the participating countries that China might later exploit to increase its capabilities for regional hegemony or even the global one in the future. The main element of the BRI is the construction and provision of infrastructure in the participating countries. The interdependency lies in the aspects of rising debts and repayment issues from the participants. In some cases, China proposed paying the debts off by leasing or taking over certain territories in the debtor countries.
With the successful implementation of the BRI, a large segment of the world economy will start reorienting eastward and China will gain greater economic leverage over the participating developing countries as well as over the global market. The leaning economy could pose a significant challenge for the US-led World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as the international community will create an opportunity and advantages for China to be an alternate lending institution. Such a transition would most likely damage the US geopolitical position not only in the engaged regions but on the global scale too. The whole project is a mastermind instrument on how to export the excess industrial and financial capacity of China in exchange for an economic boost and consolidating its geopolitical position. Since the BRI has attracted more than 140 countries to join the project, China has been given enormous diplomatic space and engagement to maximize its soft power, national security, and economic and social development.
The Middle East is a perfect example of a region where the US is trying to keep the status quo and attain its dominance as the international world order leader. Since 1945, Washington has acted as a security provider in the Middle East and held supremacy there. The fact of the matter is that the international system is in undergoing transition, which directly applies to the transition of the balance of power in the Middle East too. China is using here soft power tools, like the Belt and Road Initiative project, to subvert the status quo established and preserved primarily by the United States. In Asia, the US views itself as a pivotal player, shaping international norms and institutions along with (forcefully) asserting its presence on the world stage, including the Middle East. According to the supporters of liberal democracies, the BRI in the Middle East might lead to the erosion of US influence and increase the asymmetrical dependence of weaker states on China, which would allow China to economically exploit the countries and also reshape the regional order.
The fact is that the regional order is in transition, which can be seen in the background of the US withdrawal from the Middle East even though Western interventionism has still been present here through a set of various instruments of soft power, such as sanctions or pressure on public opinion. That is quite a different type of soft power than China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The reputation of the US in the Middle East has deteriorated over the past decades, and China has an opportunity to take over and achieve its geopolitical ambitions. It seems that Chinese aspirations are already underway as the five countries forming the core of the Middle East (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon) have already become part of the BRI.
China has become a strategic balance between regional rivals in the Middle East. Evolving tensions and changing security dynamics have led China to intensify its engagement in the region and deepen its position there. China has particularly increased cooperation with Iran, the decades-lasting enemy of the United States, on nuclear talks in return for Iranian oil export to China, a raw material Beijing desires the most. However, as I have mentioned above, China has taken up a position of “a balancer” in the region and prioritizes its own interests over regional rivalries. This strategy has led to the establishment of close relations with other countries in the Middle East, even though they are hostile to Iran. In order to maximize the efficiency of the Belt and Road Initiative, China has deepened economic ties with UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, and also with Saudi Arabia – Iran’s biggest rival in the Middle East. As a result of Beijing’s approach, China became the top investor and major trading partner for the GCC countries in 2021, along with being the largest crude oil importer in the world.
Chinese influence reached another level when China became a mediator in re-establishing diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March 2023. This moment becomes very significant in understanding regional geopolitical dynamics transition. In contrast to Western-led traditional security perceptions, China believes that peace is best achieved by enhancing shared security perceptions and establishing smooth diplomatic ties. One could say that China has been slowly replacing the vacuum created by the US progressive withdrawal from the region. However, China has seemed to be reluctant to replace the United States in the Middle East as the security provider. For now, the Belt and Road Initiative and China’s soft power tools are mainly focused on infrastructure, trade, and economy. The reason for China’s engagement in the region is the importance of stability, reconstruction and peace, which will maximize the gains of the BRI. The United States still remains a dominant leading power in the global world order, and the transition towards multipolarity is a slow process that takes time to complete. The same analogy can be used in the Middle East – the presence and interests of the United States remain more than visible there. However, the US might need to consider how to leverage and counterbalance the BRI to its own advantage since China has taken a free ride on the costly Middle East security built by the US. Among the ways to deal with the BRI challenge is offering project financing to American companies looking to compete with Chinese firms in the Middle East on a level playing field in BRI-related projects. As the main security provider in the Middle East, the US should use its influence to ensure Washington has a say in the BRI infrastructure development. The US could exploit the dependence of both China and regional states on American security presence to insist that Washington’s security, diplomatic, and economic interests are met. Also, for Washington to effectively confront the BRI in the Middle East, it must take the lead in an effort to address the emerging BRI-induced debt crisis and promote lending practices based on high standards in order to address the potential risks associated with the BRI.
Washington could undertake a robust anticorruption campaign as many of the BRI projects are tainted by corruption due to the enormous amount of money involved. The USD’s global position with regard to the World Bank should be enhanced by Washington and its reliable partners in order to offer a better alternative to BRI. It is feasible for the US to help turn China’s BRI into the American advantage in the Middle East by taking a more sophisticated approach to this key component of China’s global strategy.
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Source of the picture: Anderlini, J. (2020) “China’s Middle East strategy comes at a cost to the US” Financial Times. Accessed 3. 4. 2023, https://www.ft.com/content/e20ae4b9-bc22-4cb5-aaf6-b67c885c845c.
Written by Filip Lukeš