Can Washington recognize a Sputnik moment when it sees one? The reconciliation that Chinese leader Xi Jinping brokered last week between Iran, America’s adversary, and Saudi Arabia, its most influential Arab ally, toppled the United States from its throne as the unrivalled strategic actor in the Middle East. This coup should banish, once and for all, any doubts that Xi aspires to pose a direct challenge to American military primacy in the Middle East.
For those who have been watching closely, Xi has been signaling this aspiration for years. In 2017, for example, he opened a naval base in Djibouti, which guards the gateway to the Suez Canal from the Indian Ocean. Four years later, he tried to build a military facility in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which guards the Strait of Hormuz. Xi’s effort to appoint the Chinese military as guardian over two chokepoints in the global energy trade should itself have already sparked a Sputnik moment.
Why didn’t it? The Biden administration, in keeping with many analysts on both the left and the right of the political spectrum, has consistently assumed that China and the United States, despite their rivalry, can stabilize the Middle East together. “This is not about China,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said last week about the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. “We welcome any efforts to help … de-escalate tensions in the Middle East.”
China, so the thinking goes, prioritizes its economic interests over any effort to supplant the United States in the Middle East. Today, the Chinese economy is experiencing a historic slump and its banks are overleveraged. If Xi’s imperative is economic revival, how could he possibly afford to engage in a contest for supremacy in the Middle East?
This reasoning misses two key points. First, the drive for energy security places China on a collision course with the United States. Xi and his Asian rivals depend on energy that either originates in the Middle East or transits through it. If Xi can bring an end to America’s military primacy, then his own supply lines become more secure and the supply lines of his rivals become more vulnerable.
Most of America’s Asian allies—including Japan, South Korea, and Australia—depend on Middle Eastern energy. We can’t defend Taiwan alone. The military contest between the U.S. and China in Asia, in other words, includes the struggle for mastery in the Middle East.
No wonder, then, that China is carrying out one of the largest military buildups in history. It cannot supplant the United States today as a full dimensional security provider, but the day when it can is coming sooner rather than later. In the meantime, it seeks to diminish America’s status by weakening its alliances.
Second, the Middle East plays a special role in Xi’s plan to create a Beijing-led global economic system, one that will run parallel to the American-led system. To succeed in this effort, he must protect China from the advantages that America enjoys due to the power of its capital markets, its leading position in advanced technologies, and the status of the dollar as the global reserve currency. Offsetting these advantages requires access to the vast capital reserves of the Gulf states, whose economies are booming.
But for Xi, commercial and security calculations are braided together like the strands on a single rope. Consider the Emiratis’ decision, in 2021, to ignore American concerns about rendering themselves vulnerable to Chinese intelligence penetration and tap the telecommunications company Huawei to build their 5G network. Uniquely, Huawei offers purchasers a one-stop shop, providing all parts of a 5G network in a single package. No Western company can deliver such convenience, forcing customers to piece together components from multiple suppliers.
Although the Emiratis knew that Washington would respond by canceling a $23 billion arms package that included the F-35 fighter jet, they stuck with Huawei nevertheless. They were hedging against America strategically, but as their vehicle for the hedge they chose a purely commercial transaction.
The sale was a twofer for Beijing. It distanced Abu Dhabi from Washington militarily but also let flow a stream of funding from a cash-rich investor—an American ally, no less—precisely when the U.S. was trying to decouple the Western and Chinese technology sectors.
In return for participating, at least partially, in a China-centric economic sphere, Xi is presenting Beijing to the Gulf Arab states as an alternative to Washington for managing the Iranian threat. The Saudis made their Iran focus clear when, in exchange for normalizing relations with Israel, they recently asked the United States for security guarantees, help in developing a civilian nuclear program, and missiles and drones, the very weapons that tilt the regional balance of power in favour of Tehran. In essence, the Saudis said that if Washington will check the rise of Iran, they will participate with Israel in an American-led regional bloc.
Biden perhaps fears that the Saudis are bluffing, that they will pocket any concession the United States makes and still continue to hedge toward Beijing. Or perhaps he fears that Iran will draw the U.S. into a military confrontation. With a war raging in Ukraine and the threat of war looming over Taiwan, neither Biden nor the Pentagon relish the prospect of an escalation in the Middle East.
But American options are diminishing by the day. In the Middle East, the United States cannot outcompete China economically. The Chinese are now the world’s largest purchaser of oil from the region, and they are rapidly expanding their exports to the Middle East. As a great power patron, the only thing that distinguishes the U.S. from China is its military might.
But the Biden team refuses to check Iran militarily. In that case, what good is Washington to Saudi Arabia? Why wouldn’t Riyadh turn eastward? In contrast to Washington, Beijing at least wields influence in Tehran. It is eager to export drones and missiles, it won’t hesitate to provide assistance with a civilian nuclear program, and it won’t deliver sermons on human rights. Best of all, Xi’s grand economic strategy compels him to woo Riyadh.
America’s refusal to build an anti-Iran bloc is delivering the Middle East to China.
Michael Doran is Director of the Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East and a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.