• 28 July, 2021
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Chinese checkers in the Middle East: Play or Perish

Commander Sandeep Dhawan, Veteran
Thu, 08 Apr 2021   |  Reading Time: 7 minutes

Chinese checkers in the Middle East: Play or Perish

As the United States vacates some of the foreign outposts, China is moving in to fill up the vacuum at a fast pace. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s latest visit to the Middle East is an indication in that direction. He has vowed to work with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, UAE, Bahrain, and Oman to help protect their core interests against foreign interference. China’s rhetoric has been harsh in recent times and it appears ready to back up the rhetoric with tough actions.

China’s involvement in the region is neither recent nor has been peaceful, as it prefers to portray itself. In the 1950s and 60s, China associated closely with nationalist governments and movements in various countries including Algeria, Egypt, Palestine, Eritrea, and the Gulf. It provided financial and military assistance, sold arms and ammunition (sometimes to both the warring parties). It changed the tack in the 70s but the new avatar was unveiled only in the 90s.

On the other hand US President Joe Biden, barely two months into the presidency, seems tired of dealing with the Middle East. He announced an end to the US support for Saudi-led operations in Yemen within the first two weeks in the office. The latest developments as per Wall Street Journal are that the US has begun to reconfigure its military capabilities in the Gulf and removed at least three Patriot missile defence systems, diverted aircraft carrier and surveillance systems from the region.

Why This Sudden Desire for Involvement

Chinese history is a perfect example of a palimpsest. In its desire to showcase China as a great nation with a glorious past, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had to alter the thoughts of its citizens. History, especially glorious history is a great place to start with. However, in reality, China’s history is full of defeats. The subtlety, complexity, and tricks of Chinese fables cannot hide the fact that China has been under foreign rule for most of the last 1,500 years. Finally, the real humiliation came first at the hands of colonial powers and then Japan.

The latest foray into the Middle East is part of that desire to get rid of the humiliating past. Till the recent past, China remained focused on building economic exchanges with countries in the region and shied away from taking sides in the conflicts and clashes. However, to make Chinese citizens believe that they belong to a great nation, CCP, had to take certain quick steps or risk losing everything. Therefore, it had to come out more openly, showcasing a willingness to work with everyone in the region. To signal that China has arrived, in 2016 it initiated comprehensive strategic partnerships with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, two bitter rivals in the region.

Chinese Balancing Act in the Middle East: Iran-Turkey-Israel

China is choosing its partners in the Middle East very carefully. The partners have a distinct pattern, best buddies or arch-enemies of the United States. Either they have good technology, which can be utilized by China or they are an economically failed state, allowing China to acquire strategically important assets in a fire sale. However, China would mostly concentrate on the extreme ends of the spectrum namely, Israel and Iran. Two opposite poles converging at the middle kingdom! Both present very unique opportunities for China.

As far as Iran is concerned, the US was on the right diplomatic path with its nuclear program. Though, the US didn’t handle it well by not informing and upsetting its traditional regional friends, Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, getting out of the deal was a mistake leaving the door open for China to pass through. The nuclear deal had provisions of sanctions and those provisions should have been utilized rather than scuttling the whole deal. This one step forward and two steps backward misadventure left all parties confused and vulnerable to Chinese antics.

China on the other hand studied the signals coming from the United States well and started deepening its relationship with Iran. The understanding between the two nations reached its logical conclusion with China and Iran formally signing a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” agreement on 28 March 2021. This agreement promises to bind the fate of two sides for the next 25 years.

China’s vetting of the agreement with Iran came just a week after the acrimonious exchange at the Anchorage between the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The signing of the agreement in a jiffy had a message for the United States and the Biden administration, ‘all roads to Iran pass through China.’

Getting into bed with China was easy for Iran, but the Iranian citizens are wary of Chinese intentions. They are right in their assumptions. China has already started pressurizing Iran to join the Turkish-Pakistani camp, which is traditionally a big no-no in Iran. Without Iran’s consent, Chinese military analysts have projected a Turkish-Iranian-Pakistani agreement under Chinese leadership. Getting into any such alliance is a cul-de-sac and Iran is well aware of its pitfalls.

China’s second choice in the region is Turkey. Its volatile President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in a blackmailing mode. He has a set of demands ranging from the purchase of the S-400 air defence system to the pardoning of Turkey’s Halkbank for conducting business with Iran. To fulfil many such demands and put pressure on the United States, he may sabotage the upcoming meeting between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Erdogan is also unsure of his political future and that makes him dangerous to all the nations in his sphere of influence. His latest accusations against 104 retired admirals of the Turkish navy for plotting a coup is one such absurdity.

China is making the best use of unstable Erdogan and the fragile Turkish economy. On 26 March 2021, a consortium of Chinese banks extended a US $ 2.3 billion loan, pushing it further into a debt trap. China is leaving no stone unturned to exploit extremely delicate US-Turkey relations while the Biden administration looks on helplessly.

China is also making deep inroads into Israel, the United States’ most important and long-standing partner in the region. China is deeply involved in many projects in the startup capital of the world. They have two simple goals in Israel, technology, and infrastructure. China is involved in the management of Haifa & Ashdod port where the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet regularly docks and 5G telecommunications, to name a few. According to data compiled by RAND, China’s investment in Israeli infrastructure projects stands at a staggering $4 billion and the technology sector at $5.7 billion. These developments are the indication of the United States’ loosening grip in the region.

Hafia Port

             HAFIA PORT: Picture Courtesy Google Maps

 

Ashdod Port

            Ashdod Port :Courtesy Google Maps

 

Where Does India Stand

A crucial Chinese motive is to prevent India’s deeper involvement in Quad. One of the Chinese objectives in the Himalayan standoff was to pressure India to give up its regional ambitions. The most important aspect of the fast-developing situation is India’s deep-rooted relationship with most of the Middle East nations, especially Iran.

 

INSTC Map

INSTC: Courtesy onthemosway.eu

It becomes incumbent upon the United States to facilitate Indian ventures in the region. Indian development of Chabahar port and International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) has tremendous economic and strategic implications for China. The success of this project would seriously dent the efficacy of China’s pet project BRI. China thrives on schadenfreude and India should not give any such opportunity to them, what so ever.

Is China Falling For Hannibals  Trap

In 216 B.C. in the Battle of Cannae Carthaginian General, Hannibal made Rome believe that they were winning but in reality, they were falling for the trap set by Hannibal. Rome lost 50,000 men and was pushed to the brink of collapse.

The American withdrawal could be giving China false hope of getting into a big league. As per Will Wechsler, the director of Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council, “American withdrawal is a widespread perception. It is of course not close to the high point of our occupation of Iraq or Afghanistan; however, we still have a lot of military forces in the region. Our diplomatic presence, our intelligence efforts, and our economic engagement are second to none.”

Historically the Middle East has been an unstable region. The reason behind that is that the countries are unnatural entities, relatively new, and have not too distant colonial pasts. The artificial lines drawn by European powers give up at the seams, more often than any mediator can handle. There are lots of young men in the region that don’t have the means to funnel their innate aggression into productive and constructive activities. When this frustration crosses a threshold, they look for an enemy to blame. Today it is the United States, and tomorrow it could be China for sure.

Conclusion

The need of the hour is that the Quad goes beyond a military entity. The answer to the containment of China is more economic than militaristic. A multipronged, focused and more realistic approach would go a long way in solving the China problem.

The United States has to understand that India is the key to the Middle East. It must leave the ‘my way or highway’ approach to China and resist hampering India’s activities in the region, especially concerning Iran. The recent blockage of the Suez Canal has further highlighted the Indian prudence in proposing the all-important INSTC.

West has to get out of scattered strategy-which keeps oscillating between choosing the right enemy, China or Russia. This dillydallying has given ample time to China to shore up its capabilities. Involvement in the Middle East is a win-win situation for China. If China succeeds in its activities, it would further weaken the United States’ position in the region. If it fails it would add fuel to fire in the volatile region, compelling the United States to get further embroiled in the region. This would force the US to reallocate forces, and pay less attention to the South China Sea and Taiwan.

Napoleon Bonaparte once famously said, “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” The United States or China, who is following Napoleon’s advice and who will have the last laugh, only time would tell.

Author

SD

Commander Sandeep Dhawan, Veteran

A veteran of the Indian Navy, Cdr Dhawan served in the Navy from 1988 to 2009. He was a Maritime Reconnaissance Pilot and a Flying Instructor. He is a geopolitical analyst and writes for the various online websites and organizations.

References:

  • asiatimes.com/2021/02/a-pax-sinica-takes-shape-in-the-middle-east
  • atlanticcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Chinas_Changing_Role_in_the_Middle_East
  • politico.com/news/2021/02/22/biden-middle-east-foreign-policy-470589
  • cbsnews.com/news/biggest-factor-in-u-s-middle-east-relations-is-perception-that-u-s-is-withdrawing
  • thediplomat.com/2020/12/china-and-the-middle-east-conflict-and-cooperation
  • insightful.co.in/2020/06/26/2025-end-game-china-war-a-certainty-part-1
  • brookings.edu/articles/israel-and-the-middle-east-amid-u-s-china-competition/
  • jinsa.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Countering-Chinese-Engagement-with-Israel-1
  • insightful.co.in/2020/07/20/iran-deal-has-china-stepped-on-a-visible-landmine

 

 


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POST COMMENTS (29)

Abhilash Gopi

May 26, 2021
A perspective true to the point and the point blank rendering made it stand out. Yes, as you mentioned; only time will tell "who followed Napolean's advice".

ana

May 06, 2021
Wonderful goods from you, man. I've understand your stuff previous to and you are just extremely magnificent. I actually like what you've acquired here, certainly like what you're stating and the way in which you say it. You make it enjoyable and you still take care of to keep it smart. I cant wait to read much more from you. This is really a terrific web site.

Col Ajay Sharma (Veteran)

Apr 29, 2021
The article rightly highlights two things which are important. Firstly it could be a error of perception by Chinese strategists as middle East is not an easy ballgame due to Martine routes and oil economy ...the Iran -Israel flash point notwithstanding. Secondly US under Joe Biden will see a strategic shift in its policy in middle East especially Afghanistan withdrawal by sep sends out contradictory signals to the world. The soft approach of US towards Chinese est lends support to the views of the author. Interesting times ahead...in post covid era

Sanjeev Mittal

Apr 18, 2021
An article giving prediction with data on how the gap which is getting arises by USA vacating Middle East area and being filled by Chinese interest, can imbalance the entire gambit of dominance. While Israel and Iran coming close is good from world peace point of view , but if this is happening due to China playing a backend role , then it's a worry. While American withdrawal could be giving China false hope of opportunities to play role of big brother, but in case China succeed in this , then its worry some for India. Article aptly narrates how Chinese focus is moving from Military dominance to Economic capturing. If Military dominance is like a bullet , then economic capturing is like slow poison. Both ultimately leads to painful death. An article worth investigating 15 min of deep read. Kudos to the writer. 👍🇮🇳👍

YOGESH PAI

Apr 13, 2021
very well written article sandy! west Asia has always been a region of conflict for decades now. The involvement of the big powers like USSR & US during the cold war decided the fate of this region and it seems it continues to do so. China is involving itself to stake claim as an influencer in the balance of power in the region. India needs to be wary of China and continue the excellent diplomatic efforts of the present government to maintain cordial relations and boost trade ties which are mutually beneficial.

Atul Dewan

Apr 13, 2021
Very well articulated thoughts, QUAD may become the cornerstone of the political, economic and military engagements required to check China. The Chinese juggernaut has shortened the OODA loop of all its competitors and adversaries. Look forward to more from you

Frank Sterle Jr.

Apr 12, 2021
In China the government basically controls the corporations, whereas Western virtual-corpocratic governances, notably the U.S. and Canada, are basically steered by corporations’ economic intimidation or extortion. Indeed, corporate representatives actually write bills for our governing representatives to vote for and have implemented, typically word for word, supposedly to save the elected officials their time. China is taking advantage of this serious flaw in the virtual corpocratic rule (corpocracy?) here in the West — profit before individual and even national interests. Generally, both American and Canadian governances commonly maintain thinly veiled yet firm ties to large corporations; it’s as though elected heads are meant to represent big money interests over those of the working citizenry and poor. (I believe it is basically why those powerful $$$ interests generally resist proportional representation electoral systems of governance, the latter which tends to dilute the corporate lobbyist influence on the former.) Accordingly, major political decisions will normally foremost reflect what is in big business’s best interests. And don’t expect to hear this fact readily reported by the mainstream news-media, which is concentratedly corporate owned. Those doubting the powerful persuasion of huge business interests need to consider how high-level elected governing officials can become crippled by implicit or explicit corporate threats to transfer or eliminate jobs and capital investment, thus economic stability — a crippling that is made even worse by a blaring news-media that's permitted to be naturally critical of incumbent governments.

Rakesh P

Apr 12, 2021
Thank you so much Cdr Sandeep for a fresh perspective on a very complex and yet very dynamic situation.

Pradeep.

Apr 12, 2021
Great analysis, Sandeep. With the world economic growth affected so adversely, China may achieve its dream sooner.

Marilee Wein

Apr 11, 2021
There are obviously a million moving pieces behind each thought set here, from which you manage to capture clarity for an eye opening bang.

Aadi

Apr 11, 2021
A very detailed analysis on the Prevailing questions about the Chinese and where do their actions come from. Cheers Sir !

Vijay Nair

Apr 11, 2021
Excellent read as always 👍 Hit the nail on the head with the Middle Kingdom centrality and dreams of the glorious past/future & the balancing act in the middle east. Maybe you could also discuss China’s interests in Turkey, provoking the instability in the WANA region as well to relieve US /Quad pressure points in the third island chain in the Indo Pacific (as well as the Fourth and fifth island chains in the Indian Ocean). Also had me running for the dictionary with palimpsest

SHAUNAK

Apr 11, 2021
Congratulations to you ...Com. Sandeep Dhawan on this wonderful, logical and well researched article. However, I have one question; As per your article and research it seems Israel and China are getting close. Israel and Jews have always been shrewd and can foresee future to a great extent. If so is the case, is it that.... US and other powers are loosing their grip on the economic and geopolitical of the world and that China will come out the winner in future. India needs to understand this and make a cautious move. In the past before the cold war, India could greatly survive and reasonably thrive because of it’s projection as a nonaligned nation. Though, it had always been friendly towards USSR. So is not the case now. We have become more vocal in showing our preference which to my thinking is not a very good political decision as, we still are in no way strong enough to act in such a way.... economically, politically or even militarily. Anyway reading your well researched articles do enable me to get an insight of the coming future.

Nancy D

Apr 10, 2021
As always, Commander, you bring understanding and alternative views to those who may feel overwhelmed by the current geo-political situation. Thanks also for your willingness to propose solutions, as well as clarifying problems. This is very much appreciated!

Sreenivas

Apr 09, 2021
Brilliant write up Sandy. Hope China falls into the Hannibal trap. 10 Billion investment in Israel is Huge! US seems to be in deep slumber. Hope India remains an important Ally to most countries in UAE and Israel. Iran will not side with China and let them dominate the Pak - Turkey - Iran belt, they know that the dragon will betray them someday. Hope the Quad can become a Economic powerhouse as suggested by you.

sharath

Apr 09, 2021
Well written. Unlike US which has to maintain a external image of being civilized, China does not. It will crush rebellion with iron hand like the uyghurs. This will very likely spiral more violence beyond what they can manage. Time will tell.

Madhu

Apr 09, 2021
Agree with everything did, except for the part regarding Israel. Israel has no reason to part from the US, where traditional linkages exist. There is no deep relationship between the Govts of China and Israel. Commercial investment cannot be linked to power projection at this stage. Further, Israel will not tolerate the coziness of China to Iran. There is no geo strategic importance of China to Israel.

Martina

Apr 09, 2021
Many thanks for this highly interesting information!

Wendell Bruges

Apr 09, 2021
A lot to ponder upon, a lot to reflect. I hope at least some of our policymakers read this article and chalk out their plans proactively.

AJ

Apr 09, 2021
One more well researched and written article, Sandeep. Unfortunately US has been 'very kind' on china since 1970s in giving advance technology and looked away from China's bad intelectual property issues which has led to present situation. If US does not counter it now then then---

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Apr 09, 2021
As always, wonderful reading the analysis by this author. Simple, lucid and readable.

Raman Gupta

Apr 09, 2021
Nicely explained. The US keeps underestimating the role of regional powers like India, while China seems to understand them better and works at containing them.

JSD

Apr 08, 2021
Excellent article. Ambitious China *IS* bad for the world. However, economic powers have too much to gulp (get involved) and also having their internal feuds to settle.

Joseph

Apr 08, 2021
A good writeup on Chinese global ambitions.

Ajay Sharma

Apr 08, 2021
Sandeep... Very well analysed and penned it. The so called super powers take important geo political decisions in haste which gives their adversaries a world of opportunity.

Debu Pagay

Apr 08, 2021
A thought provoking article! The US and the Quad have to redefine their perspective as regards the Chinese strategy and the likely outcomes... Brilliant..

Ranvir Shekhawat

Apr 08, 2021
Challenging topic and a dynamic one too with very few cards on the table to account for. I like where you’re taking it though. Time will tell if the US can stop looking for the “right enemy” and learn to apply different yardsticks to different nations which ironically the CIA actually does !

Narinder

Apr 08, 2021
Excellent read Sandeep. Well researched. As always, look forward to articles on China researched and written by you

KS Uppal

Apr 08, 2021
Dear Sandeep! Grt reading n knowledgeable as always. Keep doing the good job. Pen is mightier than sword.... Wishing you success n fame.

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