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China Attempts to Grow Its Influence in the Middle East

By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies

The diverging interests of the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China is not secret. Since the 1970s, there has been an ever-growing realization in the West that China has global interests and goals. China has created a foreign policy that has been the topic of discussion of many diplomats and scholars, and there is an abundance of research on this topic.

Scholars point out that Chinese foreign policy is centered around the use of foreign investment as a tool to gain political influence. However, that is not the entire picture. After all, China has a large military and the threat it poses – mainly in the South China Sea – is serious.

In a report on China’s maritime policy, the Council for Foreign Relations noted that “if confrontation were to involve Japan in the East China Sea or the Philippines in the South China Sea, the United States would be obligated to consider military action under defense treaties

“Experts note that Washington’s defense commitments to Tokyo are stronger than those to Manila. Under its treaty obligations, the United States would have to defend Japan in the case of an armed attack; the U.S.-Philippine treaty holds both nations accountable for mutual support in the event of an ‘armed attack in the Pacific Area on either of the Parties.’

“Military action would represent a last resort, and would depend on the scale and circumstances of the escalation. … Verbal declarations that communicate the seriousness of the dispute and convey support for an ally, as well as offers of military assistance, can also serve as essential “coercive de-escalation” measures during a crisis.”

China Has Relied on Economic Diplomacy to Influence Other Countries

Notwithstanding its significant military capabilities, China has never shown a desire to use its forces far from its borders. Instead, Chinese foreign policy has been focused on economic diplomacy.

This strategy has been the case in Africa over the past two decades. A great book, “China Returns to Africa: A Rising Power and a Continent Embrace,” explores how China utilizes the Chinese diaspora in Africa by securing infrastructure building contracts in Africa. The overarching goal is buying into oil and mineral resources through the length and breadth of Africa.

China Also Wants Power in the Middle East

Africa is by no means the only area where China uses its economic tactics to exert influence. The Middle East is also a fertile ground for such a strategy. The European Council of Foreign Relations aptly summarized current Chinese goals in the Middle East:

“China has significantly increased its economic, political, and – to a lesser extent – security footprint in the Middle East in the past decade, becoming the biggest trade partner and external investor for many countries in the region. China still has a limited appetite for challenging the US-led security architecture in the Middle East or playing a significant role in regional politics. Yet the country’s growing economic presence is likely to pull it into wider engagement with the region in ways that could significantly affect European interests.”

China’s special relations with Iran are the most striking example of this power grab. The situation between China and the Middle East is an issue that has been the focus of attention of the Institute for National Security Studies, which has issued many reports in the last few years about this economic and military relationship. One of these reports unsurprisingly concludes: “Israel should raise these topics with the U.S. administration and invest intelligence efforts to understand this emerging cooperation in which military technology and knowledge from China enhance the Iranian threat to Israel.”

Israel and China: What Does the US Think?

Surprisingly, it is not just Iran where China is exerting financial influence; China is also using the same tactic with Israel. In recent years, Chinese companies have made major purchases in Israel, acquiring local infrastructure companies and winning bids for significant infrastructure contracts.

The growing economic ties between Israel and China have been evolving for years. For instance, Chinese companies won bids in the construction of the Israeli light rail project, the building of a new port and the purchase of Israel’s biggest milk manufacturer.

The security risk that China poses have led Israel to take steps to regulate these foreign investments in Israel, but the U.S. does not seem to be happy about the growing influence of China in the Middle East. The interesting point is that the Israeli officials were caught off guard and did not realize how important this issue was to the U.S. Just last year, then-Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said: “We don’t want the Chinese Communist Party to have access to Israeli infrastructure, Israeli communication networks, the kind of things that endanger the Israeli people and the ability of the U.S. to cooperate with Israel.”

Unfortunately, this statement is not fully resonating within Israel. Last month, an Israeli Hebrew-language newspaper, Ha’Aretz, ran a column written by former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas. Pinkas stated that in talks with many elected officials on Capitol Hill, the main issue was not the latest clash with Hamas, but the fact that Israel is continuing to do business with China.

What Will China Do in the Future?

The bottom line is: What will happen in the future with China? It seems the ball is in the American court; the U.S. needs to be more proactive if it wishes to counter these Chinese attempts at growing its influence in the Middle East and elsewhere.

More direct action is needed to counter China’s tactics. The best solution would be to bring U.S. companies to the bidding table and have them invest in foreign projects, which would be the most effective tool in countering China’s attempts to acquire more power.

Dr. llan Fuchs is a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Ilan’s other degrees include an LL.B., LL.M.  and Ph.D. in Law from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of “Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Education and Modernity,” and 18 articles in leading scholarly journals. At the university, he teaches courses on international law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions.

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