Is China ultimately an ally or enemy of America?

Silk Road in Middle East : China is expanding its cooperation with Iran and Israel

Shlomo Ben-Ami was Israeli Foreign Minister and is Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace.

US President Joe Biden has announced that he will withdraw American troops from Afghanistan by September 11th. Not only does this end the longest war in his country.

The move also confirms the United States' turning away from the Middle East - a development that has been on the horizon for some time. But who will take their place in the region?

China seems to be raising its hopes. Just a few weeks before Biden's announcement, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in Tehran to sign a 25-year Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) with Iran, which includes economic, political and security cooperation. The US took the step worried - and for good reason.

China's partnership with Iran is the first with a longstanding US opponent

It is true that this type of strategic partnership is a standard Chinese foreign policy instrument that already links Beijing with other countries in the region, including Iraq and Saudi Arabia. And the volume of exchanges with Iran has probably been exaggerated in the media - allegedly, Chinese investments of $ 400 billion are planned in Iran. However, neither party has confirmed a specific number.

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But even if the new deal does not take China-Iran relations to a whole new level, it is the first partnership of its kind that China has entered into with a longstanding adversary of the US. At the same time, however, China is also deepening ties with America's closest allies in the Middle East, including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and even Israel.

At the moment, China’s motivation seems to be primarily economic. In addition to access to the region's energy resources, China can strengthen its profile in future-oriented areas through cooperation with Israel's high-tech industry. Because of this, much to the annoyance of the US, it has increased its investments in Israel significantly in recent years.

In addition, China is interested in Israel in order to advance its international ambitions in the field of infrastructure and connecting roads, as they are also expressed in the "Belt and Road Initiative", the new Silk Road project. Just as the People's Republic has already taken control of seaports elsewhere in Asia and Europe, it will take over management of the new port in Haifa, Israel.

In addition, in anticipation of the new oil supply from Iran, China has set up a direct shipping route to the port of Bandar Abbas on the Strait of Hormuz.

Beijing wants peace, but does not want to secure peace

The US needn't worry - at least for the moment - that China might stir up conflicts in the Middle East. The new strategic agreement with Iran also mentions security cooperation, but it is not a military alliance. And China does not take sides in any military conflict in the region. Finally, China is also conducting military exercises with Iran's arch-rival Saudi Arabia.

The last thing China needs is a regional conflagration that disrupts oil exports or destroys its investments in the region. That makes China a responsible actor. However, China is not ready to vouch for security in the Middle East. Military alliances are generally not China's preferred tool in its global competition with the US.

China has taken great care not to get drawn into the region's longstanding conflicts. While China recently indicated that it would host direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians, that shouldn't be over-believed. The People's Republic is very well aware that it was only able to expand its economic influence in Afghanistan and Iraq because the United States was militarily and economically active there. That's not the type of investment they're interested in.

Ultimately, China's economic interests are best served if the established, US-led security system of the Middle East remains intact. That explains in part why China's main Middle Eastern partners are US allies.

China made an exception when it signed the CSP with Iran, but that too was primarily economic: it wants to revive bilateral trade, which has suffered severely since the US withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2015 and again in 2018 Have introduced sanctions against Iran.

Beijing wanted to strengthen Iran's position before talks with the US

In fact, the idea of ​​a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Tehran was only born after the reintroduction of US sanctions. The moment the deal was signed - the moment the Biden administration tried to renegotiate the nuclear deal and rejoin it - was a calculated decision by China to strengthen Iran's negotiating position. It is hoped that this will speed up the lifting of the sanctions.

However, Iran will pay a heavy price for its partnership with China. Beijing has taken advantage of the partner's economic difficulties to secure heavily discounted oil supplies. During the negotiations, there were certainly warners in Iran who feared that China was seeking a similarly exploitative agreement as with Sri Lanka: There, China finally took control of Sri Lanka's Hambantota port.

Iran's powerful proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, should also watch out for China. In particular, Hezbollah will have to reconsider its threat to attack the Israeli port of Haifa with ballistic missiles, which is now effectively owned by China.

As for the US, its military superiority in the Middle East is likely to remain unchallenged for some time. But military might will not be enough to halt China's strategic rise in the region and beyond. To do this, the USA must also strengthen its political assertiveness, its economic commitment and its cultural influence. Otherwise, China will “boot us out”, as US President Biden warned in February.

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