China strikes back: Great power rivalry has come to the Middle East

The re-emergence of the Middle East as an arena of great power competition between the United States and China is reflected primarily in the area of ​​technological innovation. Much of the stress stems from Washington’s efforts to rein in China’s growing global economic, technological and geopolitical influence, and there are many theaters where this tension plays out. This rivalry involves large-scale, full-spectrum, high-powered strategic competition for wealth, power, and influence in East Asia and around the world. It presents competing ideals and models of political governance and economic development, as well as differing views on the structure and rules of the global order, all rooted in competing interests. Each side is determined to maximize its overall position and freedom of action relative to the other.

The past few years have been marked by an erosion of US credibility and a loss of confidence among Middle Eastern governments in the sustainability of Washington’s security commitments. They saw Washington focus on Asia, and their concerns grew after the chaotic pullout from Afghanistan. These anxiety-provoking circumstances have prompted Middle Eastern states to reassess their singular dependence on the United States, adopt more militant foreign policies, and explore diversifying their security relationships with other major powers to guard against America’s perceived unreliability. Given this lingering uncertainty, they have taken several approaches in their foreign policies and practices and resisted US moves regarding relations with China. From their perspective, no one power or group of countries is expected to be able or willing to fulfill Washington’s role. China can potentially have the most significant impact on the regional order among these extra-regional powers. It is not an ally or a partner of the United States, but its main competitor and strategic adversary. However, fomenting instability does not benefit China, which has neither the will nor the capacity to fulfill the security role played by the United States in the region.

In a global confrontation between great powers, the Middle East is becoming increasingly strategically important. The speed with which this rivalry has escalated has created an incredibly precarious situation for countries in the Middle East. They face a new geopolitical and commercial calculus, with new pressures on managing their national security and economic development. This can complicate their efforts to maintain ties with these powers by forcing them to choose between maintaining the security partnership with the United States or strengthening economic and technological partnerships with China.

With China’s growing presence in the Middle East, Washington has not hesitated to put pressure on the states of the region because it perceives certain aspects of their cooperation with China (notably in the field of technological innovation) as detrimental to national security. Middle Eastern states are aware of growing US concerns about China and do not want to be caught up in a conflict between the two great powers. Despite doubts about the American commitment to their security, they recognize that there is no substitute for the American military presence in the region to block Iranian aggression. Thus, they wish to diversify their sources of support to avoid a situation of absolute dependence vis-à-vis Washington and to complement their strategic ties with the United States by developing relations with its biggest competitor and adversary, China. Nevertheless, the intensification of the rivalry pushes the states of the Middle East to side with one of the two powers. As a result, they could lose either the security partnership with the United States or the economic and technological partnership with China.

The Israeli case

In an age of global rivalry, Washington expects its allies around the world to make stark and stark choices. Therefore, Middle Eastern states must manage their geoeconomic ties with China while understanding the serious concerns of the United States and the limits these concerns place on their economic and technological partnership with China. Middle Eastern states can’t go any other way for a region that has always valued its security partnership with the United States above all else. The US military presence in the region suggests a degree of interdependence between US and Middle Eastern states, making their partnerships indispensable and irreplaceable. Neither China nor Russia has the military capacity to project power anywhere in the world or the wherewithal to replace Washington as the guarantor of security in the Middle East, although the United States has proved to be an increasingly unreliable partner in recent years.

The impossible situation is forcing Middle Eastern states to struggle to balance their vital security partnership with the United States with their valuable and budding economic ties with China. They also strive to maintain parallel partnerships and go out of their way to avoid picking sides. Nevertheless, the extent of economic or technological collaboration with China depends on pressure from Washington. The greater this pressure, the more difficult it will be for Middle Eastern states to develop technological innovation ties with China. At the same time, China may also exert pressure to promote its position in the region to the detriment of the United States, making it difficult for Middle Eastern states to maintain parallel partnerships.

Israel has a thriving sector in emerging innovative technologies. It is one of the world’s leading innovation hubs with around 6,000 active start-ups, devoting 5% of its annual GDP to research and development, the highest figure in the world. Thus, over the past two decades, 97% of Chinese investment in Israel has been in the technology sector. Chinese investments in Israel to develop technological innovation are part of a determined state effort to expand economic power and accelerate the development of military applications (eg, a cyber weapon) that support the geopolitical ambitions of the rising power. As Chinese President Xi Jinping told the country’s elite scientists in a major speech in May 2021, “technological innovation has become the main battleground of the international strategic game”.

As mentioned above, the United States watches its key allies in the Middle East and expects them to make tough and tough choices. Given that Israel and Washington share deep ties in defense and technological innovation, China’s emphasis on acquiring emerging digital technologies raises concerns about backdoors in US technology and exits. of unwanted technology from Israel. The American nightmare is that by partnering with or buying an Israeli company, China could obtain critical technology that gives it an advantage in the military or other sensitive areas.

For Israel, this requires a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, China’s allure lies in its vast and growing economy which presents countless opportunities for the Israeli economy. Israel seeks to expand its economic and diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, the world’s fastest growing major economy, and to diversify its export markets and investments from the United States and Europe. On the other hand, Israel’s close friendship with Washington – its security guarantor – is non-negotiable.

Sino-Israeli ties deepened during the corrupt tenure of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who declared the two countries “a marriage made in heaven.” In 2017, they signed a “global innovation partnership”. Israel deepened its economic and technological ties with China as Washington moved in the opposite direction. Overall, Sino-Israeli relations have developed smoothly, without bilateral historical baggage or direct conflicts of interest (in the past, relations have been damaged due to restrictions on exports of Phalcon and Harpy defense drones ). Indeed, relations are always influenced by a third party, namely the United States, which watches, not necessarily with jealousy but with grave concern, sometimes mixed with anger. This is due to Jerusalem’s frequent disregard for Washington’s discomfort as Beijing makes inroads, figuratively and deeply, into areas of America’s vital interests in the Middle East.

The infrastructure is the most visible evidence of the budding Sino-Israeli relationship. China is investing in Israel’s infrastructure as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The vast infrastructure and economic development project has established itself as the most important and ambitious strategic initiative of the 21st century. The initiative aims to connect Asia with Europe via Africa and the Middle East, boosting investment and deepening global economic integration. Under the BRI, Chinese companies have also built and operated national infrastructure in Israel’s seaports, railways, transportation and other major infrastructure projects. Chinese companies have participated in a greater number and variety of tenders on types of infrastructure than companies from other foreign countries. As expected, the number of tenders won by Chinese companies far exceeded the number of tenders won by other foreign companies. However, this Chinese involvement in national infrastructure tenders has also heightened tensions between Israel and its closest friend.

However, more than infrastructure, technology is the key to great power rivalry. China’s access to emerging innovative technologies could shift the global balance of power through economics and technology. 492 of China’s 507 deals with Israel between 2002 and 2022 were in technology, including computing, communications, clean and agricultural technology, and robotics. While overall sales have fallen in recent years as Israelis have become more sensitive to American concerns, the proportion of technology remains exceptionally high: forty-three of forty-four investments from 2021 to May 2022.

However, growing technology competition between the United States and China is challenging this blossoming relationship, with Washington putting its closest ally under increasing pressure. Accordingly, US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Yair Lapid announced a high-level technology dialogue in July 2022 that will focus on safeguarding common national interests in critical and emerging technologies. Therefore, the US technology partnership with Israel aims not only to encourage the flow of technology between the two states, but also to limit China’s access to Israeli technology and innovation, with an emphasis on advanced technologies. Israel and the United States have agreed to elevate their partnership, adapting it to the challenges of the 21st century and an era of great-power competition, with technology at its heart.

About Dianne Stinson

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