While the United States continues to debate how to extricate itself from “forever wars” in the Middle East, one country has been steadily building its footprint in the region: China. Over the past decade, Chinese trade and investment has exploded across the Middle East; in 2016, it became the region’s largest foreign investor. China has also invested in some of the Middle East’s most strategic real estate, snapping up port agreements and building trade and logistics zones that now dot the Gulf. Beyond physical infrastructure, China’s also providing the region’s digital backbone. To date, Chinese companies have secured 5G deals with every country in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). And China’s influence goes beyond economics and trade. The Middle East is now China’s largest overseas defense market, and with its naval base in Djibouti and continuous presence in the Indian Ocean, the Chinese military is likely to become a more regular presence.
China’s steady expansion of its Middle East footprint and influence poses significant questions for U.S. policymakers. The Middle East has long been a battleground for strategic competition between both regional and global powers. Is it poised to again emerge as a zone of great-power competition, between the United States and China? Or as U.S. policymakers debate how to bring stability to the Middle East, should the United States encourage China’s more active engagement and presence in the region? What are the security implications of China taking a more direct role in Middle Eastern security, or conversely, free-riding on international stabilization efforts? —Lindsey Ford