All Roads in the Muslim World Lead to Beijing. Israel Will Have to Engage China

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In 2013, I warned that a Pax Sinica in the Middle East might replace America’s predominant role. As the largest importer of Persian Gulf oil, China wants stability in the region. To that end, China’s first venture into Middle East diplomacy came in December 2022, when it issued a joint statement with the Sunni Gulf States chastising Iran’s disruptive role in the region. But when Beijing brokered the restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March 2023, China proved it had arrived as a major power in the region.
China’s industrial muscle drives its growing influence in the Middle East. Its exports to Saudi Arabia have risen four-fold since 2018, while exports to the region, including North Africa, have doubled. Meanwhile, American exports to the Persian Gulf have stagnated.
China provides the Gulf monarchies with AI-controlled solar energy, Cloud computing, 5G broadband, and transportation infrastructure. The Saudis and Emiratis probably are Huawei’s largest foreign market for 5G infrastructure, despite urgent U.S. warnings against doing business with the Chinese national champion. For our part, we don’t sell telecom infrastructure, because we stopped making it a generation ago.
That is why all roads in the Muslim world lead to Beijing. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan went to Beijing last week in “the latest effort by Ankara to establish itself at the center of a strategic trade route between Europe and China,” VOA reported. Once the champion of Uyghur rights against alleged Chinese “genocide,” Turkey now rounds up Uyghur dissidents in Turkey and sends them back to China. Four Arab leaders, including Egyptian President Fattah al-Sisi, attended the China-Arab Forum in Beijing during the last week in May.
The $2 trillion Belt and Road Initiative hopes to integrate China with Western Asia and eventually Europe through a new transport grid that crisscrosses the Eurasian continent with Chinese-built railroads and pipelines. After the Biden Administration fled Afghanistan in 2022, China has picked up the pieces in Central Asia, offering infrastructure and financial support to the fragile economies of the former Soviet Union. China and Russia meanwhile have settled most of their differences over primacy in Central Asia and are acting as partners.
China’s Politburo Standing Committee member Cai Qi, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, China’s President Xi Jinping, United Arab Emirates’ President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Tunisia’s President… China’s Politburo Standing Committee member Cai Qi, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, China’s President Xi Jinping, United Arab Emirates’ President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi pose for a family photo ahead of the opening ceremony of the 10th Ministerial Meeting of China-Arab States Cooperation Forum at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse on May 30, 2024 in Beijing, China. More Jade Gao -Pool/Getty Images
China has just 200 soldiers in the Middle East, at its sole overseas base in Djibouti. It concentrates its military budget on a massive missile, satellite, air and submarine shield along its coast, not on forward deployment.
China’s relations with Israel had been cordial but chilly, given China’s historic pro-Palestinian position. But for a long time, it was still possible to defend Israel in major Chinese media, as I did in December 2022. After the Hamas massacre last Oct. 7, Chinese policy shifted decisively against Israel. Chinese commentators and netizens lined up against the Jewish state like iron filings on a sheet of paper with a magnet underneath.
Why? Israel is an American ally, and America and China are locked in an adversarial wrangle. Israel is in the crosshairs. China has no particular fondness for Arabs or Persians, nor any particular animosity toward Jews: It is playing its hand ruthlessly against Washington.
It gets worse: The Ukraine War has thrown Russia and China together in a de facto alliance against the United States. Americans play Monopoly while Russians play chess, and they have opened an Iranian fianchetto in the context Ukraine. As I warned back in 2008, “If Washington chooses to demonize Russia, the likelihood is that Russia will become a spoiler with respect to American strategic interests in general, and use the Iranian problem to twist America’s tail.”
Vladimir Putin warned on June 5 that Russia might give weapons to enemies of the West in response to attacks on its soil by Western weapons. Presumably, Putin means the Houthis, many of whose officers trained at Russian military academies and have already launched missiles at Israel. Washington woefully underestimated the efficacy of its sanctions on Russia and Russia’s staying power. Again, that leaves Israel in the crosshairs: Russia is not a customer of Saudi Arabia like China but a competitor, and stands to benefit from a disruption of oil supplies.
Even worse, the United States, is hobbling Israel’s military response to Hamas, to the point of withholding ammunition from the IDF. The Pentagon vetoed Israel’s plan to flood the Hamas tunnels with seawater, an alternative that would have reduced collateral damage among Gazan civilians, as Erik Prince revealed in Asia Times.
A Trump victory in November would restore American support for Israel and—if Trump makes good on his promise to end the Ukraine war—reduce the threat from the Iranian flank. That would be the best outcome.
But China’s influence in the region will grow no matter what the U.S. does, because its dominant position in broadband, transport, and energy infrastructure enables it to meet Eurasia’s development needs.
In one way or another, Israel will have to engage China. Ben Gurion’s too-often quoted injunction to fight the White Paper as if there were no war, and fight the war as if there were no White Paper, is worth recalling. It will have to become Israel’s modus operandi going forward.
David P. Goldman is Deputy Editor of Asia Times, a Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute, and a member of the Advisory Board of Sino-Israel.org, a think tank dedicated to China-Israel dialogue. The views expressed in this article are his own.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

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