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Can Jordan Harmonize Chinese and American Interests in the Levant?

 
 

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, a steadfast island of stability in a region weathered by conflict, is becoming the regional hub for security, development, humanitarian, and reconstruction efforts occurring—and that will occur—in neighboring countries. This position has resulted in a surge of financial investment into Jordan with the intended goal of safeguarding the small country from the region’s many threats and spoilers. To this end, the United States has ramped up financial support for the Kingdom in 2018, pledging a five-year total of USD$6.3 billion in military and economic assistance. But, while its longstanding partnership with Jordan has afforded geostrategic positioning diplomatically and militarily, the United States is facing increased competition from China, whose presence and influence in the Kingdom is quickly expanding.

Among initiatives to connect its investments in the Arab Gulf, Africa, and Eurasia, the Levant is quickly becoming a critical transit hub to Chinese energy and resource projects within its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While China eyes Syria as the principal crossroads linking the project’s various nodes in the long-term, Beijing is pivoting to Jordan in the short-term as the country presents a more immediate low-risk environment and relative stability. Given China’s large-scale investments in Jordan on deck, it is increasingly clear that China hopes to prepare the Kingdom to serve as the gateway—or lynchpin—for the BRI’s expansion into the Levant and as a center for its reconstruction efforts in Syria.

In an interview with Jordan’s Petra News, a PRC embassy official in Jordan commented that negotiations between the Kingdom and China over the tenets of the Belt and Road Initiative cooperation memorandum are underway, signaling that Jordan could be close to formally joining the BRI. Sino-Jordanian partnerships have proliferated since 2015, when Jordan joined the newly-established Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a critical mechanism for funding BRI and other projects, as a founding member. The AIIB has since expanded its reach regionally through a newly-signed partnership with the Islamic Development Bank, which hosts 57 member countries.

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China continues to make significant inroads in Jordan, using socioeconomic, trade, and energy investments as mechanisms for building popular support among Jordanians. In 2015, Jordan and China signed investment agreements valued at more than USD$7 billion to boost the Kingdom’s transportation, energy, and trade sectors—including an estimated USD$2.2 billion oil shale power plant which will produce roughly 15 percent of Jordan’s national energy needs, a USD$2.8 billion national railway, and USD$1 billion renewable energy plant. In 2017, the volume of trade exchanged between the two countries reached more than USD$3.8 billion, an increase of 32 percent. China’s investments are not limited to energy and trade. In 2018, Chinese officials also announced plans to build the Fujian Maritime Silk Road Commodity Center in partnership with the Jordan Ministry of Transportation and a joint Sino-Jordan university in Amman with the aim of strengthening Jordan’s role in BRI.

The preliminary results of Chinese investment are hard to measure in the short term. But, expectations of increased domestic energy production and new markets for Jordanian goods in the mid- to long-term are strong incentives for Jordan to welcome Chinese companies. Furthermore, a study reported by the Jordan Times found that Jordan was the second most-desired location for regional expansion—behind Egypt—for Chinese companies based in Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. Jordan’s strategic geographic position, as a means for bridging Chinese investments in the Arab Gulf and Africa, makes it a critical entry point to the Levant region. More specifically, China’s diplomatic and economic advances toward Jordan aim to firmly establish the Kingdom as a base for its reconstruction efforts in Syria, according to PRC’s ambassador to Jordan.

The Middle East, more broadly, stands to gain from China’s increased economic and infrastructure investment and political engagement. To date, China has become a source of investment, consultation, and infrastructure projects for the Middle East and the most important trade partner in several of its countries—Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. There is a natural synergy at hand: the Middle East has abundant resources and increasing need for development, while Beijing seeks to win additional market share for its infrastructure-based development strategy, promote stability and peace through investments, and secure guaranteed access to energy resources.

On one hand, China remains the world’s foremost leader in infrastructure investment and thus needs to broker additional partnerships to sustain the framework through which it achieved rapid economic growth. Yet, on the other hand, China hinges on these new atypical relationships to sustain its energy consumption while also maintaining its unwavering benchmark of 6.5 percent GDP growth year over year. As early as 2014, China replaced the U.S. as the leading importer of oil and natural gas in the world, importing more than half of its crude oil and a third of its natural gas from ME countries.

Regarding the broader implications on the region and the U.S., China’s growing economic involvement is unlikely to reverse its policy of avoiding conflict in the region. But, as the U.S. appetite for crude imports and active military engagement in the region is decreasing, China might be forced to assume greater responsibility, especially in terms of securing important maritime and land-based trade and energy routes. For the United States, this a potential silver-lining, as Beijing could serve as a stabilizing pillar in the region and effectively share the burden. On Jordan particularly, a stable Kingdom means a strong regional position for both powers and greater opportunities for security and economic cooperation.

This bilateral convergence of interest creates a political and economic ecosystem where the United States and China contribute to stability via separate roles that fall within their foreign policy priorities—a win-win situation for both. The United States invests in defense and the economy; meanwhile, China invests in the economy, energy, and infrastructure. China stands to benefit from U.S. security and stability guarantees in Jordan, as President Trump is doubling down U.S. support for the Kingdom to keep the region’s many ills at bay and use the country’s territory to launch and coordinate counter-terrorism operations. Such a dynamic will allow China to preserve its decades-long policy of minimal political and military involvement in the region, while still gaining market share in the region’s vast markets. Meanwhile, the United States wins by maintaining its strategic military positioning to coordinate counter-terrorism operations and support the security of regional allies while the internal woes of Jordan’s economic and energy situation are addressed by China.

The matter rests on American perception, whether it is viewed through a competitive or non-competitive lens. While the United States seeks to maintain the Levant as a traditional western sphere of influence, it can open some avenues for cooperation, lessen some of the costs for engagement, and satiate American appetite for reorienting policy away from the region. Converging U.S.-China interests in the Middle East could be stepping stones toward solutions to many regional security, humanitarian, and economic crises. But, the political gap which stems from broader realities and perceptions of U.S.-China competition globally still remains a challenge to collaboration. As both powers engage in Jordan and the broader region, trilateral track II dialogues between the U.S, China, and Middle East states like Jordan could be a mechanism for bridging the gap—evidenced by the success of previous U.S.-China track II initiatives. Building on the success of this model, Jordan and the broader region stand to gain from trilateral cooperation across many of key sectors of government and society, including defense, energy, economy, and trade. Until steps toward regional cooperation are underway, the United States and China stand to lose if they pursue independent policies with Jordan and the broader Middle East, irrespective of the other’s complimentary efforts.

Jesse Marks is a Scoville fellow and Fulbright fellow, based in Amman, Jordan. Salvatore Borgognone is an independent Middle East analyst focusing on great power politics in the Levant. He is currently based in Amman, Jordan.

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