Flashpoints | Diplomacy

No, the ‘Middle East Quad’ Is Not Anti-China

Whatever the U.S. and India might hope, Israel and the UAE are not interested in countering China.

No, the ‘Middle East Quad’ Is Not Anti-China

U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken participates in a Quad meeting with  with Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Indian Foreign Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar, and Israeli Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on October 18, 2021.

Credit: U.S. State Department photo by Freddie Everett

The past week has seen a flurry of media interest in a new so-called “Middle East Quad” between India, Israel, the UAE, and the U.S., including in these pages. Some especially more enthusiastic elements in India and Washington, believe that the group will provide a useful counterweight to Chinese influence in the region.

However, such ambitions are overstated for what looks likely to be more an economically oriented forum than a new political and military partnership. Despite claims that it is not targeted against China, it seems clear how the United States and India might benefit from such an arrangement; it is less apparent what Israel or the UAE would get from it.

For the U.S. and India, a Middle East Quad would complement the emerging one in the Indo-Pacific region, which pulls together both countries along with Japan and Australia. The partnership between the four has gained greater weight as U.S. President Joe Biden seeks to realize the ambitions of his predecessors by “pivoting” American assets from the Middle East theater to East Asia. The Indo-Pacific Quad has also been helped by deteriorating relations between China and its neighbors in the region.

For India, that has included ongoing and sometimes violent border confrontations, as well as the challenges posed by China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This massive effort at building infrastructure and connectivity across the Eurasian landmass has been interpreted by some as a geopolitical project that will increase China’s influence in India’s Central and South Asian neighborhood, leading to its entrapment.

If India’s concerns are primarily regional, American ones stretch across the globe. It has presided over the current international system for decades, cultivating close ties and allies and becoming an important contributor to regional order and stability in East Asia and the Middle East. For Washington-based hawks, all that looks to be under threat from China’s current rising economic power, especially if it is later translated into greater political influence and military capacity.

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By contrast, neither Israel nor the UAE has a similar interest in containing China. Unlike the U.S. and India, neither country is directly threatened by China’s rise. Rather, both have sought to maximize the opportunities presented by it. Trade and investment have flourished between Israel, the UAE and China. The two countries have also expressed interest in participating in the Belt and Road Initiative.

The increasing intensity between China, Israel and the UAE has received official approval. In 2017 China established an Innovative Comprehensive Partnership with Israel. The following year Beijing elevated its ties with the UAE to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, the highest level of diplomatic relationship it can offer.

China’s partnerships with Israel and the UAE have agitated hardliners in Washington. In recent years Israel has come under pressure to row back on its ties with Chinese firms, especially in areas which are deemed sensitive, such as the management of Israel’s ports (especially at Haifa, where the U.S. Sixth/Seventh Fleet sometimes harbors) and telecommunications industry. The United States has also expressed reservations at the UAE’s security arrangements with China.

Responses by Israel and the UAE to American exhortations have not been the same, however. In Israel, the government under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu established an advisory committee to review foreign ownership for future investments. In contrast, the United States has not made its demands to the UAE as strongly as it has done regarding Israel.

Part of the reason for this may be the qualitative difference in the character of the U.S. relationship with the two. The American alliance with Israel is an extremely close one and includes important areas of overlap, including a strong domestic constituency and lobby in favor of each other in both countries. Notwithstanding this, it seems that the Israeli leadership’s actions in relation to China are less the result of internal preferences and more the result of American pressure.

If Israel has reluctantly concluded that it must accommodate American concerns, U.S. coercion has been less evident in the case of the UAE. For one, the overlay between the two countries is less noticeable at the domestic level. For another, the Emiratis are more wary regarding American commitment to the region. Former President Barack Obama’s decision to sign a nuclear deal with Iran over the objections of Gulf leaders and Donald Trump’s prevarication over the Saudi-Emirati boycott of Qatar are recalled strongly and negatively. Perhaps for that reason, the UAE has been less willing to follow the Israeli decision to “bandwagon” with the United States and decided to “hedge” instead.

In missing the ambivalence from Israel and the UAE toward American demands, some of the hardliners in Washington have arguably misjudged the impact of so-called Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and the UAE last year. Their hope is that bringing these two regional powers together under U.S. sponsorship would not only provide greater coherence to managing regional security, in particular against Iran, but also reduce the space for China in the Middle East as well.

However, such ambitions were overstated – much like those for the current Middle East Quad. Rather than seeing the Abraham Accords as restrictive, Beijing welcomed them. It saw normalization as complementary to its relations with both sides. Furthermore, given the two countries’ relative domestic stability, the prospect for greater economic collaboration and investment beckoned, especially in high sectors where the two have a mutual interest and comparable advantage.

Given the current landscape then, it seems very unlikely that the new Middle East Quad will become the tool of containment that some American and Indian policy makers may hope for it. Instead, like the Abraham Accords before it, the new Quad seems primarily conceived to encourage greater commercial cooperation rather than transform geopolitics.

Indeed, if the Quad does prove successful in that regard, it may mean that it becomes dominated by private business interests rather than governments. A consequence may be that business leaders demand from leaders more stable environments to minimize risk in order to generate profits. In the Middle East that may count against American and Indian aims and prompt them to call on Israeli and Emirati leaders to avoid taking a hardline position toward China.