It appears a new Mideast geopolitical realignment is unfolding with Egypt, Israel, Jordan and moderate Arab states on one side that is supported by a rising China, and a more Islamist-oriented axis of Qatar, Turkey and Muslim Brotherhood that is supported by the Obama administration.
Despite regional countries listing the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists, the White House continues to support them—underscoring Obama’s seemingly inconsistent and confused Mideast policy since US also designates Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, as a terrorist organization.
As Leslie Gelb from the Council on Foreign Relations penned in the Daily Beast post Obama no-show at the Paris unity march in January, he rebuked that the entire Obama national security team needs to be replaced since “it demonstrated beyond argument that the Obama team lacks the basic instincts and judgment necessary to conduct U.S. national security policy in the next two years.”
Gelb further warned that “It’s simply too dangerous to let Mr. Obama continue as is—with his current team and his way of making decisions. America, its allies, and friends could be heading into one of the most dangerous periods since the height of the cold war.”
Unfortunately, some Mideast partners increasingly view US as an ally of terrorists as Obama continues to court the Muslim Brotherhood. In a 2 February article in Gulf News, Linda Heard opined that in January the State Department hosted a Brotherhood delegation which two days later called for a war against fellow Egyptians, signaling the Obama administration gave them a green light to carry out terrorist attacks against Egypt.
Obama also demonstrated his support for the Brotherhood and contempt for the more moderate al-Sisi by halting military aid when he came to power—aid that Egypt desperately needs to battle jihadists destabilizing Egypt and the Sinai peninsula and grants US navy priority access to the Suez Canal.
Adding insult to injury, Lt Col. Oliver North disclosed that when Egypt and Jordan requested US intelligence for ISIS target in Libya and Syria after the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians and immolation of the Jordanian pilot, the Obama administration refused.
Gelb is right—with friends like this who needs enemies?
China Waxes, US Wanes in the Levant
As Washington loses the trust of allies and partners in the region, it also loses influence and power projection capabilities.
By contrast, China is increasingly capturing market shares of friends and influence in the mideast.
In December President Sisi visited China and signed a series of cooperation agreements, including a joint committee for defense affairs, for China’s increased role in the region. China’s fight against the rise of radical Islamists in Xinjiang and the Mideast is increasingly aligned with moderate Muslim states, as well as shared wariness towards the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar and Turkey.
In a 2013 Beijing Forum, Peking University’s Wu Bingbing ascribes Qatar’s irresponsible regional behavior of supporting Islamic extremists to US security guarantee (Al Udeid Air Base) that allows Doha to “perform in the Middle East without constraint.” China is also increasingly furious with Ankara’s meddling in Chinese uighur affairs and providing transit for separatists to train with ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliates in Iraq and Syria.
As such, Beijing is asserting itself in the region to defend its interests, and recently approved a new counter-terrorism law authorizing the military and state/public security personnel to conduct overseas operations.
China already conducts joint patrol with Laos, Myanmar and Thailand to maintain security along the Mekong River since 2011, and may be willing to do so near the Suez, where China is already enlarging Port Said and constructing the Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone.
Unlike Washington, the Middle Kingdom recognizes Egypt, with its size and control of the Suez Canal, is key to stability in the Mideast. With China displacing the US in 2013 as the world’s largest trading nation at $4 trillion, and with 90 % of trade still being seaborne, Beijing is heavily dependent on the Suez Canal to reach its largest export market in Europe.
The strategic significance of the Suez—which after all spurred the 1956 war over control of the Canal—is thus not lost on the Chinese.
Muslim Brotherhood/terrorism threatens China’s maritime security in the Red Sea
Sisi likewise understands Suez stability is inextricably tied to Egypt’s own economic development and future, and according to military sources, Morsi’s collaboration with Sinai jihadi groups was a source of their disagreement and eventual fallout. Egypt earns $5 billion a year in revenues from the Suez Canal, a vital source of hard currency for a country that has suffered a slump in tourism and foreign investment since 2011.
The planned new Suez Canal that allows for two way traffic is estimated to increase revenues to $13 billion by 2023, and is a mainstay for China’s New Silk Road. However, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Al Qaeda and Salafi-jihadists groups in the Sinai are threatening the Canal and global maritime trade.
In 2013 Al Qaeda affiliate Al Furqan Brigade attacked China’s Cosco Asia by firing rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) at the container ship with 10,000t of cargo en route to northern Europe. Concerned with such increased military activity and ship inspections in the Canal, Lloyd’s List, a marine insurance company, actually recommended ships take the 6,000 mile-longer route around the Cape of Good Hope instead.
Shipping delays and increased risk premiums are costly for maritime trade and for China, so it is hedging itself by building the “steel canal” of the Red-Med rail in Israel connecting Eilat in the Red Sea to Ashdod in the Mediterranean.
China’s dual-strategy of enlarging Suez while building a land-based trade corridor will thus be beneficial for Egypt and Israel, and increased economic cooperation can eventually be complemented by security cooperation and counter-terrorism between China, Israel and Egypt to help maintain regional stability.
As China continues to rise in the Middle East, the Obama team should heed Gelb’s warnings and correct its foreign policy missteps towards allies and friends. An example in December highlights how US and China view Israel—while Team Obama threatened to slap Israel with sanctions over settlements, China “panda hugs” Israel by offering to loan two of its prized giant pandas to Haifa Zoo.
If the Obama administration continues to mistreat its mideast allies, one day it may be that Israel would look to Beijing, not Washington, for its UN Security Council veto and the Chinese navy, not US navy, that has priority access to the Suez Canal.