The Far East Pivots to the Middle East 

The phrase “Pivot to the East,” popularized during the Obama administration, signified a realization of the rising importance of China and of growing US interests in the Far East, and therefore the need to pay less attention to the Middle East and more to carefully calibrating the relationship with China. The pivot idea represented President Barack Obama’s desire to end US military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan and dedicate more diplomatic effort and resources to the Pacific Rim nations. Obama succeeded in pulling the bulk of US troops out of Iraq but fell short of a similar pull-out from Afghanistan; a task that was finally but dramatically achieved during the first few months of the Biden administration. By the end of his second term, Obama had indeed directed more diplomacy toward China and other Asian nations, but had not significantly redirected funds or deployments from the Middle East to the Pacific. Indeed, in the beginning of the discussion on pivoting, critics both at home and in Asia argued that the US likely lacked the resources to fully implement its pivot before putting its financial house in order.

On the other hand, the Obama administration fielded two major efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one led by former Senator George Mitchell in 2009 and another by former Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013. Both efforts fell short, in retrospect perhaps justifying Obama’s thinking that there was more to be gained from a better focus on the Far East. The Biden administration chose not to invest in a new Middle East peace process for its first three years in office, in the hope of devoting more time and resources to the Far East; but the Gaza war has recently pulled American focus back to where it had been for decades.

Ironically, Far East countries—primarily China, North Korea (DPRK), and South Korea (RoK)—have for different reasons been devoting increased economic and diplomatic attention to the Middle East; in essence, pivoting to the region. All three have raised the level of their commercial interactions, especially in the Gulf, but with varying degrees of political involvement. Of the three, North Korea has put itself squarely in the anti-American camp, drawing closer to Iran and its allied non-state actors. China and South Korea, on the other hand, maintain broader relationships and at least have the option of pursuing a more balanced policy toward the region’s own adversaries, which would allow the two to play a more diplomatic role in the process.

China Rising in the Middle East

China’s Arab Policy Paper in 2016 laid down the country’s interest in developing long term relations with the Arab world, based on common interests and an understanding on major political issues. Among the most important of these was and remains an emphasis on the right of Palestinians to establish a sovereign and independent state of their own with pre-1967 borders and East Jerusalem as its capital.

The announcement last March of a Chinese-brokered agreement between Saudi-Arabia and Iran has cast a new light on China as a potential mediator in Middle East conflicts.

The announcement last March of a Chinese-brokered agreement between Saudi-Arabia and Iran has cast a new light on China as a potential mediator in Middle East conflicts. In fact, China had been preparing for at least a decade to ratchet up its political and strategic presence in the region, after having invested in commercial exchanges and various assistance projects in an area traditionally considered an American zone of influence, albeit with challenges over the Cold War years by the Soviet Union and after 1990 by Russia. China’s gain reflects not only the declining influence of the United States in the region but also a balance of power in flux and the opportunity for other power centers to emerge and to step into any resulting void.

China first showed signs of emerging from relative diplomatic isolation in 2008 when it sent a naval force to participate in an international anti-piracy campaign in the Horn of Africa. The establishment of a small base in Djibouti in 2017, the first-ever overseas military base for China, put its forces on the strategic Bab al-Mandab waterway, alongside bases for the United States, France, Germany, and Japan. The entrance to the Red Sea has gained increased focus recently, in light of the Gaza war and threats from the Houthis of Yemen to bloc that waterway to Israel’s shipping as long as its assault on Gaza continues.

Nevertheless, China’s diplomatic clout is still limited, particularly in the thorny waters of the Middle East and it is unlikely to have a major role to play in settling the Gaza war—in spite of having relations with both Palestinians and Israelis, as neither party to the conflict is heavily dependent on it enough to afford it direct influence. China may not be ready to replace the United States in this regard, but it is poised, due to its expanding relations, especially in the Gulf, to offer assistance particularly as the Gaza war has demonstrated the failure of US diplomacy to achieve a durable peace between Israelis and Palestinians. China and the United States have common goals and interests in a peaceful and prosperous Middle East, they also have an interest in turning their global competition to collaboration rather than risk rising hostility between them. Cooperation on climate and other technical and scientific issues is already underway, and it should not be that difficult to extend this to diplomatic ventures. As US influence falters and regional conflicts spill over into international spheres, China may be able to help given its close relations with North Korea and Iran in particular.

North Korea in a Corner

North Korea has sold arms to several Middle East countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. However, since October 7 and with the ongoing war on Gaza, analysts have pointed to reports of North Korea’s special relationship with Iran’s non-state actors in the Middle East that include Hezbollah, Hamas, and Yemen’s Houthis. Pyongyang and Tehran relations go back to the beginning of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 and have grown in importance given that both countries suffer a degree of isolation from western countries and markets. The need for hard cash drives both countries to skirt US sanctions on a largely oil-for-weapons and technology transactions. The Far East in this regard represents another failure of US diplomacy in that mending fences has failed with North Korea as it has thus far failed with Iran. So long as the United States and Iran remain adversaries, North Korea will continue to hitch its wagon to the Islamic Republic, though not to the point of going to war for what is essentially a transactional relationship between Pyongyang and Tehran.

So long as the United States and Iran remain adversaries, North Korea will continue to hitch its wagon to the Islamic Republic.

Although North Korea’s arms sales to Iran have not been proved to include assistance to the latter’s nuclear program, both Israeli and US intelligence found some evidence of Korean assistance to a Syrian nuclear project—presumably funded by Iran—that was bombed by the Israeli air force in 2007. The possibility of the transfer of nuclear technology to the Middle East further complicates North Korea’s relationship with the United States. Even Egypt, one of the United States’ important strategic partners in the Middle East, received in 2017 $23 million worth of weapons from the DPRK, in defiance of international sanctions imposed on the latter’s export of arms.

The DPRK looks to Iran as an example of a nuclear threshold country that believed, at least initially, in the promise of a normalized relationship with the United States and western countries, only to have those hopes dashed. The American withdrawal in 2018 from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is, for North Korean President Kim Jung-Un, proof that US promises are not to be trusted. American attempts to limit North Korea’s own nuclear program are therefore not of interest, at least as long as the current regime remains in power in Pyongyang. In terms of diversifying its engagements, the DPRK has approached all the GCC members in the past but currently has commercial interactions with Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman.

South Korean Engagement

South Korea, seeing how its neighbor to the north is engaged mostly on the side of adversaries to the United States in the Middle East, is at least partially looking at Israel’s Gaza war as an example of non-conventional tactics Pyongyang might use against it in the future. According to a scenario where the north adopts Hamas tactics against the south, Seoul tries to draw lessons from gaps in Israeli intelligence that failed to detect Hamas’s preparations for its initial attack on October 7. South Korea maintains a cautious neutrality on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and indeed on all foreign entanglements, deploying troops only as part of international peacekeeping forces under the flag of the United Nations. To wit, Seoul has participated since 2007 in UNIFIL deployments in south Lebanon, in South Sudan, and in the Western Sahara. Other foreign deployments in recent decades have been closely albeit cautiously aligned with the United States.

Seoul therefore sent troops to Kuwait and Iraq in support of US forces in 1990 and 2003 as requested by Washington, though in non-combat roles. According to the pillars of South Korean foreign policy, the threat from North Korea takes precedence, and therefore the importance of maintaining its alliance with the United States worldwide. In the Middle East, commercial interests are paramount because of their importance for domestic economic growth. A balancing act is required to maintain such interests which are not always in harmony. South Korea imports 33 percent of its oil needs from Saudi Arabia, but also sizeable quantities from Iran following uncertainties during the Trump administration. On the Gaza war, President Yoon Suk-yeol has tried to line up behind the Biden administration, joining in Washington’s condemnation of Hamas on October 7 but refraining from echoing Washington’s total support of Israel in its war on Gaza.

Furthermore, South Korea is eyeing a major role in building the technological infrastructure for ambitious projects in the Gulf, such as the large industrial and other ventures in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Consequently, Seoul errs on the side of caution in not offending Arab populations by seeming to be insensitive to Palestinian suffering. Before the war on Gaza, the RoK contributed almost $2 million to UNRWA’s fund for Palestinian refugees, but has since sent additional funds to the civilian casualties of the war.

Looking Ahead

Of the three Far Eastern states, North Korea is the most drawn into the polarization of Middle East politics. While this alignment may be more a function of the failure of US diplomacy and the resulting isolation of North Korea, it remains a choice made by the country’s leadership that effectively limits its options, commercially and politically.

The RoK, on the other hand, has steered a more neutral course in regional politics despite the Yoon administration’s attempt to become more closely aligned with Washington. South Korea’s soft power, advanced by its successful cultural outreach via pop music, films, and active cultural centers promoting Korean language abroad, has further enhanced friendly relations globally. South Korea’s exports of its technology and industrial products are now highly competitive with larger and wealthier countries. The combination of a relatively neutral foreign policy and successful cultural and commercial outreach places South Korea in a more favorable position to play a more aggressive diplomatic role in the Middle East, should its leadership choose to do so.

Neutral foreign policy and commercial outreach places South Korea in a favorable position to play a diplomatic role in the Middle East.

China, by virtue of its economic and military weight, its expanding investments in countries like Saudi Arabia, as well as its stated interest in playing a political role in the Middle East, is the most capable of contributing to conflict resolution in the area. Besides its opening diplomatic salvo with the agreement it midwifed between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Chinese leaders have offered to help bring an end to the war on Gaza and to follow that up for a more permanent solution via an implementation of the two-state solution. On December 8, the UN Security Council (under China’s presidency) voted on a Gaza ceasefire resolution sponsored by the UAE and strongly supported by China. The resolution was approved by 13 members but vetoed by the United States while the UK abstained. China’s foreign ministry expressed deep disappointment with the American frequent use of the veto and promised to continue working with like-minded nations to bring an end to the war.

However, the key to China’s success lies in working with the United States, not against it, given that the latter can always block any UN action, and has frequently used its veto power to frustrate any effort with which Israel disagrees. The United States is however the only country that could, should it choose to do so, convince Israel to comply with UN resolutions. China, in turn, could dangle the prospect of bringing Iran and Hamas to the negotiating table—directly or indirectly—to accept a peace deal that the big powers can work out. The success of a Chinese-American joint action at the United Nations would not only increase the chances of peace but also improve US–China relations across the board—which presumably is a goal that both nations have pledged to uphold.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Twitter/China MFA