Is China’s Belt and Road Initiative the Sign of a New Hegemon in the Middle East?

Global reports this week have suggested that US disengagement from the Middle East and Iraq has left a superpower sized hole in the region. China is looking to capitalise on this especially with regards to Iraq, its third largest source of imported oil. Many are arguing that China is looking to be in a strong position to become a regional hegemon in the Middle East or, at the very least, replace the US as the leading superpower in Iraq but how might this neocolonialism continue to damage the region?

New reports this week have insisted that Iraq is going to be one of the states which benefits most from the new Belt and Road Initiative that will better connect China to the Middle East and Central Asia through a series of transport and energy infrastructure links. Over 28% of the construction projects financed worldwide by China are occurring in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region demonstrating the global importance of the area due to its oil reserves. How far this infrastructural development will actually benefit the Iraqi people remains to be seen.

Whilst $10.5 billion worth of construction deals will be good news for the Iraqi economy and the country’s infrastructure, China’s efforts to grow deeper ties with Iraq economically are merely reminiscent of its long history of intervention in the state by foreign powers. Chinese leadership have chosen to act through financial means just as the US transition their remaining 2,500 soldiers to a training and advisory role. It is no coincidence that this is the case, a reduced American influence will allow China to increase its authority in the region which could impact western access to oil and coal.

Constant interventions by superpowers in the MENA region and Iraq define much of its history from imperialism to continued interferences both militarily and economically in the present day. With no local hegemonic power emerging within the MENA region naturally, external powers have previously filled the role of regional hegemon through their interventions in the region. The proxy war that is seemingly being fought by external superpowers to become hegemon within the region has only ended up destabilising it further, trapping MENA states in debt and becoming dependent upon foreign aid for development.

Intervention in Iraq in 2003 has led to protracted military and economic support by US and British forces. Whilst this gave these states the benefit of political support from the Iraqi coalition government, this loyalty is transitory and can be quickly transferred from power to power as other states step in to assist. Could this be the case as the US withdraws and China steps up to provide assistance?