on the hill

Coons ‘very concerned’ about growing Chinese engagement in the Middle East

The Delaware senator also said he expects that the recent Saudi-Iranian pact will provide a more challenging atmosphere for Riyadh and Jerusalem to deepen relations

Mateusz Wlodarczyk/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Chris Coons (D-DE) in Warsaw, Poland, on 21 February 2022.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), a close foreign policy ally of President Joe Biden, told Jewish Insider yesterday that he is “very concerned” about China’s growing engagement in the Middle East, signaled by its brokering last week of an agreement to restore diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

“I am concerned about what this signals in terms of China’s expanded efforts and engagement in the Gulf,” Coons, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee’s foreign operations subcommittee, said. “Anything that reduces tension in the Middle East in general is a positive, but I’m very concerned about the indication, the signal, the sense that China’s engagement in the Middle East is strengthening.”

Coons’ comments echo concern among many, across ideological lines, on Capitol Hill about China’s growing influence in the region. 

Coons also said he expects the pact will make it more difficult to build ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Riyadh and Jerusalem have been edging closer in recent years due in large part to their common enmity with the Iranian regime; the current Israeli government has told U.S. lawmakers it is eager to normalize relations, and the Saudi government has reportedly offered specific terms for such a deal. But the Saudi-Iran deal, brokered by China announced late last week, could mark a significant pivot for Saudi Arabia in the region.

Sen Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said that “if I were the Biden people, I’d be a little concerned” about the agreement’s implications for U.S. interests in the Middle East.

Asked about how the deal might impact the prospects for Saudi-Israeli normalization, Graham emphasized that it would likely not impact Israel’s posture toward Tehran.

“I think that the Iranians are marching toward a nuclear weapon,” Graham told JI. “Israel’s not going to let that happen without a fight. And if Saudi Arabia doesn’t see that, they’re missing a lot.”

Other reactions on Capitol Hill to the Saudi-Iranian agreement have been somewhat mixed.

House Foreign Relations Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-TX) said, “We have seen time and time again that any international act by China is exploited as a means to further [Chinese Communist Party] malign interests, threatening U.S. national security and that of our allies and partners.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Middle East subcommittee, called it “a bit simplistic” to think that increased Chinese involvement in Middle East security is necessarily “bad for the U.S.”

“Are we sure we have benefitted as a nation from being so intimately involved in Middle East security matters for the last 80 years?” Murphy said in a tweet. “There are reasons to want to share responsibility with our competitors. Maybe the Saudi-Iran deal is bad for the U.S. But we shouldn’t assume it is just because China midwifed it.”

Separately, addressing reports about Saudi demands of the U.S. as part of normalization talks with Israel, Murphy said that, while he supports normalization, “the current Saudi price to join the Abraham Accords is unreasonable and way too high.”

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