PI Exec. Director Deborah Lehr Talks China’s Influence in the Middle East on CSIS Babel Podcast

With the United States changing its role in the Middle East, China is stepping in as a strategic partner for several Middle Eastern countries, raising new questions about the future of US and Chinese cooperation and competition in the region. Technology is central to many of these questions, and both countries are competing to push for their respective technology standards to win out. 5G standards will be a significant issue as Chinese companies—including Huawei—build networks in the Middle East. In fact, Huawei has already signed 11 contracts with telecom firms in the region.

In a recent interview with Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Senior Vice President Jon Alterman on the CSIS Babel: Translating the Middle East podcast, Paulson Institute Vice Chairman and Executive Director Deborah Lehr explains how the effects of a possible ‘Economic Iron Curtain’ could result in greater US-China competition, and how 5G standards represent a significant tension point in the Middle East.

Institute Chairman Hank Paulson first introduced the concept of an ‘Economic Iron Curtain’ in November 2018, when he warned of the risks of the US erecting a Cold War-style technology denial regime that would harm global innovation. Recently, Paulson has further advocated for ways to avoid such an ‘Economic Iron Curtain,’ including calling for a certain degree of interoperability between Chinese and Western-made technology to avoid a Balkanization of the world’s tech ecosystem. “The ‘Economic Iron Curtain’ is where we start to make divisions between the United States and China based on technology and other flows,” says Lehr.

The stakes remain high as the US and China both seek to set 5G standards in the Middle East and around the world. “This is a security issue,” explains Lehr. “5G is going to be a disrupter in ways that 4G wasn’t.” As countries move to upgrade their networks, the opportunity to get comparable technology at lower prices—despite security warnings from the US—may steer countries toward Chinese 5G offerings. Regardless, 5G standards will undoubtedly remain an area of US-China strategic competition in the future.

Learn more and listen to the podcast episode—available today.