As America recalibrates its terms of engagement with the Middle East, China has gradually expanded its influence in ways that could alter the very character of the regional order.
The explosion of diplomatic activity between China and Middle Eastern countries that captured media attention in January this year is emblematic of this trend.
At the same time, China wants to portray itself as another sort of great power. Shortly after the flurry of diplomatic activity, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters that “there is never a ‘power vacuum’ ‘in the Middle East’ and that there is no ‘there is no need for ‘external patriarchy'”.
Wang was sure to mention that “the region is suffering from long-standing unrest and conflict due to foreign intervention,” alluding to the long-held belief among Chinese officials and policymakers that the U.S. presence in the region has been a destabilizing force.
China’s state-run media apparatus has helped reinforce these perceptions. In a Global Times article covering recent developments between China and the region, Zhang Han wrote that “the United States is continuously cultivating the region for its own interests and planting the seeds of democracy, creating chaos and conflict.” . In contrast, “China has no enemies, only friends in the Middle East,” Zhang proclaimed.
Chinese officials have traditionally been reluctant to challenge the United States in the Middle East, primarily because America has provided security by protecting China’s interests. Against the backdrop of renewed great-power competition and the perception that the United States is withdrawing its support for security, Beijing’s calculations appear to have changed.
As scholars of history, Chinese officials have long been wary of getting drawn into what many on the mainland see as a “chaotic and dangerous graveyard of empires”. China’s approach in the region has therefore always been cautious, guided by the principles of strategic hedging. Beijing has sought to foster cordial relations with all countries in the region, establish deep economic ties, garner political capital, and gradually increase its influence and influence.
Interests run deep
Beijing’s interests in the region today run deep. China depends on the Middle East to get about half the energy it needs to fuel its continued development and increasingly relies on countries like Qatar to ensure a steady supply of natural gas to the continent.
The East Asian giant’s trade with the Gulf states exceeded $200 billion last year, making it the oil-rich region’s biggest trading partner. Meanwhile, it is estimated that up to 60% of Chinese exports to Middle Eastern countries pass through the United Arab Emirates.
In the Levant, China is the first source of imports for Egypt, Israel and Lebanon, and the second for Turkey, Syria and Jordan. In just two decades, the value of Chinese exports to these six countries has nearly doubled, from $4.2 billion in 2000 to $53.4 billion in 2020.
Countries in the region have tapped Huawei and Alibaba to build everything from smart cities and renewable energy infrastructure to fifth-generation telecommunications networks.
As America withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in 2021, China doubled down on economic cooperation. According to a recent report on investment in China’s Belt and Road Initiative by Fudan University’s Center for Green Finance and Development, “Arab and Middle Eastern countries have seen increased investment by around 360% and their commitment to construction by 116%” compared to 2020.
Syria recently signed a Belt and Road cooperation agreement with Beijing, while Morocco signed an implementation plan for the initiative with Beijing. These moves suggest that such engagement will continue to increase throughout 2022.
China has certainly influenced the regional security architecture, albeit modestly. Beijing understands it must protect shipments of goods and oil passing through critical maritime chokepoints en route to China and prevent “terrorism, separatism and extremism” from spilling over its borders.
To this end, the Chinese Navy has been active in the Gulf of Aden since 2008, and its military base in Djibouti has been expanded and upgraded to accommodate aircraft carriers. Reports that China is sending special forces units to Syria have surfaced since 2017, and joint military exercises between China, Russia and Iran last January have become commonplace.
Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that Iran would become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Keen to maintain its delicate regional balance, Beijing was sure to include China’s other friends in the club, admitting Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar as dialogue partners.
Recent reports note that China is helping Saudi Arabia advance its ballistic missile program while continuing the 25-year, $400 billion strategic partnership with Iran – another sign of Beijing’s willingness to maintain a balanced approach to the region.
Centenary American model
Despite China’s nascent but growing regional military presence, Beijing seems intent on maintaining its focus on the economy while letting others, especially Russia, provide security guarantees. According to Zhang, “Russia has been a notable presence in the Middle East, particularly in Syria.” He added that “close coordination between China and Russia can avoid political contradictions and stabilize the region.”
China in the Middle East today parallels America’s position in the region in the late 1920s, when Britain and France were the dominant foreign military powers. Over the next quarter century, European power declined. The United States stepped in as the dominant force in the Middle East, protecting the interests it had cultivated and nurtured over the previous four decades.
While the world looks very different today, the need for great powers to advance national interests in the Middle East remains a compelling force that could see China reshape the regional architecture of the Middle East.
Carice Witte is the Founder and Executive Director of SIGNAL, Sino Israel Global Network & Academic Leadership. Dale Aluf is Director of Research and Strategy at SIGNAL. A longer version of this article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.