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Rise of the dragon
Explaining the increase of CHinese influence in the Middle East
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On March 10, 2023, the Saudi and the Iranian foreign ministers signed an agreement in which they restored diplomatic relations. More than two weeks later, China welcomed an agreement in which Syria and Saudi Arabia did the same.
Chinese delegation mediating between Saudi Arabia and China. Source: @descifraguerra
These two incidents come in the midst of an increase of Chinese involvement in the Middle East, especially regarding diplomacy. During his trip to the Middle East back in July 2022, US President Joe Biden mentioned that one of his priorities was to counter Beijing.
In this article, I want to talk you about the recent Chinese involvement in this complex region. I will mention what China has recently done in the Middle East, why it has gained so much power, its interests, and the implications of this.
The mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore relations is perhaps the most symbolic action in the Middle East by China. However, it is not the only one, and its actions are not limited to the diplomatic field. They have embraced the economical field too. China has also supported industrialization in the region.
China has tried to push Middle Eastern leaders to focus on economic development rather than regional rivalries. For example, at the same time that it has called Israel to stop incitement or provocations and avoid unilateral actions; or mediated between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it has invested billions of dollars in places like the Suez Canal as part of the Belt and Road Initiative; or built the China-Egypt Teda Suez Economic Agreement and Trade Cooperation Zone. In 2021 Beijing signed a 25 year long 400 million USD cooperation agreement with Iran.
Beijing has also sought some military power in the Middle East. For example, it conducted naval drills with Iran; it sent vessels to Iran, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Xi Ji Ping opened a naval base in Djibouti back in 2017, guarding the gateway from the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean. He also tried to build a military facility in the United Arab Emirates to guard the Straight of Hormuz.
Chinese drills with Iran in the Arabian Sea. Source: NIC Team “Watching the Frontline”
Chinese diplomacy has been quite active in the region. It has engaged with countries in the FOCAC (Forum on Africa-China Cooperation), including North African States. It has also engaged in the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF), which meets every two years. It includes all Arab league states, and discusses conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan and Libya.
China has also been trying to be involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Beijing proposed back in 2021 a deal implying a two-state solution with 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as Palestinian capital; ending Israeli expansion, and pushing for international efforts facilitating peace and cooperation between the two sides.
Soft power has been quite present in the Chinese strategy for the Middle East. 23 Confucious Institutes were established in the region back in 2020. China has also offered scolarships to study there as part of its educational diplomacy. The pandemic served China to consolidate its influence in the region via vaccine diplomacy.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The rise of Chinese influence in the Middle East can be attributed to oportunistic movements from Beijing, failures by some other powers, and Chinese diplomacy. Xi Ji ping’s strategy has been aiming for China to move closer to the center stage.
The diplomatic creativity of Saudi Arabia has caught Chinese attention. China also set the kingdom as the second largest recipient of Chinese One Belt One Road initiative investment. One of the conditions by the Saudis to establish relations with Israel was the construction of a civil nuclear reactor. China is the country that builds more reactors, so it may want to take part on this in Saudi Arabia.
Source: Slavyangrad Chat
China may be responding to signals showing US weakness in the Middle East diplomacy. Thus, countries like Saudi Arabia have been feeling that Washington DC is not capable of protecting them and are turning to Beijing. In return for participating in the Chinese economic order, the Gulf States get in China an alternative to the US to manage the Iranian threat.
One of the main reasons for the growth of Chinese influence in the Middle East has been the US failure in the region. Washington DC has failed to defuse tensions, prevent wars, and end conflicts. China capitalized on the 2003 US led invasion of Iraq, and followed a strategy to shun Western ideals and US interests when it comes to engage in the region. All this has paved the way for China to portray itself as a reliable peacemaker. The Biden administration has also assumed that China and the US can together pacify the region.
Chinese foreign policy has been welcome in the Middle East, since unlike the US, China has not criticized human rights abuses in the region. Beijing has stated its compromise to national sovereignity and non interference, making Middle Eastern regimes confortable with Beijing.
China also has integrated its Belt and Road Initiative with the Gulf Cooperation Council national visions, like Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030. China has good relations with countries like Iran and Israel. This allowed Beijing to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran. China has not fully taken sides in civil wars, unlike Russia and the US. It neither operates trhough aliances, but carries out security cooperation with all parties.
Belt and Road Initiative. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Beijing also has comprehensive strategic partnerships with countries like Algeria, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. With other countries it has strategic partnerships, and on the other hand, it has a comprehensive innovative partnership with Israel.
Iran is dependant on China for manufactured goods, weapons, and missile technology. Western sanctions allow China to establish a monopoly.
Beijing has also been able to gain power in the region because the US is distracted with the Indo Pacific region and the war in Ukraine.
China has also grown its print in technology and trade.
The country is getting involved at this level in the region because it has interests to protect. It also aims to have economic, military, political, and international security cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council.
China seeks to protect its investments and commercial interests in the region. Indeed, a big part of its interests are regarding business in the Middle East. Egypt takes a big role here, having a big level of trade with the Asian Giant. The Canal is part of the OBOR Initiative. China has in Cairo a 59 billion administrative capital east of the city, as part of the deal with the state owned China Construction Engineering Corp. Beijing also wants Egypt as a lynchpin of its One Belt One Road Initiative in order to expand access for its goods into European and African markets.
It also aims to do business with Saudi Arabia. As mentioned before, the nuclear reactor business can work well with Riyadh. Beijing is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, while the latest is China’s trading partner. At the same time, the kingdom is the Asian giant’s largest oil supplier.
Energy is one of the big Chinese interests in the region, since Beijing depends on energy that originates from the Middle East or transits through it. China gets 40 percent of the hydrocarbons from there. Beijing wants to boost energy production by attracting Gulf Cooperation Council investments, technology and expertise. Beijing needs resources in order to fuel its economic growth. It is also interested on Iranian oil.
The Chinese security and military interests in the Middle East are also important, with energetical interests connected to these. First of all, Beijing aims to maintain calm in the region in order to keep the oil flowing. The Asian Giant is also interested in having a military presence in the Western Indian Ocean for having leverage over India. A naval presence inside also guarantees sustained flow of oil and trade. China also looks for security cooperation with Egypt.
The Middle East also plays a special role in the economic vision that Xi Ji Ping that has and will run parallel to the US led economic order.
China also wants the other countries to have a good perception of it, projecting the image of a “responsible superpower”. Beijing wants to build credibility as a capable partner in the region that at times has protested American security disengagement and bemoaned Washington’s strategic neglect. Xi Ji Ping’s long term goal is to portray his country’s leadership as an alternative to the US and it has been well received in the region. It wants to display that it is a great power have a signature achievement for Xi Ji Ping’s plan of a “community with a shared future of mankind”.
Beijing conditions its relations in the Middle East in exchange for support for its policy in Xinjiang, and the extradition of members of Chinese Muslim minorities and dissidents from the MENA region. China ultimately pretends to undermine American power and remake the global order.
There are several implications about the growing Chinese involvement in the Middle East, which could be foreshadowing some things to come.
We open with the implications for the US. First of all, this could mean that Washington DC could be displaced as a hegemon. The Middle East was considered a central place in the US conception of global power. Chinese railway’s and port’s infrastructure could limit or even deny the US and Western countries access to the Middle Eastern resources of oil and gas.
Countries that are traditional allies of the US, like Saudi Arabia, could even be more turned away. The Chinese brokered Riyadh-Tehran deal has been characterized by critics of the Biden administration, Beijing and Moscow as a setback for the US influence and status in the region and around the world. This could represent a setback for those who defend the liberal democratic system, since China consolidates its position of global authoritarianism. At the same time, this goes onto the decline of liberal democracy.
Since they are not willing to replace the West with Beijing, the Gulf States will have to balance between the West and China. They will have a multivectorialist foreign policy. Also, Iran is still considered a threat by Gulf countries. Thus, China will have also to find a balance between them.
Xi Ji Ping and his diplomatic team will be viewed as promoters of peace and stability. Trade and energy dependance could turn China into an active security actor in the Middle East. The Chinese president will continue to press ahead with his country’s leadership.
There is another implication for the region, and not really for Beijing. The Chinese brokered agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia could impact conflicts in Syria and Yemen. This paves the way for Chinese diplomacy playing a greater role in the Middle East. Other regional actors could turn to China to help them find common ground for commitments to trade rather than keep fighting.
Source: Lord of War
There are also military results on this. China will expand its arms sales, having cooperation ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Drones and missiles are included. They might work on joint military exercises, greater intelligence sharing, and satellite communications. Beijing could also help the Saudis develop a ballistic system.
China will still be cautious regarding Iran. Therefore, it won’t risk facing sanctions for working in Tehran’s oil sector, which is still considered a high risk market.
This influence is not risk-free for China. The US can use China’s overreliance on the Gulf as leverage over its rival from Washington’s security influence in the Gulf. It can also put pressure on the Gulf Cooperation Council to potentially restrict flows of oil and gas to the Asian Giant.
We can see that the main actions of China in the Middle East have been in the economic and military sector. The diplomatic actions have been just recently. The Middle East plays a great role in the One Belt One Road Chinese initiative.
The rise of China can be attributed both to the US failure and Chinese opportunism. The conflictive US role in the region has caused this country to be unpopular, and this chance has been taken by China, who has good relations most all countries of the region.
The Chinese interests are in the security, energetical, economical and political issues. The energetical interests are almost critical to China if it wants to keep its growth. The security interests are close to these.
This could be soon turned into a power game between the US and China. The chances of the US being displaced by China from the Middle East are not that high as thought. China has a lot of potential to exploit in diplomacy. We can expect more agreements brokered by China, and Beijing being included at least in the negotiations. It remains to be seen if other actors will turn also to China.
Guillermo is a journalist, writer and independent international analyst. If you like what you read, please support him by donating:
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