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Foreign Policy

China’s Footprint in the Middle East

Nov 24, 2021

In the past decade, China has significantly increased its economic, political, and security footprint in the Middle East. A June 2021 article in the Business Standard even claims that “China challenges the US position as most important partner for the Middle East.” When the United States shifted its foreign policy to pull back from engaging with the region, a shift started by the Obama administration and accelerated by his successor, it predictably created a political power vacuum. It is not surprising that China, the world’s second largest economy, stepped in to fill that vacuum, in large part through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While BRI has global reach, its presence in the Middle East is especially significant because of the region’s oil supply. China is currently the single largest buyer for Middle Eastern oil, making China increasingly important to oil producers and the governments that rely on Chinese purchases. This relationship is symbiotic. China’s dependence on oil and gas to fuel its breakneck economic growth cannot be understated. Oil and gas-centered economies such as Iran’s are struggling under the collapse of global oil prices and the damaging effects of U.S. sanctions and political instability. Chinese-Arab partnerships also include mega-investment projects such as the China-Egypt TEDA Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone, the development of the UAE’s Khalifa Port, and technology projects such as Smart Dubai 2021, and the National Transformation Program 2030 in Saudi Arabia. 

In addition, Beijing has readily developed strategic partnerships with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and even Iran, signing a 25-year cooperation plan with Tehran. This deal with Iran is of significant note as both China and Iran are subject to U.S. sanctions, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi going as far as to say that Chinese-Iranian partnership will be “permanent and strategic.” As of 2021, China is the largest investor in the region, and the largest trading partner with the Arab League. Chinese exports to Arab countries are estimated at about $123.1 billion, over 60% of which are electromechanical and high-tech products. In fact, bilateral trade value between China and the Middle East amounted to over $200 billion in 2020. 

Political analysts have been analyzing U.S.-China relations in the wake of the Trump-initiated and Biden-sustained trade war between the two countries, and the Biden administration’s apparent inability to provide a clear way forward on the issue. During this time, Beijing has engaged in what Jonathan Fulton, faculty at Zayed University, calls it a “flurry of diplomatic activity.” These relationships are not entirely new. It is worth noting that while China’s interest in the Middle East certainly reached new heights after the 2011 Arab Spring, Beijing has maintained meaningful engagement with the region years before. Examples include the establishment of the China Arab States Cooperation Forum in 2004, China’s 2006 contribution to UN peacekeeping forces in Lebanon, naval contribution to the anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden in 2008, and the construction of the Mecca monorail project in 2010. Even with just this limited set of examples, it is clear that Sino-Arab relations have only evolved, with economic ties growing significantly stronger. 

A 2019 European Council on Foreign Relations publication presents an alternate opinion. Quoting Degang Sun, a professor at Shanghai International Studies University, the publication posits that “China is not quite as important to the Middle East as it can sometimes seem to be,” and that that Middle Eastern regimes, often monarchies or dictatorships, see cooperation with China “as a means to resist Western pressure to pursue governance reforms and human rights accountability in return for development aid and investment.” Sun states that their relationship with China has acted as a bargaining chip for Middle Eastern governments as they interact with the United States, and therefore, there is an advantage to both sides in over-exaggerating Chinese influence in the region. Coupled with the fact that Chinese investment in the region is skewed heavily towards economic and diplomatic cooperation, by-and-large steering clear of security matters, or “devoid of lectures about democracy,” this implies that China may not be interested in getting involved in the region’s messy geopolitics. By allowing regional security to remain the responsibility of the United States, China has limited the scope of its footprint in the region, but also benefited immensely by maintaining high rankings in Arab opinion polls. According to The Atlantic, “China would undoubtedly like to see American influence wane in the Middle East, but because the region remains crucial for Beijing’s energy security, stability is key. For now, that means avoiding confrontation with Washington.” 

With that being the case, it is safe to assume that while China has definitely begun an active effort to deepen ties with Middle Eastern countries, this effort is limited to the economic and diplomatic realms. As for the U.S., its military superiority in the Middle East will probably remain unchallenged in the near future. Arab states that have traditionally relied on the U.S. for security matters will remain so, but will now have a new direction to turn when it comes to looking for development initiatives and funding. Chinese interests regarding geopolitics are largely focused on preventing any conflicts or flare-ups that will destabilize supply chains, cause infrastructure damage, or affect Chinese exports to the United States – all economic interests. This will likely remain the case for the near future.

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