February 15, 2023
Full throttle in neutral: China’s new security architecture for the Middle East
This report addresses two widely held beliefs about the nature of China’s engagement in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) that ought to be revisited in light of notable developments. First, while it is widely assumed that Beijing’s interests in the region are limited to energy security and economic ties, this report will show how cooperation has expanded in recent years across the board. Indeed, China has been fortifying its strategic ties and expanding its cooperation by heavily investing in local Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, as well as the infrastructure and technologies of the future. In doing so, it seeks to further integrate each nation’s development strategy with its own.
Second, this report will review the assumption that there is no substitute for the United States’ security and diplomatic dominance in the region. It will describe how China currently provides limited security alternatives that directly and indirectly undermine US dominance, even without displacing it. Moreover, it will illustrate how China’s expanding presence has resulted in a firmer determination to get more involved in regional security and politics, most notably through Xi Jinping’s Global Security Initiative and New Security Architecture for the Middle East.
This report will begin by providing an up-to-date and comprehensive analysis of China’s increased engagement and increased sense of urgency in the Middle East. The discussion will then turn to internal Chinese debates about stepping up security and political involvement, highlighting a shared belief among Chinese MENA scholars that these measures are necessary. Using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Gulf security as case studies, it reveals the stark disparity between Beijing’s words and deeds. Furthermore, it outlines what the future Chinese strategy might entail, and why its current form does a disservice to its stated objectives of regional peace and security.
Nevertheless, even though China currently lacks the capacity and will to replace the United States’ long-established integrated deterrence and alliance networks, its new initiatives should not be overlooked. Real power is steadily catching up to the willpower to undercut US hegemony, posing challenges to the United States MENA approach and to its regional allies and partners. The article concludes with the following key recommendations for US policymakers.
- Empower US allies and partners to make informed decisions regarding Chinese alternatives and promote risk management while limiting any adverse effects on US strategic priorities in the Middle East and their own national interests.
- Promote the agency of regional partners and allies by encouraging them to clarify to Beijing that they will not participate in Chinese initiatives that compromise the US-led security architecture essential to the region’s peace and stability.
- Allow for the possibility of China and the United States working independently in the region for its benefit, rather than looking for US allies and partners to reject Chinese development options.
- Broaden the conversation about US engagement beyond security, and match it with transparency and public exposure to dispel false narratives about US withdrawal or a purported sole focus on security affairs.
China’s expanding interests in the Middle East
Xi Jinping, the leader of the People’s Republic of China, arrived in Saudi Arabia on December 7, 2022, to lead three summit meetings with the host country, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and leaders of twenty-one of the twenty-two Arab League members (Syria was absent). During the visit, China and Saudi Arabia signed memoranda of understanding worth tens of billions of dollars, and the two sides reached a comprehensive cooperation plan encompassing 182 cooperative measures in eighteen fields, such as politics, the economy, trade, and investment.
In addition to joint statements issued by all sides, Xi proposed eight major joint actions for pragmatic Sino-Arab cooperation spanning eight sectors, including development and security, along with fifty-six specific cooperative initiatives. Although all participants had their own reasons for overstating the trip’s significance, there is no denying how far China and other MENA countries have come in recent decades.
The disruption of global energy flows that came after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has emphasized the strategic significance of traditional energy to stakeholders around the globe. The Arab world, in particular, has grown in importance for China, a net energy importer since 1993. China continues to be the largest consumer of fossil fuels in the world, importing more than 70 percent of its oil and 40 percent of its natural gas, with Saudi Arabia making up about one-fifth of the total.1Oceana Zhou, “China Data: July Crude Throughput Hits 28-Month Low of 12.6 Mil b/d,” S&P Global Commodity Insights, August 15, 2022, https://www.spglobal.com/commodityinsights/en/market-insights/latest-news/oil/081522-china-data-july-crude-throughput-hits-28-month-low-of-126-mil-bd. Just prior to Xi’s visit, China and Qatar inked a $60-billion, twenty-seven-year agreement to supply China with four million tons of liquefied natural gas (LNG) annually.
But over the last decade, China’s interests in the Middle East have grown far beyond energy security. China has been the Arab world’s largest trading partner since 2020, surpassing $330 billion in two-way trade in 2021.2“Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning’s Regular Press Conference,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, December 9, 2022, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2511_665403/202212/t20221209_10988054.html. It was the largest foreign investor in the Middle East during Xi’s first visit to the region in 2016, with $29.5 billion (including construction), though the upward trend has sharply decelerated and foreign direct investment (FDI) flows have remained at roughly $5.5 billion since 2009.3Katarzyna W. Sidlo, “The Role of China in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Beyond Economic Interests?” IEMed, July 20, 2020, https://www.iemed.org/publication/the-role-of-china-in-the-middle-east-and-north-africa-mena-beyond-economic-interests/#_ftn17.
A twenty-five-year agreement signed by China and Iran in March 2021 as part of their Comprehensive Strategic Partnership sparked much controversy in the West. But, over the years, China has signed similar strategic partnerships with twelve Arab MENA countries, and it boasts unparalleled cordial ties with all parties in the conflict-torn region, including Tehran’s adversaries.
China has been careful to maintain what Wu Bingbing refers to as a “positive balance” in its engagement with the region, i.e., “not choosing sides, nor making enemies.”4Bingbing Wu, “Professor at Peking University: The First Sino-Arab Summit Has Significant Implications, but We Should be Overly Optimistic in Two Cases,” Guancha, December 10, 2022, https://k.sina.com.cn/article_1887344341_707e96d501901bsoc.html. This is consistent with the country’s long-standing policy of “non-interference.” Nonetheless, China has demonstrated an increasing willingness to participate in security mediation in Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.5Camille Lons, et al., “China’s Great Game in the Middle East,” European Council on Foreign Relations, October 21, 2019, https://ecfr.eu/publication/china_great_game_middle_east/.
Most notably, China actively participated in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) and the moot negotiations for its revival.6John W. Garver, “China and the Iran Nuclear Negotiations: Beijing’s Mediation Effort,” in James Reardon-Anderson, ed., The Red Star and the Crescent: China and the Middle East (London: Hurst, 2018), 123–148. It also has not shied away from using its United Nations (UN) Security Council veto ten times to stymie Western initiatives regarding the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, to the consternation of its neighbors.
Incidentally, in early 2022, Syria joined nineteen other Arab nations by signing up for Xi’s BRI. In 2021, Iraq reportedly became China’s top BRI destination, receiving $10.5 billion in contracts and signaling a stronger Chinese vote of confidence for the region.7“Iraq Was Top Target of China’s Belt & Road in 2021—Study,” Reuters, February 2, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/china/iraq-was-top-target-chinas-belt-road-2021-study-2022-02-02/.
More than two hundred large-scale infrastructure and energy projects have been completed in the region since the Chinese leader announced the trillion-dollar initiative in 2013.8“Report on Sino-Arab Cooperation in a New Era,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, December, 1, 2022, http://www.chinaarabcf.org/chn/zagx/zajw/202212/t20221201_10984018.htm. For all their significant implementation challenges, many of the BRI’s “hard connectivity” and “soft connectivity” targets have been accomplished.9Ammar A. Malik, et al., “Banking on the Belt and Road: Insights from a New Global Dataset of 13,427 Chinese Development Projects,” AidData, College of William & Mary, 2021, 23–36, https://www.aiddata.org/publications/banking-on-the-belt-and-road.
The MENA region is crisscrossed by Chinese-built or bankrolled ports, railways, highways, power stations, pipelines, landmarks, and even entire cities. All leveraged the agglomeration effect from a hub and spoke of Chinese-led industrial parks, ports, and free-trade zones linking East and West, from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea.10Jonathan Fulton, “China’s Emergence as a Middle East Power,” in Routledge Handbook on China–Middle East Relations (London: Routledge, 2021), 3–12.
More than concrete and rebar, over the past decade, China has been laying the groundwork for the infrastructure and technologies of the future. It has formed a web of “Silk Roads” spanning multiple fields: the digital and data domains with smart-city grids, submarine fiber-optic cables, 4G and 5G communications, artificial intelligence (AI), and cloud and quantum computing; the health sector with vaccine manufacturing and distribution hubs; outer space through joint satellite launches, lunar explorations, and cooperation on the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System; and the Green Silk Road of new energy, helping wean the region off its reliance on fossil fuels by harnessing solar, hydro, wind, and nuclear technologies.11Meia Nouwens, et al., “China’s Digital Silk Road: Integration into National IT Infrastructure and Wider Implications for Western Defence Industries,” International Institute for Strategic Studies, February 11, 2021, https://www.iiss.org/blogs/research-paper/2021/02/china-digital-silk-road-implications-for-defence-industry; John Calabrese, “China’s Health Silk Road and the BRI Agenda in the Middle East,” Middle East Institute, 2022, https://www.mei.edu/publications/chinas-health-silk-road-and-bri-agenda-middle-east; Michael S. Chase, “The Space and Cyberspace Components of the Belt and Road Initiative,” National Bureau of Asian Research, 2019, 19–32, https://www.nbr.org/publication/the-space-and-cyberspace-components-of-the-belt-and-road-initiative; “Responding to Climate Change: China’s Policies and Actions,” State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, October 27, 2021, http://english.www.gov.cn/archive/whitepaper/202110/27/content_WS617916abc6d0df57f98e3f3b.html.
Recent years saw a steady stream of Middle Eastern officials’ diplomatic blitzes to and from Beijing. Countless international forums, trade expos, memoranda of understanding (MoUs), and dialogues augment these visits and, in turn, facilitate the BRI’s stated goals of policy communication, trade, financial integration, and people-to-people ties. Most significantly, Chinese leadership is committed to merging the BRI with regional development strategies, such as Saudi Arabia’s, Qatar’s, and Egypt’s respective Vision 2030, further tying those countries’ fates to its own.12“Full Text of Xi’s Signed Article on Saudi Media,” Xinhua, December 8, 2022, https://english.news.cn/20221208/cc10b8d41b3749a78ec981ceeda6b26b/c.html.
China has traditionally seen MENA, a region with a high concentration of “non-Western” Global South countries, as a partner to counteract what it considers the North’s undue influence.13“Report on Sino-Arab Cooperation in a New Era.” Nowhere is this more evident than in issues surrounding what Beijing considers its “core interests,” such as support for its views on Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang. When China’s foreign minister is fêted by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), accusations of genocide and crimes against humanity lose their sting.14“Organization of Islamic Cooperation Accused of Ignoring Uyghur Muslims in China,” Voice of America, March 25, 2022, https://www.voanews.com/a/organization-of-islamic-cooperation-accused-of-ignoring-uyghur-muslims-in-china/6501070.html.
Protecting China’s interests
China’s interests in the MENA region have, thus, grown dramatically, as has its desire to protect them.15Andrea Ghiselli, Protecting China’s Interests Overseas: Securitization and Foreign Policy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021). The most glaring case is the thirty-five thousand Chinese citizens who were stranded and imperiled in Libya during the high tide of the Arab Spring, putting at risk billions of dollars worth of investments by Chinese state-owned businesses and policy banks.
Following a series of murders and kidnappings of Chinese expatriates and sailors, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has escorted more than seven thousand Chinese and foreign ships in forty-one task forces since 2008, honing its navy’s experience and capabilities in the process.16Yuandan Guo and Xuanzun Liu, “PLA Navy’s 14 years of Missions in Blue Waters Safeguard Intl Trade Routes, Win More Overseas Recognition,” Global Times, August 1, 2022, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202208/1271933.shtml; “China’s Escort Capability Significantly Improved after 10 Years of Escort Missions,” People’s Daily, December 26, 2018, http://en.people.cn/n3/2018/1226/c90000-9532158.html. For a country that has not fought a war since the late 1970s, China’s participation in UN peacekeeping missions provides the PLA with additional valuable “practice runs,” with the country contributing more than fifty thousand personnel to twenty-nine former and ongoing peacekeeping operations as of 2021.17“China Touts Role in UN Peacekeeping, Middle East Peace,” Associated Press, June 25, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/united-nations-middle-east-china-government-and-politics-6014343ada529a978436dec343c1f04e.
In 2017, the PLA set up its first overseas military base in Djibouti, a stone’s throw away from the US military’s Camp Lemonnier, the nerve center of its Combined Joint Task Force—Horn of Africa. With a maximum capacity of seven thousand people, the soi-disant “logistical support base” has been working nonstop throughout the pandemic to expand its facilities and deep-water berths to accommodate power-projection aircrafts and vessels.18Tuvia Gering and Heath Sloane, “Beijing’s Overseas Military Base in Djibouti,” MEMRI, July 16, 2021, https://www.memri.org/reports/beijings-overseas-military-base-djibouti#_edn40.
While Chinese officials have denied reports of planned PLA bases in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, the Pentagon designated Djibouti as only the first step in China’s military expansion.19“Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China: 2020,” US Department of Defense, September 4, 2020, https://media.defense.gov/2020/Sep/01/2002488689/-1/-1/1/2020-DOD-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT-FINAL.PDF. Oman, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Yemen are listed in the “medium” categories of a recent model used to determine where China might establish new bases, based on feasibility and desirability by Beijing. Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are ranked “low.”20Cristina L. Garafola, Stephen Watts, and Kristin J. Leuschner, “China’s Global Basing Ambitions Defense Implications for the United States,” RAND, December 2022, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA1496-1.html.
Although the figures clearly show that the countries in the region prefer Western-made weapons, Chinese arms exports also increased. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the United States accounted for more than half of all Middle Eastern arms imports between 2017 and 2021, compared to 12 percent from France and 11 percent from Russia. Conversely, China’s exports to the Middle East are in the single digits, similar to its global exports. It ranks fourth with 4.6 percent of all arms exports, with half going to neighboring Pakistan.21Pieter D. Wezeman, Alexandra Kuimova and Siemon T. Wezeman, “Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2021,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, March 2022, https://www.sipri.org/publications/2022/sipri-fact-sheets/trends-international-arms-transfers-2021.
Nonetheless, the last decade’s tensions with the United States and the West have encouraged countries to reduce their security reliance and diversify their supply sources. The need became more pressing after the United States halted the export of drones and fighter jets in recent years, which boosted the sales efforts of military industries in the European Union, Russia, China, and Israel. This explains why, despite a decline in Chinese defense exports due to COVID-19, China’s exports to Saudi Arabia and the UAE have increased by 290 percent and 77 percent, respectively, in the last five years.22Ibid.
The quality of the Chinese offering increased with the quantity. In some weapons and systems, it does not fall short of the offering from Russia and the West, which can explain China’s control of 80 percent of the arms market share in the Asia-Oceania region.23Ibid. From small arms and semiconductors to stealth fighter jets, aircraft carriers, and satellites, Chinese state-owned defense conglomerates have long surpassed Russia’s market share in the PLA and security forces.
The PLA Army Rocket Force also benefits from local supplies, and China’s long-range missile capabilities are among the best in the world. In recent years, the nation has also emerged as a leader in the development of drones, hypersonics, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and is gradually entering the manned-aircraft market with domestically produced engines. Chinese military and commercial shipyards now control the entire maritime supply chain, including ships, tankers, and cranes, thanks to more than $130 billion in subsidies over the last decade alone.24Jude Blanchette, et al., “Hidden Harbors: China’s State-backed Shipping Industry,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 8, 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/hidden-harbors-chinas-state-backed-shipping-industry.
Chinese drones have also made their way to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iranian proxies in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.25CNBC, “LIVE: Senate holds a hearing examining China’s role in the Middle East [Video],” YouTube, August 4, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hP9s069ZXl8&t=1s&ab_channel=CNBCTelevision. Teheran’s adversaries benefited as well. Last March, Saudi and Chinese manufacturers signed a massive agreement to establish Saudi Arabia’s first drone factory as part of a national effort to divert half of total military spending to domestic production by 2030. This report adds to satellite images and intelligence sources that revealed in late 2021 that China is heavily assisting Saudi Arabia in the domestic development of ballistic missiles, roughly a decade after it assisted Iran in establishing a similar project to create anti-ship missiles. China has also sold planes, drones, and missiles to the armies of the UAE, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Morocco, and Algeria.
Military visits and exercises have also increased in the last ten years, albeit still on a much smaller scale than those of the United States. In November 2019, the Chinese military held a three-week joint naval drill with its alternate top oil supplier, Saudi Arabia, which was quickly followed by a trilateral training with Iran and Russia. Another naval exercise with Moscow and Tehran was held in the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean in early 2022. A senior Chinese military delegation headed by General Wei Fenghe, China’s state councilor and minister of national defense, arrived in Iran in late April amid the stalled nuclear negotiations.
During Xi’s December visit, China and Saudi Arabia issued a joint statement emphasizing the importance of expanding bilateral cooperation in military and security fields, focusing on combating terrorism and extremism and maintaining regional peace and stability. At the same summit, China stated that it would assist Gulf states in maintaining their security, resolving disputes peacefully, and developing a new and comprehensive security architecture for the Gulf. During the summit with Arab League states, Xi announced “eight major cooperation initiatives,” including strengthening strategic dialogue and contacts between militaries, fostering interpersonal relations between defense and security ministries, and expanding joint exercises.26“President Xi Proposes ‘Eight Major Common Actions’ for China-Arab Cooperation,” CGTN, December 10, 2022, https://newsus.cgtn.com/news/2022-12-10/Xi-proposes-Eight-Major-Common-Actions-for-China-Arab-cooperation-1fDvC4nvOpO/index.html.
Additionally, China and Middle Eastern countries are collaborating more on nontraditional security. Besides joint efforts to battle COVID-19 and climate change, there has been an uptick in bilateral counterterrorism training and cooperation on cyber and digital security, as evidenced by the 2021 signing of the China-League of Arab States Data Security Cooperation Initiative.27“China-League of Arab States Cooperation Initiative on Data Security,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, March 29, 2021, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjdt_665385/2649_665393/202103/t20210329_9170559.html.
The three summits discussed the possibility of China conducting network security training for fifteen hundred Arab participants. They also discussed cooperation in the fight against organized crime, countering terrorism and extremism, coordinating efforts, and exchanging knowledge in the fields of early-warning risk intelligence, security risk assessment, and cybercrime prevention.28“President Xi Jinping Attends First China-GCC Summit and Delivers Keynote Speech,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, December 10, 2022, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/202212/t20221210_10988406.html. 29“Riyadh Arab-China Summit for Cooperation and Development Issues Final Statement,” Bahrain News Agency, December 9, 2022, https://www.bna.bh/en/RiyadhArabChinaSummitforCooperationandDevelopmentissuesfinalstatement.aspx?cms=q8FmFJgiscL2fwIzON1%2BDhyE6Gia3lUz8l0HZGN9eSs%3D.
Dual-use technologies may also fall under the purview of security cooperation. This is particularly true in light of the securitization of innovation under Xi and the focus he gave the areas of space, data, and communications during his most recent trip to the Gulf. Most eyes were fixed on the communications behemoth Huawei and the advanced infrastructure it is constructing in the Gulf and Iran.
In the week preceding Xi’s visit, the company—which continues to deny ties to China’s military industry and intelligence mechanisms—announced the completion of the deployment of 5G infrastructure in the kingdom for fast surfing, and signed a memorandum of understanding on cloud-computing technologies and the establishment of high-tech complexes. Huawei is also essential for realizing the most ambitious elements of the Digital Silk Road through the submarine optical-fiber cable known as PEACE. In addition to playing a crucial role in the emerging digital economy, the cable holds the potential to “cut, disrupt, divert, or monitor” the information that passes through it.30Thomas Blaubach, “Connecting Beijing’s Global Infrastructure: The PEACE Cable in the Middle East and North Africa,” Middle East Institute, March 7, 2022, https://www.mei.edu/publications/connecting-beijings-global-infrastructure-peace-cable-middle-east-and-north-africa.
The fourth point dealt with aviation and space, including a commitment to carry out a series of remote-sensing and satellite-communications projects in the Gulf, as well as the utilization of space resources and the expansion of space infrastructure. Although civilian on the surface, such collaborations can have distinct military applications. Iran and Pakistan, for example, have exclusive access to military-grade information from China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, which improves their intelligence capabilities and precision-guided weaponry.31Heath Sloane, “Droning On: China Floods the Middle East With UAVs,” Diplomat, September 2, 2022, https://thediplomat.com/2022/09/droning-on-china-floods-the-middle-east-with-uavs/.
The “global war on terror” has enabled the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to justify its brutal treatment of Muslim minorities. Chinese sources claim that, since the 1990s, thousands of terrorist attacks have taken place in China’s ethnic-minority regions, and foreign sources have documented the existence of militant Chinese Muslims throughout Central Asia, Iraq, and Syria.
The ostensibly secular Chinese leadership is concerned that extremism and separatism from Central Asia and the Middle East will bleed into its territory or endanger Chinese citizens and projects beyond the borders, leading it to regard cooperation with Arab countries and the Muslim world in the fight against terrorism as a national imperative.
In recent years, China has signed cooperation agreements, trained security officials, researchers, and military personnel, and established Chinese branches for PLA academies and colleges.32Murray Scot Tanner and James Bellacqua, “China’s Response to Terrorism,” Center for Naval Analyses, June 2016, https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/Research/Chinas%20Response%20to%20Terrorism_CNA061616.pdf; Erica Marat, “China’s Expanding Military Education Diplomacy in Central Asia,” Ponars Eurasia, April 19, 2021, https://www.ponarseurasia.org/chinas-expanding-military-education-diplomacy-in-central-asia/. Furthermore, China conditions its relations with the region on public support for its policy on Xinjiang in international platforms, as well as on the extradition of Chinese-Muslim minorities and dissidents from the MENA.33“Transnational Repression [Tracker],” Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, last visited January 12, 2023, https://oxussociety.org/projects/transnational-repression/.
The majority of China’s activity is on a bilateral basis, but China has also increased its presence in multinational forums in the last decade—for instance, it is a founding member of the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF).34Tanner and Bellacqua, “China’s Response to Terrorism.” The highlight is its leadership role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which Beijing co-chairs with Moscow, and which includes India and Central Asian countries as members.
Although the SCO’s activities are severely constrained due to conflicting interests among the various countries, Iran signed an agreement in September 2022 that will allow it to become an official member in April 2023, giving its regime easier access to Chinese financing and technologies and facilitating connectivity with Central Asian countries. In the same month, China committed for the first time to train two thousand security personnel from SCO member states over the next five years, after having trained thousands of military personnel from Africa over the previous decade, suggesting that a future expansion of the program to other Middle Eastern countries cannot be ruled out.35Paul Nantulya, “China Promotes Its Party-Army Model in Africa,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, July 28, 2020, https://africacenter.org/spotlight/china-promotes-its-party-army-model-in-africa/.
In other words, China has shown in the span of a few years that it is no longer a “partial power,” but a veritable key actor in the Middle East, willing to engage on all fronts to pursue its interests.36David L. Shambaugh, China Goes Global: The Partial Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). Experts in China and the Middle East now argue that the degree of participation on some of these fronts is insufficient, urging Beijing to match its newfound comprehensive national power with an even greater political and security presence.
Internal debates on greater involvement
Until now, China’s Middle East policy has been solely focused on development and “win-win cooperation.” Meanwhile, in the security and political spheres, it has stuck to low-hanging fruit, such as anti-piracy, peacekeeping operations, and conflict mediation in conflicts with broad international consensus. “China does not want to be the world’s policeman,” top Chinese military pundits argue.37Bo Zhou, “The Peacekeeping Dilemma—What Should Peacekeepers Do if It’s Their Own Government That’s Killing Civilians?” Guancha, May 29, 2021, https://www.guancha.cn/ZhouBo3/2021_05_29_592418_s.shtml. Most analysts agree that it does not appear that Beijing intends to replace Washington as the next regional hegemon, as it has enough on its plate much closer to home.
Yet, China’s priorities have changed. Xi believes that the world is undergoing “great changes unseen in a century,” with a rising East and a declining West, maintaining that “time and momentum are on our side.”38Johnny Erling, “Xi’s New Slogan for China’s Trajectory: ‘Time and Momentum Are on Our Side,’” MERICS, July 9, 2021, https://merics.org/en/opinion/xis-new-slogan-chinas-trajectory-time-and-momentum-are-our-side. With the 20th Party Congress safely securing Xi his position as paramount leader for an undefined amount of time, Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy for a New Era is here to stay, and is aimed squarely at changing global governance in a steadfast “spirit of struggle.”
This mobilization is coupled with the party’s centenary ambition for “national rejuvenation” and growing vested interests in the Global South, leading top Chinese specialists to debate whether Beijing should abandon its relatively aloof and “comfortable” position (as they put it), and up the ante on political and security issues.39Tuvia Gering, “Discourse Power,” Substack, September 8, 2022, https://discoursepower.substack.com/p/discourse-power-september-8-2022.
“In the long run, China may be able to work with Middle Eastern nations on security issues and even become a major provider of security-related public goods,” said Yang Cheng, former diplomat and expert on Sino-Russian relations. Speaking at a Peking University discussion on geopolitical trends in the wake of the Ukraine war, he maintained that the mainstream view among Chinese experts supports greater involvement in regional affairs.40Ibid.
Burden sharing is one of their primary arguments in favor of greater Chinese involvement in the Middle East. Regional countries increasingly expect Beijing to live up to its adopted identity of a “responsible major power.” Even the White House has occasionally bemoaned China’s “free riding” on the public goods provided by the US security umbrella that protects important shipping lanes (all the while warning allies that working too closely with Beijing on security could jeopardize their cooperation with Washington).41New York Times, “Exclusive Obama Interview: China as a Free Rider,” August 8, 2014, YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hg8ntdSbmCk; Barak Ravid, “Top Pentagon Official Warns Middle East Partners to Limit China Ties,” Axios, November 18, 2022, https://www.axios.com/2022/11/18/pentagon-colin-kahl-warns-china-ties-uae-israel.
Chinese military hawks use the same sea lines of communication (SLOCs) to highlight the PRC’s strategic vulnerability in the MENA region and pressure their leaders for greater security involvement. When the chips are down in Sino-American relations, they assert, the US Navy will be sure to block the Middle East’s multiple maritime chokepoints—the Suez Canal, Bab al-Mandab, and the Strait of Hormuz—through which two-thirds of the world’s oil trade is transported.42Gering and Sloane, “Beijing’s Overseas Military Base in Djibouti.”
Great-power competition is a recurring theme in Chinese debates. For example, Wang Lincong of the Institute of West-Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Science (CASS) believes that the United States is pressuring its allies in the Middle East to “pick sides.”43Gering, “Discourse Power.” With their Sinocentric lenses on, his colleagues and policymakers see the recent Gulf developments as part of the United States’ strategic “great-power game” aimed at “incorporating the Middle East into its containment of China.”44“The 6th Shanghai Forum on Middle East Studies: ‘China’s Middle East Diplomacy and Relations with Middle Eastern Countries in the Current Situation: Opportunities, Challenges, and Measures,’” BRGG at Fudan University, September 29, 2022, https://brgg.fudan.edu.cn/articleinfo_5219.html.
Middle East states, for their part, are frustrated with the United States for “abandoning” the war-torn region in favor of its pivot to Asia, as it competes with Beijing “to win the 21st century.”45Alex Fang, “Biden: ‘We Are in a Competition with China to Win the 21st Century,’” Nikkei Asia, April 29, 2021, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/Biden-s-Asia-policy/Biden-We-are-in-a-competition-with-China-to-win-the-21st-century. Chinese policymakers and party-state media, who are acutely aware of such grievances, emphasize that there has never been a “power vacuum” in the Middle East, and that there is no need for a “foreign patriarch” meddling about.46“Middle East Has No ‘Power Vacuum,” Needs No ‘Foreign Patriarch’: Wang Yi,” Global Times, January 16, 2022, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202201/1246036.shtml.
This does not stop them from pointing out the lack of regional peace and development mechanisms, or advocating increased cooperation using “Chinese wisdom and Chinese solutions” to compensate for shortcomings. Borrowing from Xi, they frequently write that the Middle East is one of the regions with the largest “security deficit” and “development deficit” in the world, which are the “deep-seated cause” of the region’s widespread extremism.47Zhongmin Liu, “The Reconfigured Regional Landscape of the Middle East: A ‘New Climate’ for Peaceful Through Development?” Cfisnet, September 19, 2022, http://comment.cfisnet.com/2022/0919/1326478.html;Long Ding, “Arab Countries Struggle to Chart a Course Toward Development and Transformation,” Cfisnet, September 19, 2022, http://comment.cfisnet.com/2022/0919/1326477.html.
Chinese theoreticians believe that the recognition of such “truths” has enabled their country to emerge from abject poverty and rise through the ranks to become the second-largest economy in the world in less than forty years. It is because of the “scientific outlook” of the party and China’s own advancements in security and development during that time that the CCP is able to accurately pinpoint the world’s ills—and like any good doctor, it now wants to provide “Chinese prescriptions” or “tips” for building a post-pandemic world.48Yingzhao An, “Short Commentary: What Are China’s ‘Tips’ for Building a Post-Pandemic World?” China News Service, January 18, 2022, https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s?__biz=Mzg5MTcxNzk2Nw==&mid=2247487619&idx=2&sn=95cc748926c11766d131d997c8690f2e&source=41#wechat_redirect; Hongwu Liu, “From the Belt and Road Initiative to the Global Development Initiative,” CSSN, June 29, 2022, http://news.cssn.cn/zx/bwyc/202206/t20220629_5414637.shtml.
With its high concentration of developing nations, the Middle East makes an ideal platform to spread the concept of the “China model” and Xi’s vision of “building a community of shared future for mankind.”49A ‘China Model?’ Beijing’s Promotion of Alternative Global Norms and Standards, 116th Cong. (2020) (statement of Mrs. Nadège Rolland, Senior Fellow for Political and Security Affairs, National Bureau of Asian Research). The question, however, is what this increased involvement would look like—and what it means for the US alliance system.
China’s new security architecture for the Middle East
On September 21, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi virtually attended the opening ceremony of the Second Middle East Security Forum, themed “Promoting a New Security Architecture in the Middle East.”50“Implementing the Global Security Initiative (GSI) and Building a New Security Architecture in the Middle East—Video Message from State Councilor Wang Yi at the Opening Ceremony of the Second Middle East Security Forum,” China Institute of International Studies, September 23, 2022, https://m.ciis.org.cn/xwdt/202209/t20220923_8712.html. The online-offline event was organized by the Foreign Ministry’s think tank, the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), which had invited more than seventy eminent guests from across the MENA region, including former state leaders and diplomats.
The minister used the forum to unveil a four-point proposal for implementing the Chinese framework. It includes the upholding of a “new security concept” based on common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security; establishing the Middle Eastern countries’ dominant position (as opposed to as extraterritorial players); abiding by the purposes and principles of the UN charter; and boosting dialogue on regional security.
Wang’s proposals should not be confused with a second, and somewhat overlapping, four-point proposal made by Deng Li, his deputy and a keynote speaker at the event.51“Vice Foreign Minister Deng Li Attended the Opening Ceremony of the Middle East Security Forum and Delivered a Keynote Speech,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, September 22, 2022, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/wjbxw_new/202209/t20220922_10769732.shtml. Neither should it be conflated with past multi-point proposals for the region presented by China in recent years, such as one for the Syrian crisis and four more for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.52“China Proposes Four-Point Solution to Syrian Issue: FM,” Xinhua, July 18, 2021, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2021-07/18/c_1310067701.htm; “China Pushes Four-Point Israeli-Palestinian Peace Plan,” Associated Press and Times of Israel, August 1, 2017, https://www.timesofisrael.com/china-pushes-four-point-israeli-palestinian-peace-plan; “China Puts Forward Four-Point Proposal Regarding Palestine-Israel Conflict,” Xinhua, May 17, 2021, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2021-05/17/c_139950043.htm.
The ministry’s spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, offered a “5+4+3+2+1” mnemonic to summarize key proposals for conflict mediation that China made in recent years: a five-point initiative to achieve Middle Eastern security and stability; a four-point proposal for political resolution of the Syrian issue; and a three-point vision for implementing the two-state solution to the Palestinian question.53“Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin’s Regular Press Conference on September 20, 2022,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, September 20, 2022, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/202209/t20220920_10768528.html.
At number one stands General Secretary Xi Jinping’s Global Security Initiative (GSI), which he unveiled in April, shortly after the Russian invasion. Wang Yi outlined its significance in maintaining world peace, preventing conflicts and wars, upholding multilateralism and international solidarity, and “building a better world beyond the pandemic.”54“Acting on the Global Security Initiative to Safeguard World Peace and Tranquility,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, April 24, 2022, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjdt_665385/zyjh_665391/202205/t20220505_10681820.html. During his keynote address at the China-GCC Summit in December, Xi invited the regional states to join the GSI, saying that “China and the GCC should be partners for common security.”55“President Xi Proposes ‘Eight Major Common Actions’ for China-Arab Cooperation,” CGTN, December 10, 2022, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/202212/t20221210_10988406.html.
The GSI is closely linked to Xi’s Global Development Initiative (GDI), announced in September 2021. It is based on the Marxist Chinese leadership’s long-held conviction that “development is the master key to solving all problems,” including entrenched conflicts over territory, religion, politics, and ethnicity.56Yunbi Zhang, “Fresh Initiative Poised to Boost Global Growth,” China Daily, November 16, 2021, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202111/16/WS6192ea24a310cdd39bc7579c.html. Since then, seventeen Arab states have expressed support for the GDI, and twelve have joined the GDI Group of Friends. Along with the BRI and Xi’s clarion call to “build a community of shared future for mankind,” the two initiatives make up Xi’s “blueprint” to reshape global governance.57Yao Yao, “The Global Development Initiative Provides a Blueprint for Responding to World Changes,” Red Flag Manuscript, February 25, 2022, https://interpret.csis.org/translations/global-development-initiative-provides-a-blueprint-for-responding-to-world-changes.
This new vision will take shape in many different regions. According to Wang Yi’s summary of Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia, the Chinese leader outlined the “future course for building a China-Arab Community with a Shared Future,” which Wang termed “a top-level design for the development of China-Arab relations in the new era.”58“Wang Yi on President Xi Jinping’s Attendance at the China-Arab Countries Summit, China-GCC Summit and State Visit to Saudi Arabia,” Xinhua, December 11, 2022, http://www.gov.cn/guowuyuan/2022-12/11/content_5731323.htm. By the same token, the recent forum—declared bombastically by the Chinese side as a “complete success with broad agreement”—is merely a subsection, a prelude to what is to come.
Upon closer scrutiny, however, China’s Middle East strategy is still woefully underdeveloped when it comes to addressing actual security needs. Nowhere is this more evident than in two of the Middle East’s thorniest issues, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Gulf security.
I. China’s solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Chinese observers noted that Joe Biden’s trip to the region in July made him the first US president in decades to fail to put forth a proposal for resolving the conflict. They contrast the United States’ “inactivity” with Beijing’s persistent efforts to bring the Palestinian issue back to the forefront of international discussion, stressing that it “should not be marginalized, let alone forgotten.”59“Wang Yi Meets with Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, March 31, 2022, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/202203/t20220331_10658031.html.
Indeed, Chinese policymakers, all the way up to Xi, insist that it is the “core” issue affecting Middle East peace and stability, and Beijing’s UN representative, Zhang Jun, has been raising the issue every month of the year like clockwork.60“Xi Jinping Sends Message of Congratulations to UN Meeting Marking the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, November 30, 2022, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx_662805/202211/t20221130_10983172.html.
The problems with China’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are threefold, beginning with its detachment from regional trends. Under the US-sponsored Abraham Accords, four Muslim nations—the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan—have since normalized their ties with the state of Israel. There have been two rounds of fighting in Gaza over the past two years, but the accords have stood the test of time, setting new precedents with the historic Negev Summit in March 2022 between Israel, the United States, Egypt, the UAE, Morocco, and Bahrain.
These developments suggest that a two-state solution is not a prerequisite for regional prosperity and that the “core” issue in the minds of regional leaders is ensuring their own peace and prosperity, which Iran and its proxies jeopardize.
These nations are aware that the current Israeli and Palestinian political circumstances do not allow for the creation of a two-state solution; in any case, this should not preclude them from maintaining economic and security relations with Israel, a significant strategic player in the region and also a close US ally.
In a similar vein, it is no longer conceivable to hold Israel solely accountable for the fate of the Palestinians, as the rudderless Palestinian Authority (PA) lost control of Gaza, and its hold on power is rapidly eroding as terrorist groups fill the gaps.
The normalization wave has also swept other traditional Palestinian supporters, such as India, into new frameworks that seemed unthinkable a decade ago—namely, the I2U2, consisting of India, Israel, the UAE, and the United States—and has changed their anti-Israeli voting pattern at the UN.61“On India-Israel, Jaishankar Says: ‘We Could Have Furthered Ties but…’” Hindustan Times, September 5, 2022, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/on-india-israel-jaishankar-says-we-could-have-furthered-ties-but-101662341707564.html.” 62In a First, India Votes in Favour of Israel at UN against Palestine Human Rights Body,” Print, June 11, 2019, https://theprint.in/diplomacy/in-a-first-india-votes-in-favour-of-israel-at-un-against-palestine-human-rights-body/248543/.
China, meanwhile, seems to be stuck in the zeitgeist of the anti-Zionist Bandung Conference era, as evidenced by its biased support of Ramallah and its relentless votes against Israel in international forums, as well as its constant whitewashing of Palestinian and Iranian terrorism and incitement.63Tuvia Gering, “China’s Biased Role in the Israel-Palestinian Conflict,” Asia Times, June 18, 2021, https://asiatimes.com/2021/06/chinas-biased-role-in-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict; Tuvia Gering, “Israel Gives China a Little Taste of Its Own Medicine at UN,” Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, June 27, 2021, https://jiss.org.il/en/gering-israel-gives-china-a-little-taste-of-its-own-medicine-at-un; Tuvia Gering, “China’s NIMBY Mentality on Terror,” Asia Times, May 10, 2022, https://asiatimes.com/2022/05/chinas-nimby-mentality-on-terror.
Second, Beijing’s strategy relies mostly on empty rhetoric and ham-fisted diplomacy. China’s three “pathways” for implementing the two-state solution, first introduced in July 2021 and reiterated at the CIIS forum, offer little more than stating the obvious: strengthening the mandate of the PA, supporting unity and reconciliation between the Palestinian factions and restarting the peace talks.64“China Proposes 3 Routes to Implement Two-State Solution: FM,” Xinhua, July 19, 2021, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2021-07/19/c_1310069969.htm.
Another element of the “Chinese solutions” is Beijing’s appointment of special envoys to half a dozen troubled hotspots around the globe. China has been appointing such delegates since the Second Palestinian Intifada in 2002, the majority of whom are veteran diplomats close to retirement age. If the five successive special envoys who came and went have produced positive results in the last twenty years, they are limited or imperceptible.65Weijian Li, “From Comprehensive Detachment to Active Engagement: China’s Middle East Diplomacy since the Reform and Opening-Up period,” Arab World Studies 5 (2018), 3–13
In terms of economic assistance, prior to the forum, China gave a paltry $1-million donation to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Even with the roughly $4 million in Sinopharm vaccines it had donated in March, the amount of Chinese aid pales compared to the $316 million in US aid announced during Biden’s July visit.66“The Government of the People’s Republic of China Provides COVID-19 Vaccines to Help Protect Palestine Refugees,” United Nations Relief and Works Agency, press release, March 22, 2022, https://www.unrwa.org/newsroom/press-releases/government-people’s-republic-china-provides-covid-19-vaccines-help-protect.
Third, China’s priorities in the region are clear from its repeated failure to engage real stakeholders, exert pressure through its newfound power, or address controversial issues with little international consensus in a way that jeopardizes its interests or friendly relations with other countries. The more likely explanation for why it keeps bringing up peace initiatives and appointing special envoys is to gain experience in settling conflicts that truly matter to China, and to show that it is involved in pressing regional issues, in line with Xi’s “new type of major power diplomacy.”67Degang Sun and Yahia Zoubir, “China’s Participation in Conflict Resolution in the Middle East and North Africa: A Case of Quasi-Mediation Diplomacy?” Journal of Contemporary China 27, 110 (2017), https://doi.org/10.1080/10670564.2018.1389019.
Accordingly, the CIIS forum listed four peace symposiums China has hosted since 2006, welcoming the two sides to hold additional direct talks in Beijing. China may view these symposiums as “breakthroughs,” but taking the 2017 event, for example, the Palestinian delegation denied ever meeting with the Israelis and refused to sign a joint statement. On the Israeli side, it was only mentioned in relation to the fact that the delegate, who was a member of the Knesset (parliament), missed plenum votes in favor of an “unnecessary overseas trip.” Similarly, China’s new security architecture received zero coverage in the Israeli media.68Tuvia Gering, “Don’t Interfere, Integrate: China Proposes (Yet Another) Middle East Peace Initiative,” Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, April 28, 2021, https://jiss.org.il/en/gering-china-proposes-yet-another-middle-east-peace-initiative.
Moreover, by expressing unwavering lip service to a core interest of “the Muslim world,” Beijing expects reciprocal support for its own, most notably its human rights violations against minorities in Xinjiang.
But in the Middle East, actions speak louder than words. According to the Arab Barometer survey, only one-third of the Palestinian population views China positively, the lowest figure among the nine countries polled (support for the United States is lower); this is likely due to China’s meager financial engagement and cordial economic relations with the Jewish state.69Tom O’Connor, “Exclusive: China Tops U.S. as Favorite Power Among Arabs Despite Challenges,” Newsweek, October 8, 2022, https://www.newsweek.com/exclusive-china-tops-us-favorite-power-among-arabs-despite-challenges-1732321. To illustrate, when asked to make a wish for the CCP’s centennial in April 2021, the octogenarian President Mahmoud Abbas responded with a torrent of expletives.70Jon Jackson, “Palestinian President Mahmmoud Abbas Curses Out China, Russia, U.S. and Arabs in Vulgar Rant,” Newsweek, April 28, 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/abbas-leaked-rant-1587216.
II. China’s solution to the security situation in the Gulf
As with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, China’s “new security concept” provides no viable alternatives to the United States’ integrated deterrence in the Gulf. As the sole concrete suggestion in the forum, Beijing offered to host a multilateral discussion between Iran and the Gulf states (sans Israel and the United States, arguably the most vital security actors).
As a matter of fact, the plan contains little that is novel. In a 2018 speech to the 8th China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF), Xi Jinping first openly challenged the US security framework with Arab interlocutors, floating his idea of a “common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security.”71“Xi Jinping’s Speech at the Opening Ceremony of the 8th Ministerial Meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF),” Xinhua, July 10, 2017, http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/leaders/2018-07/10/c_1123105156.htm. The following year, Wang Yi made it more concrete by proposing a regional forum for dialogue (based on a Russian proposal) at the United Nations General Assembly’s 74th session. It was reiterated in September 2020 in a three-point proposal, in a thinly veiled effort to counteract the gains in the Donald Trump administration’s peace plan, which resulted in the Abraham Accords.72Tuvia Gering, “China’s Alternative Vision for Gulf Security,” Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, November 17, 2020, https://jiss.org.il/en/gering-chinas-alternative-vision-for-gulf-security/.
The regional-forum idea was scrapped the following month, in yet another nebulous three-point proposal for Gulf security.73Gering, “Don’t Interfere, Integrate.” (It is interesting to note that, this time, the Chinese diplomats chose not to base their solution explicitly on the JCPOA, possibly due to the deadlock in the negotiations with Iran.)
Again, China’s approach reflects its own interests vis-à-vis the United States. The main criticism of Washington’s strategy is that it follows a so-called “traditional security concept,” loosely defined as following the “law of the jungle” and having a zero-sum “Cold War mentality.”74Degang Sun and Sike Wu, “China’s Participation in Security Affairs in the Middle East in the New Era: Conceptual Propositions and Practical Exploration,” China International Studies Journal 4 (2020). Fundamentally, it is aimed at the alliance system of the United States and its strategy of encircling China, much like how Biden’s July visit was meant to fortify an exclusive military camp against Iran.
In another clear swipe at Washington and its interference in China’s backyard, Wang Yi reiterated in the forum that “there is no ‘power-vacuum’ in the region,” adding that “the course for the region should be charted by the countries in the Middle East themselves.” His deputy, Deng Li, also called for an end to unilateral sanctions, a tool all too familiar in his own country.
China contrasts the US architecture with its own vision of “shared security.” Wang Yi explained in the CIIS forum that “the Middle East’s countries are connected, and the region’s major issues are inextricably linked. Hence, they should be dealt with methodically and from a broad perspective. No nation should solely prioritize its own security (i.e., without taking its neighbors’ security into account).”
It is no coincidence that this is the same language used by the Kremlin, and parroted by Chinese party-state media, to excuse Russia’s illegal invasion of a sovereign state as an act of self-defense against NATO enlargement.
In fact, Beijing’s unwillingness to hold its “no-limit partner” responsible for flagrant violations of a sovereign state nine months after the invasion is not unlike its willful ignorance of Iran’s decades-long practice of nuclear blackmail and export of terrorism, weaponry, and religious fundamentalism throughout the region (including Ukraine).
Adding fuel to the fire, China has played an indispensable role in providing the mullahs’ regime with an economic lifeline, as well as political and moral support in the face of international sanctions, buying no less than $47 billion since Biden took office.75Claire Jungman and Daniel Roth, “Uncovering the Chinese Purchasers of Iranian Oil,” United Against Nuclear Iran, December 27, 2022, https://www.unitedagainstnucleariran.com/blog/uncovering-chinese-purchasers-of-iranian-oil; “To Break the Deadlock in the Iran Nuclear Talks, the US Should Correct Its Wrong Policies (Zhong Sheng),” People’s Daily, May 9, 2022, http://world.people.com.cn/n1/2022/0509/c1002-32417097.html. Jacopo Scita, “China-Iran Relations Through the Prism of Sanctions,” Asian Affairs 53, 1 (2022), 87–105. Recent reports have detailed how the same social-control technologies used by China’s surveillance state, such as AI-powered face recognition and biometric recognition, assist Iran’s ruling ayatollahs in repressing the country’s captive population.76Ilan Berman, “Chinese Tech Is Powering Iran’s Repression,” Newsweek, December 6, 2022, https://www.newsweek.com/chinese-tech-powering-irans-repression-opinion-1764779.
Whether in its dealings with Iran or Syria, or in its failure to stop the flow of cutting-edge weapons, Beijing “has actively acted against the region’s security,” as Barbara Leaf, the top US diplomat for the Middle East, said during damning testimony to the US Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee in August. She went on to say that China is “notably absent” from the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and has made negligible efforts in Yemen and Syria.77China’s Role in the Middle East, Subcommittee on Near East Asia, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism, (August 4, 2022) (testimony of Barbara A. Leaf, Assistant Secretary State for Near Eastern Affairs).
Beijing has even failed to defend its own interests, as shown by the numerous Iranian proxy attacks in Yemen, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, as well as the Gulf’s shipping lanes. The 2019 attack on Saudi ARAMCO, for instance, forced China to pay an extra $97 million per day as Brent crude prices climbed to their highest level on record.78Chriss Street, “Attacks on Saudi Arabia Oil Facilities,” Epoch Times, September 18, 2019, https://www.theepochtimes.com/china-losing-97-million-a-day-due-to-attacks-on-saudi-arabia-oil-facilities_3086344.html.
Building a post-western world
Chinese scholars agree that China is generally uninterested in becoming embroiled in the region’s long-running conflicts.79“China Recognizes the Importance of the Astana Mechanism and Will Participate in the Resolution of the Syrian Conflict in an Appropriate Manner,” Sputnik. November 25, 2022, https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/nPILqYm9LBXEI4pakwnb1Q. They recognize that the US decline in the Middle East is only relative, citing the fact that there are still more than one hundred thousand US troops and security contractors stationed there, compared to fewer than one thousand PLA peace forces.80Gering, “Discourse Power.” Other barriers to China taking on a bigger role include overcoming a lack of knowledge of, and mutual trust with, the region’s countries and inadequate diplomatic coordination among domestic institutions.81Andrea Ghiselli, “China and the United States in the Middle East: Policy Continuity Amid Changing Competition,” Middle East Institute, January 9, 2023, https://www.mei.edu/publications/china-and-united-states-middle-east-policy-continuity-amid-changing-competition#_ftnref22. Despite this, and even though its alternative vision for the Middle East is still underdeveloped or poorly thought out, China is still in a position to play a significant role in reshaping the geopolitical environment, given its growing strategic engagement with the Arab world over the last ten years. The ways in which this engagement will develop may not always be in the interests of the United States or its allies.
China’s New Security Architecture for the Middle East has shown that the challenge to US dominance would take more than straightforward ship-to-ship and gun-to-gun arithmetic. Major-power competition, according to Sun Degang, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Fudan University, is “first and foremost about a struggle for who will set the rules and the order, which is essentially a struggle for discourse power.”82“The 6th Shanghai Forum on Middle East Studies—‘China’s Middle East Diplomacy and Relations with Middle Eastern Countries under the Current Developments: Opportunities, Challenges and Responses,’” SIIS, September 29, 2019, https://brgg.fudan.edu.cn/articleinfo_5219.html.
Simply put, China’s touted architecture is a component of a larger Chinese push to establish a post-Western multipolar world and set global agendas that reflect its interests and values. For example, following the December summits, Shanghai International Studies University Middle East professor Ding Long stated that Sino-Arab cooperation in low-carbon science and technology would “raise both sides’ status and role in global energy and climate governance, as well as strengthen our discourse power and standard-setting power.”83“Experts Discuss the Significance of the Sino-Arab Summit’s Milestone: Deepening Cross-Regional Cooperation for a Better Future,” Southern Metropolis Daily, December 9, 2022, https://m.mp.oeeee.com/a/BAAFRD000020221209747620.html.
It would, thus, be wrong to assume, as some US policymakers and experts have suggested, that the interests of Beijing and Washington in the Middle East are closely aligned around peace and stability and would benefit from policy coordination, e.g., vis-à-vis Iran and the JCPOA.
With its diplomatic approach free of human-rights considerations, the non-colonial power skillfully exploits the region’s very real animosity toward the West and shrewdly plays on the North-South divide.84Shumei Leng, “Report on Human Rights Violations in Middle East Exposes US’ Barbarity, Cruelty and Hypocrisy,” Global Times, August 9, 2022, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202208/1272590.shtml. The blatantly anti-American and anti-Western messaging of China’s global visions belies any pretense of inclusivity and cooperation.85Acting on the Global Security Initiative to Safeguard World Peace and Tranquility,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, April 24, 2022, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjdt_665385/zyjh_665391/202205/t20220505_10681820.html. As Nadège Rolland pointed out, the “new security architecture” is ideally one that is free of US presence and influence.86Nadège Rolland (@RollandNadege), “i.e., a security architecture exempt from US presence and influence,” Twitter, September 22, 2022, https://twitter.com/RollandNadege/status/1572938223235760128?s=20&t=Udc3RHOzd4HEcTvNNNkXoA.
For the same reason, and despite a begrudging acknowledgment of the overall positive effects of the Abraham Accords, Beijing feels compelled to muddy the waters with its forgettable mediation proposals, so long as it undermines US-led frameworks and alliance networks.87“Wang Yi Speaks with Israel’s Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on the Phone,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, July 4, 2022, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/202204/t20220407_10665279.html.
Moreover, China must provide a lifeline for anti-Western regional spoilers like Iran, Syria, and Russia, despite their deleterious effects on regional peace and stability, which Beijing values. Their continued existence may produce unnecessary bloodshed and some losses of assets and investments, which China could absorb. Conversely, their demise could lead to a regional catastrophe that may bleed into China. Worse, it might portend the rise of a liberal government that the United States could recruit for its crusade against the party-state.
Implications for the United States and its allies
The United States cannot expect its regional allies to outright reject “Chinese solutions and Chinese wisdom,” just as China cannot count on them to abandon the US security architecture and network of alliances. Beijing can, and does, provide public goods to a region that rarely has options, and regional stakeholders looking for real solutions will try to get the best of both worlds.
Although surveys indicate that it is less appealing than Western models of governance, the China Model’s success story is attractive. As a matter of fact, a majority of Middle East countries, including Saudi Arabia, have begun viewing China more favorably than the United States.88Michael Robbins, “Public Views of the U.S.-China Competition in MENA,” Arab Barometer, July 2022, https://www.arabbarometer.org/wp-content/uploads/ABVII_US-China_Report-EN.pdf. 89David Pollock, “New Saudi Poll: Some Surprises on the U.S., Iran, Israel, Oil, and More,” Washington Institute, December 16, 2022, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/new-saudi-poll-some-surprises-us-iran-israel-oil-and-more.
In addition to cultivating favorable views through economic opportunities and (albeit limited) financial and humanitarian aid, China has promoted extensive people-to-people and cultural exchanges. It has invested heavily in cultivating ties through youth programs, engagement with religious leaders, political-party dialogues, news sharing, and joint education, culture, public health, radio, film, and television programs, among other things.90“Report on Sino-Arab Cooperation in a New Era.”
Western brands, sports, music, and culture are still popular throughout the region, but Chinese soft power is slowly but surely gaining ground. Middle Eastern youths, who comprise one of the youngest population segments in the world, and have the fastest rate of growth, drive Geely cars, use Huawei phones to scroll videos on TikTok, buy their clothes from SHEIN, furnish their homes with Aliexpress knick-knacks, and watch football games in Chinese-built stadiums powered by “Made in China” solar panels.
Under the new normal of great-power competition, the way forward is a framework that empowers US allies and attunes to their needs and concerns. It should not seek to dissuade them from benefiting from China’s comparative advantages in areas such as infrastructure investment, technology, public health, and renewable energy.
US and allied-power policymakers should consider the following actions and frameworks:
First and foremost, Washington ought to develop a framework that encourages risk management, while working to limit any adverse effects on priorities the National Defense Strategy has identified for the Middle East: rules-based international order, freedom of navigation, stability, regional integration, sovereignty, human rights, and the values enshrined in the UN charter.
Regarding security, US policymakers must be prepared to make strong arguments to partner countries about how selecting the Chinese option may conflict with stated priorities and their own national interests.
There is no substitute for overall US-integrated deterrence in the Middle East, but there is a growing variety of excellent Chinese alternatives in dual-use and military technologies. Moreover, if the nascent GSI follows in the footsteps of the GDI, the United States should keep a close eye on the “dozens of deliverables,” or public security goods, that Beijing is likely to roll out in the coming months and years.91“Chair’s Statement of the High-level Dialogue on Global Development,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, June 24, 2022, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjdt_665385/2649_665393/202206/t20220624_10709812.html.
Secondly, US policymakers should encourage MENA partners and allies to use their agency to shape China’s activity and engagement in the region. They must make it clear to Beijing that they will not support any of its initiatives that undermine the US-led security architecture, which is crucial to their peace and stability.
These same actors comprise the United States’ network of allies and partners, which is yet another indispensable advantage the United States has over China. They have the potential to sway Beijing’s growing engagement toward what Jonathan Fulton describes as a “positive vision” for the region, an “order of inclusion,” that is open to participation by all, including China.92Kyle M. Lascurettes, Orders of Exclusion: Great Powers and the Strategic Sources of Foundational Rules in International Relations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020); “Increased China-GCC Engagement: What Should the U.S. Do?” Middle East Institute, December 14, 2022, https://www.mei.edu/events/increased-china-gcc-engagement-what-should-us-do.
Working together on the BRI and the Group of Seven (G7) Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) for regional peace and stability seems unlikely, however, given the West and China’s lackluster cooperation on obvious issues of mutual concern like public health and climate change.
Thirdly, Washington should allow for the possibility of both the United States and China working independently for the benefit of the region. At the very least, Washington ought to encourage Chinese businesses to fill the region’s multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure gap. For instance, this can include participating in the installation of the last segment of the Israeli initiative known as Rails for Regional Peace, which aims to connect the Persian Gulf with the port of Haifa, or providing renewable-energy systems in the Jordan and Israel agreement on electricity for water.
In order to address their numerous “development deficits,” the White House may collaborate with regional nations to identify low-risk projects and give them the tools they need to establish efficient screening mechanisms and legal procedures for infrastructure investments and technology transfer. Closer coordination and dialogue with allies and partners, such as the new US-Israel Strategic High-Level Dialogue on Technology and the GCC+3 Summit in Jeddah, are also crucial in this regard.
Finally, US policymakers need to expand the conversation about US engagement in the region beyond security, in order to stop the spread and entrenchment of false narratives that the United States is withdrawing from the region or that “America’s security stick is no match for China’s carrots.”93Akhil Ramesh, “In the Middle East, America’s Security Stick Is Nno Match for China’s Carrots,” Hill, January 10, 2023, https://thehill.com/opinion/international/3807219-in-the-middle-east-americas-security-stick-is-no-match-for-chinas-carrots/. China may have surpassed the United States in terms of trade, but US trade with the MENA remains significant, increasing by 28 percent to $122.6 billion in 2021 compared to the previous year.94“Egypt-U.S. Business Relations,” American Chamber of Commerce Egypt, 2021, https://www.amcham.org.eg/information-resources/trade-resources/egypt-us-relations/trade-investment-relations-profile. On other economic and financial variables, such as FDI and aid, the United States vastly outperforms China, and it can continue to do so as it capitalizes on the Abraham Accords’ achievements while accelerating the Middle East peace process.
Tuvia Gering is a researcher at the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation’s Israel-China Policy Center at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Israel, a nonresident fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, and a Tikvah Fund Krauthammer fellow based in Jerusalem. Follow Gering on Twitter @geringtuvia.
Any views expressed in this article, as well as any errors, are solely those of the author.
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