Looking from Beijing to the Middle East, one can find three major concerns of Chinese grand strategy: burgeoning energy dependence, the highly ambitious “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative, and opportunity for expanded global leadership. Reflecting the importance of these concerns, the nature of China’s involvement in the region has been increasingly factored into its broader grand strategy. Naturally, the impacts that Donald Trump’s norm-shaking ascension to the U.S. presidency will have on China’s Middle Eastern thinking have also begun to be considered.
To date, analysts have framed President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy maxim as indicative of an isolationist turn in U.S. strategy that will strengthen Chinese influence in the Middle East. But how might this influence — particularly the crucial bilateral relationships that form the foundation of China’s regional efforts — materialize?
Even before the impacts on Chinese strategy in the Middle East can be considered, the nature of “America First” must be clarified. Isolationism only partially captures Trump’s observable (though highly contradictory) worldview. In fact, the Trump doctrine appears less defined by isolationism than by unilateralism. This means that, while “America First” sometimes entails isolationism — namely when it best serves Trump’s nationalist definition of domestic interests — it is always a transactional foreign policy, and may often be interventionist.
The distinction is important. It alters the perceived impacts that a Trump administration might have on how China strategizes in a region of immense geostrategic value — both to its own national interests and to global stability. While an assumed U.S. withdrawal from the world would indeed result in both a greater need and ability for Chinese leadership in the Middle East, Trump’s more encompassing outlook of “amoral transactionalism” leaves China’s future in the region decidedly less straightforward.
Trump’s greatest influence on Chinese geostrategy in the Middle East will come from the extent to which he follows through with his most consistent proposal of global transactionalism — a U.S. embrace of Russia, particularly on counterterrorism efforts in Syria.
Moscow is now the most active extra-regional intervener in the Syrian conflict, and its direct military support for President Bashar al-Assad has allowed it to accrue political capital beyond Damascus and into the broader region. These Russian military efforts have been paramount to Chinese policy in the Middle East. Tacit support for Russia in Syria has allowed China to maintain strong relations with the Assad regime without entirely forgoing its non-interventionist principle. In turn, China is better able to expand its soft power influence to a variety of Middle East states that consider Beijing to be a more placid long-term alternative to Washington and Moscow. With energy supply and economic clout being core facets of China’s geostrategy in the region, Chinese policymakers welcome a favorable comparison to its two major strategic competitors.
One such target for Chinese soft power is Turkey, a primary supporter of anti-Assad forces that would be less inclined to accept China’s economic engagement if Beijing became more militarily supportive of Assad. In the midst of the numerous geopolitical obstacles facing Chinese–Turkish relations — the complexities of Syria being a key example — Beijing and Ankara’s shared skepticism of Western intervention is a stabilizing factor.
Non-intervention has also allowed China to balance its relations with the two opposing regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, which hold diametric positions on the Syrian war but serve as Beijing’s most significant bilateral relations in the Middle East. As major exporters of oil to China — Saudi Arabia historically, and Iran increasingly so in the aftermath of the nuclear deal — maintaining ties with both nations is key to the hydrocarbon-anchored geostrategy that China employs regionally.
Concurrent ties to both states are also geostrategically important for OBOR. Stability between the two regional powers is central to Middle East stability as a whole, and in turn, the broad swath of economic and infrastructural OBOR efforts Beijing has begun there. Chinese restraint in the Middle East and simultaneous economic diplomacy with Saudi Arabia and Iran has begun to afford China a precarious but promising opportunity to be a third-party arbiter between both nations. This position could ensure the protection of its economic assets in the region if developed — but it is largely dependent on China distinguishing itself as more prudent than the other extra-regional powers.
The Trump administration’s embrace of Russia may alter these dynamics, depending on the degree to which it is achieved. Closer U.S.-Russian ties — especially if realized through joint military efforts in Syria and elsewhere in the region, as Trump has suggested — might leave China with less leverage at any future negotiating table on the fate of Damascus. China may thus feel greater pressure to intervene in the region more directly, as it has already been tempted to do, in turn submitting itself to the same U.S. pitfalls that it has so adamantly sought to avoid.
There are at least two possible scenarios that China will have to deal with, each with a different optimal solution. First, it will be extremely challenging for the Trump administration to simultaneously realign with Russia in Syria while pursuing its thus far hardline stance with Iran, as an embrace of Moscow is essentially an embrace of Tehran. In consequence, the new U.S. policy in Syria may ultimately turn out to be a more modestly bolstered version of its current strategy, rather than a new region-defining partnership with Russia. In this case, China may find itself more comfortably balancing its Middle East ties.
Second, if the proposed Trump-Putin military effort does emerge to any recognizable degree, U.S. relations with traditional Sunni allies in the region will be notably undermined. Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates — notable sources of hydrocarbons to China — view Syria and Iran as a force behind large-scale killings of Sunni rebels, and Russia as an outspoken supportive player. The United States will join their company if it embraces Russia. In place of Washington, the door would be open to Beijing to fill the ensuing diplomatic and economic void.
Warmer relations with Sunni states would be highly conducive to Chinese geostrategy in the Middle East, both in regard to the economic ambitions of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative and to China’s ever-growing hunger for hydrocarbons. With the opportunity provided by Trump’s disruptive transactional diplomacy, China would be better positioned to pursue diplomacy that goes deeper than hydrocarbons — such as the nuclear power, space satellite, and renewables diplomacy envisioned in last year’s “Arab Policy Paper.” The realization of these policies could prevent future, potentially more conciliatory U.S. administrations from recovering Washington’s lost influence. It could also allow China to adopt a more realized region-wide approach to the Middle East.
As is particularly the case with China’s policymaking, Beijing’s calculus and the ways it pursues its Middle East interests are strongly tied to domestic political concerns — including internal financial constraints and energy needs. But perhaps even more important will be the U.S. president’s ability to reconcile his severely conflicted unilateralist worldview with the realities of geostrategy — both in the Middle East and the broader global stage.
Ian Armstrong is the Geostrategy & Diplomacy Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He is also a compliance contractor at the Department of Defense, as well as a Senior Analyst and Commissioning Editor at Global Risk Insights. Ian earned his BA in Political Science from Temple University in 2015. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any of the organizations with which the author is affiliated.