Amid evolving regional geopolitical tensions and changing security dynamics in the Middle East, Beijing is accentuating its efforts to expand economic relations with regional powers and forge comprehensive strategic partnerships with the Arab world. To date, China has cautiously walked a tightrope in the region to balance between regional rivals. However, its growing presence in the region likely will pull Beijing into wider engagement eventually, especially as the emerging regional security arrangement paves way for newer challenges that would increase the role of regional powers amid U.S. withdrawal.
Beijing’s foreign policy of balancing between rivals and increasing multilateralism has enabled China to deepen its ties with the Middle East. While engaging with the region, China has focused on shared interests, which are largely economic, and has emphasized South-South cooperation. Beijing has maintained a position far from the immediate vulnerabilities of protracted conflicts, but now new challenges are expected as the security arrangement and balance of power in the region will likely change depending on several factors, especially the future of nuclear talks with Iran.
China in recent years has increased its cooperation with Iran and has diversified bilateral relations through the 25-year cooperation agreement. As the nuclear talks remain at an impasse, Iran’s foreign policy agenda largely has been focused on strengthening the “axis of resistance,” for which Chinese support is vital. With limited options to enter the international energy market amid mounting U.S. sanctions, a large majority of Iranian oil is exported to China. China has offered critical diplomatic support in Iranian nuclear talks and has supported Iran’s membership in regional organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In recent years, China has also participated in joint naval drills with Iran and Russia in the Gulf of Oman as a show of force against the West amid escalating regional tension.
While China has accentuated its ties with Iran, it has also increased economic cooperation with Iran’s rivals in the Middle East, in line with Beijing’s strategy of careful balancing. China has deepened its economic ties with other countries in the Gulf like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman, especially in infrastructure building, telecommunications, technology, and energy, all critical domains for China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Saudi Arabia and China entered a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2016, which over time has been reviewed and enhanced. China in recent years has deepened its cooperation in infrastructure building with Saudi Arabia and is now involved in the Grand Mosque revamp projects in the kingdom.
Beijing has also been heavily involved in crucial projects in Egypt, especially in the construction of Egypt’s new administrative capital, where China’s state-owned enterprises are building the Central Business District. China has been reorienting and enhancing its economic ties with Egypt in the last two decades, and Chinese enterprises have a particular interest in Egypt considering its strategic location and potential to serve as an important regional manufacturing and transit hub. China was able to penetrate the Egyptian market extensively after the Suez Canal economic zone was opened. China remains the largest investor in the Suez Canal Area Development Project, which is Beijing’s most important shipping route to Europe.
China has also invested heavily in countries like Iraq and Syria, especially for rebuilding projects. Iraq’s energy reserves and strategic location have become critical for China, while the U.S. sanctions on Syria have pushed Damascus to expand its cooperation with Beijing defying the U.S. Caesar Act.
In the larger context, China’s BRI project has featured converging interests with the region and is gradually strengthening its synergy with other crucial initiatives that cater to economic and social reforms in the region like Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, Oman’s Vision 2040, Qatar’s Vision 2030, Kuwait’s Vision 2035, and Egypt’s Vision 2030. The plan to develop and expand the Maritime Silk Road – which would essentially connect China to the Mediterranean through the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Suez Canal – is a vital pillar of China’s BRI. The strategic maritime choke points along these shipping routes give further impetus for Beijing to pump in more money in the form of investments and infrastructure-building projects in the Middle East.
Beijing has a huge stake in the region especially as China’s top crude oil providers include Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Iraq, and the UAE. China in recent years has increased its oil imports from Iran at cheaper rates as well. To protect its strategic interests, China will likely enhance its military ties further as regional tensions escalate and extraregional powers are now focused on quickly adapting to regional geopolitical changes.
While Beijing has exploited the desperation of countries under U.S. sanctions in the Middle East like Iran and Syria, Washington is trying to minimize Chinese cooperation with Iran by introducing new sanctions. In this context, Chinese defense exports will feature as an important aspect for the regional powers in the Middle East. China’s growing military ties with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, and the UAE become important in understanding the emerging regional geopolitical dynamics. As the United States is now focusing on mechanisms, alliances, and security arrangements to contain Chinese aspirations in the region Washington’s allies in the Middle East may limit military cooperation with China at some level. China meanwhile will continue to become more involved in joint maritime exercises and strengthen cooperation in nontraditional security operations with regional partners.
Diplomats and strategic experts in China have given some insights into what a proactive Chinese role in the region would be based on. Beijing believes in the idea of peace through development by enhancing “shared security perceptions,” which is different from the Western-led “traditional security perception” that is focused on pursuing security by defeating the enemy and maintaining exclusive military alliances. However, Chinese propositions to promote political dialogue between rival countries and establish multilateral arrangements to minimize mistrust and broaden common interests (which was also a part of China’s Arab Policy Paper) still lack clarity on actual mechanisms to achieve these goals, especially amid lingering conflicts. Chinese ambassadors have been careful in their responses to regional political changes, largely emphasizing common interests and avoiding commenting on sensitive political tussles, and have often argued for a multipolar alternative to U.S.-led security initiatives in the region.
As the regional security situation becomes vulnerable to more conflicts and attacks, China faces a real challenge in protecting its maritime interests and maintaining security and stability along strategic chokepoints and crossroads. The role of China in the emerging security arrangement remains to be seen; however, China would be reluctant to replace the United States as the security provider. Beijing has shown little interest in taking up that responsibility so far. In this context, regional powers could be more assertive in increasing their influence.
Amid the political deadlocks and security challenges in countries like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, regional powers will likely take up new roles to secure their interests. For example, Iranian forces now filling the void in Syria; a similar pattern could be observed with other proxy militias and groups that intend to broaden their influence in the backdrop of U.S. withdrawal. China’s response to such regional changes would determine to some extent the emerging regional security dynamics.
Economy, trade, and investment are the fulcrums of Beijing’s balancing act; however, to continue this momentum it is vital to maintain the security and stability of the region. That becomes difficult in the absence of any strong collective and inclusive security arrangement. China could be more assertive and use its economic and political tools directly and indirectly by influencing the powerful and ruling elites in the region to protect its strategic interests upon reaching a difficult position in the delicate balancing act. Although China has so far refrained from being a part of any regional conflicts, Beijing’s strategy of hedging and limits of non-interference will eventually be put to test.