China’s Expanding Presence in the Middle East

Iran Saudi Arabia

China is maximizing the opportunity to strengthen its diplomatic and economic ties with the Middle East (ME) as the United States gradually reduces its military presence there. With longtime U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia, Beijing has already signed significant agreements and maintained friendly ties with Iran. China’s interactions with the ME have historically been driven primarily by economic considerations. There are, however, signs that China’s stance may be shifting and that it may take a more assertive stance. Beijing’s role in the recent Saudi-Iran rapprochement is a case in point.

However, China is looking to strengthen its ties with Middle Eastern states at a time when the long-standing influence over the region is waning and European policymakers are debating the future of the architecture of the region. China’s strategy in the Middle East, as in other parts of the world, is primarily motivated by economic factors because it has become the region’s largest foreign direct investor. It typically only participates in important security arrangements in nations where it has sizable economic stakes.

Similarly, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), established in 2013, and China’s insatiable appetite for energy are the main factors driving this association. China officially took over as the world’s top crude oil importer in 2015, sourcing the vast majority of its supply from the Middle East. Given the strategic importance of the Middle East as a key intersection of trade routes and maritime lanes connecting Asia, Europe, and Africa, it bears enormous significance for the future success of the BRI, a brilliant plan designed to put China at the center of world trade networks. Due to the dominant position in the energy markets, China’s relations with the region are currently focused primarily on them.

Due to changing dynamics in the global oil markets, the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) current percentage of China’s crude oil mix may slightly decline in the near future. Western sanctions imposed in response to the invasion of Ukraine have significantly decreased Russia’s exports to Europe and forced Moscow to look for alternative markets, such as India and China. These sanctions have been a major driver of this change. It should be noted that Russian oil exports to China increased to a post-invasion high in March 2023 and are expected to stay significantly high. China’s return to zero COVID and the resurgence of oil demand will continue to increase its appetite for GCC crude, although Moscow and the GCC will continue to compete for access to the Chinese refinery market.

The current Sino-GCC relationship has traditionally been based on shared economic interests, but these exchanges are gradually taking on political dimensions. The “non-interference principle” that China has long upheld is consistent with the GCC’s stated preference for refraining from interfering in one another’s internal affairs. The Iran-Saudi deal is an example of Beijing’s more assertive political role in the region, which aims to reduce disruptions to its energy supplies. Recently, Beijing has taken several significant steps to strengthen its position in Middle Eastern security. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China jointly announced the restoration of diplomatic ties between Riyadh and Tehran in a statement issued from Beijing on 10 March.

So far, Beijing’s reputation in the Middle East as an ideologically neutral commercial partner is highly valued as a result of its long-standing policy of not intervening in regional countries’ internal affairs, ranging from political issues to human rights concerns. In comparison to nations like the United States, this has led to its portrayal as a mediator with a lower risk of controversies. Beijing, in contrast to the US, is also not committed to any cause, such as the unwavering support of the US for Israel. Its reputation as a reliable and trustworthy partner is further enhanced by the fact that it has never previously carried out retaliation in the area, either in the form of military intervention or economic sanctions.

However, despite its rapidly expanding influence, the Chinese regime currently lacks the ability to challenge the US in the Middle East, where Washington maintains a large number of military installations and alliances it has vowed to protect. China could gain advantages from increasing its diplomatic and economic influence in the interim, allowing the US to maintain its hegemony over the region’s security needs.

Nadir Ali holds a bachelor’s degree in Strategic and Nuclear Studies from the National Defense University, Islamabad, Pakistan. He has written for Modern Diplomacy, Pakistan Observer, Pakistan Today, and numerous other publishers. He tweets at @hafiznadirali7 and can be reached at [email protected]

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