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China’s evolving relationship with the Middle East

China’s relationship with the Middle East has been fraught with contradictions since the end of World War II. Initially the Middle East was of peripheral importance to China. Now the region ranks higher in Beijing’s strategic calculations. Beijing’s role there has the potential to produce a strategic shift in the region’s political, economic, and military orientation.

The path from 1949 to the present has been tortuous. China’s core national interests in the Persian Gulf have been fourfold: not having any single power dominating; preventing the emergence of anti-Chinese governments; opposing any formal support for Taiwan independence; and gaining the support of Gulf countries for China’s foreign policy.

China established diplomatic relations with Baghdad in 1958, a month after the Iraq revolution, giving China for the first time a foothold in the Gulf region. Nevertheless, it took China 32 more years to gain diplomatic relations with all eight Gulf countries.

After the 1967 war, the Arab countries pinned their hopes to the Soviet Union, and Sino-Iraqi relations cooled. China’s emphasis briefly switched to support for revolutionary movements in the Gulf. However, by 1971 Beijing had shifted its focus to opposing Soviet expansionism and cultivating better relations with Washington.

For the next two decades, China’s approach to the Gulf was bedeviled by Arab-Persian antagonism, exacerbated by the Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the Iran-Iraq war from 1980-1988. When Saudi Arabia established diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1990, China for the first time had diplomatic ties with all eight Gulf countries.

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 posed a severe challenge to China’s Gulf policy, highlighting the contradiction between China’s interests with the United States and Iran. Deng Xiaoping’s concept of maintaining a low profile kept China’s focus on the Asia-Pacific region. In the Middle East, China sought compromises with the United States on issues of primary importance to Washington, limiting China’s relationship with Iran.

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union made the Middle East far more important for China. The newly independent states of Central Asia became targets for the expansion of Iranian, Turkish, and Saudi influence. The northwestern region of China now bordered on newly independent countries that were the object of competition among regional countries and great powers like the United States. Beijing began treating the region as a “strategic extension” (战略延伸) of China’s neighboring area. However, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries were hesitant to develop closer relations with Beijing, fearing that China’s domestic political system might suffer the same fate as the Soviet Union.

The 9/11 attacks confronted China with a new set of problems in the Gulf, where its strategic focus shifted to Saudi Arabia and Iran. Beginning in 2005, Saudi King Abdullah displayed interest in improving relations with China. Beijing welcomed this but viewed Saudi Arabia as dependent on U.S. security guarantees, something Beijing could not provide. This limited how far China was prepared to go with the Saudis. Strategically, Beijing considered the rise of Iran the most profound event in the Middle East in the beginning of the 21st century, but Beijing’s Iranian policy was constrained by the antagonism between Tehran and Washington.

China is now faced with numerous frustrations in dealing with the Gulf. The region had again been upgraded in China’s strategy to a “greater neighboring area” (大周边). However, Saudi Arabia and Iran were competing for leadership in the region, with many irreconcilable differences. These contradictions led some Chinese analysts to conclude that Beijing’s approach to the Gulf was not serving China’s core national interests.

Over the last decade, other vitally important factors came into play, including Xi Jinping’s determination to assert Chinese leadership on a global stage; the launching in 2013 of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative: the crisis between Russia and NATO in 2014 over Ukraine, which forced Russia to acquiesce in China’s expanding role in Central Asia and the Middle East, and the deterioration in U.S.-China relations that reduced Chinese incentives to avoid actions detrimental to U.S. interests.

Xi Jinping signaled his intention to give greater attention to the Middle East in a speech to the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in 2014, using the Belt and Road Initiative as the vehicle for expanded collaboration. In preparation for Xi’s visit to Tehran in 2016, China issued an Arab Policy Paper setting out China’s vision for the region. At the conclusion of the visit, China and Iran issued a Joint Statement establishing a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

China now has comprehensive strategic partnerships with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE and Algeria, signifying relationships of particular importance to Beijing. It also has a comprehensive innovation partnership with Israel, a strategic cooperation relationship with Turkey, and strategic partnerships with Iraq, Morocco, Sudan, Djibouti, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar.

Iran continues to loom large in China’s Gulf policy. Beijing opposed U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement, as well as Washington’s decision unilaterally to reimpose sanctions on Iran that had been lifted in 2016. Nevertheless, its companies and financial institutions have been wary of taking actions in Iran that would run afoul of U.S. sanctions, and it has not invested heavily in the country.

China has been opportunistic in selling arms into the Middle East. These sales are increasing but are still minimal in comparison with other arms suppliers. Beijing has the potential to be a wild card, however, through its willingness to sell drones, ballistic missiles, and other advanced military technologies to selective countries.

China has also been cautious about taking on security responsibilities in the region. China backed the Russian-proposed collective security concept for the Gulf, but for the moment this is more rhetorical than practical. Its naval support facility in Djibouti remains its sole overseas base. China has avoided taking sides on contentious issues in the region and values its status as a potential mediator in disputes.

The flagship of China’s regional involvement is still its Belt and Road Initiative through which it has poured tens of billions of dollars in investments into countries throughout the Middle East. For the moment these investments are centered on economic and infrastructure projects, but China’s projects in transportation and communication links, as well as ports and refineries, will serve Beijing’s longer-range strategic interests. The United States has nothing comparable.

China’s role in the Middle East and the Gulf is a work in progress. The region’s importance to China as an energy supplier is now well-established in China’s thinking, and China has become an important factor in the strategic calculations of regional countries. These trends are significant because they point toward the possibility of a comprehensive geopolitical shift in the Middle East in which China could be an important component.

This article is a condensation of remarks by the author to the Iran Forum on September 30, 2020.