Since the fall of the Ottoman empire in 1922, the Middle East has been a field of competition among the great powers. It first started between the leading nations of the Allied Powers in World War One, the British Empire and French, which in the aftermath of defeating the Ottoman Empire, divided most of the region between themselves. However, World War Two later ended the Anglo-French-formulated regional order and led to a new rivalry between emerging superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States.
In this context, right after WW II, both the Soviet Union and the United States started to form coalitions of friendly states in the region to counter the other one. As a result, the Middle East witnessed a full-scale competition between leading powers of Capitalism and Communism and their proxies for almost five decades. Eventually, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992 brought the semi-era of American hegemony upon the Middle East. However, the U.S. hegemony in the region was not left unchallenged by regional actors such as Iran, Syria, non-state Shia actors, and Salafi Jihadi groups. However, for about two decades, the United States did not face any pushbacks from major international powers in the Middle East.
The Return of Great Power Competition to the Middle East
At long last, in 2015, the Russian military intervention in Syria appeared as the first strike from a major global power against the US-backed regional order. Since then, there’s not a day that goes without news about Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East. In light of the media’s excessive attention to Russia’s actions in the Middle East, Moscow has been portrayed as a U.S. major competitor in the region, but one might wonder if Russia is the only actor that challenges the United States in the Middle East?
The answer depends on where we are getting our information; if the daily newspapers are the primary source of our knowledge, the answer probably would be “Yes,” but if we look at statics on trade and investment, it is inevitable to notice that a “Silent Chinese Dragon” is rapidly nesting all over the Middle East to challenge the American bald eagle and ambitious Russian bear.
Before going further, we need to find out why the old Asian dragon is interested in the Middle East. The most cliché response to that would be “Oil,” which is not incorrect. Today, thanks to the US rapid growth in oil crude production and China’s unstoppable industry, China has surpassed[i] the United States as the world’s largest crude oil importer. Beijing imports almost half (47.1%)[ii] of its much-needed crude oil from the Middle East. So, it is safe to argue that the Middle East has a strategic value for China, and it is reasonable for Beijing to have a clear and keen Middle East strategy, but is oil the only thing that matters in the Middle East to China?
Is the Rivalry all about Oil?
Undoubtedly, any answer but no would be a naïve response to this question. With about 250 million [iii]population, the Middle East is one of the most attractive markets for giant industries, an attraction that slowly drove China to make its way into the region in the last two decades.
In 2001 when the US with invading Afghanistan started its military journey in the Middle East, China’s annual export to the Middle East was about $9 Billion [iv]while US export to the Middle East was more than $25 Billion [v]. Since 2001, the United States has spent more than $6 Trillion[vi] in wars in the Middle East, and while was struggling in Afghanistan and Iraq, China slowly but gradually abated its distance with the US over the Middle Eastern market. Eventually, in 2008 China, with exporting $7 billion more than the US (total of $74 Billion),[vii] outpaced United States’ export to the Middle East. In this context, in 2019, China, with exporting about $140 billons [viii]worth of products to the Middle East, two times more than the US $77 billion[ix] worth of annual export, secured its position as the dominant exporter to the Middle East.
Trade is not the only field in which China plays a prominent role; direct foreign investment in the Middle East is another race that China is outpointing the US. Today, with a total of $244.27 billion [x]worth of investment, China is the top foreign investor[xi] in the Middle East. In this context, we can reason why about 80 thousand [xii]Chinese contractors are in the Middle East, while the US is keeping more than 65 thousand [xiii]soldiers in the region.
Middle East: An Emerging Crossroad of Global Trade
The economic benefits that China seeks in the Middle East are not only limited to what China can earn from the region; it is also about what China can gain via the Middle East from the rest of the world. In this context, in 2013, China announced[xiv]its plan for the “Belt and Road Initiative” project (BRI). A worldwide infrastructure that is to create an inter-regional global market[xv]between East Asia, Central Asia, Middle East, Europe, and China. Simply put, the BRI is a solid indicator of Beijing’s determination to reshape the global order. However, the primary target of China is Europe, and for that, China has planned to develop three major routes to the green continent: 1- The Maritime Silkroad, 2-The New Eurasian Landbridge, and 3- the China-Central Asia-West Asia Corridor. In the latter, which is designed to connect China to Balkan and vise-vie Europe, Middle Eastern countries such as Iran and Turkey will play a critical role. Simply put, China is planning to connect its eastern provinces to the Balkan via a belt that passes through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Turkey, and then to the Balkan.[xvi]
The BRI project is vital to China’s Communist Party to the extent that, in 2017, Beijing incorporated[xvii] this project into its constitution, a grand political gesture that was China’s way of expressing its strong willingness to complete a megaproject that China has invested about one trillion USD[xviii]in it. Therefore, China’s Communist Party has put its political and economic reputation at risk for a project that heavily relies on the Middle East, which makes us safely argue that this region has already become a “strategic zone” to Beijing.
China’s Strategic Approach to the Strategic Zone
It is safe to argue that the combination of oil, market, investment, and geostrategic location has made China concerned about the state of her political influence over the Middle East. In this context, since 2010, China, in parallel to boosting its diplomatic presence in the region and holding bilateral summits with regional leaders, has negotiated with Middle Eastern countries over signing high-level partnership agreements. Hence, today, China has a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” agreement with four[xix] Middle Eastern countries such as Qatar (2014), Egypt (2014), Iran (2016), and Saudi Arabia (2016). In addition, China has “Strategic Partnership” agreements with five[xx] countries in the region, including Turkey (2010), Iraq (2015), Jordan (2015), Kuwait (2018), and Oman (2018). According [xxi]to the Chinese sources, the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership is the second-highest level of China’s bilateral ties, and Strategic Partnership is third.
However, there is no clear definition of these different levels of partnership networks, Chine-based sources [xxii]define Comprehensive Strategic Partnership as a state of bilateral relations that both states seek[xxiii] the full pursuit of cooperation and development on regional and international affairs, and the strategic partnership is the one that both States coordinate [xxiv]more closely on regional and international affairs, including military.
However, China has not signed any “Comprehensive strategic co-operative partnership” agreement, which is the highest level[xxv] of bilateral relations for the Chinese government with any Middle Eastern Countries. In fact, China has accepted this level of partnership with only Four countries[xxvi]: Vietnam (2004), Thailand (2012), Myanmar (2011), and Mozambique (2016). Therefore, it seems that East Asia still has the primarily strategic value for Beijing. As far as China’s involvement outside of East Asia is concerned, Africa has more importance than the Middle East especially, since China established[xxvii] its first overseas military base in Djibouti across the Red Sea in 2017.
From the Strategic Partnership to the Strategic Neutrality
Given how China explains these levels of partnerships and its set of priorities, it is safe to argue that China is determined to expand its bilateral relations with Middle Eastern states, but not at the cost of getting involved in their regional rivalry. In this context, China in the same year (2016) signed a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement with both Iran and Saudi Arabia, which makes one wonder maybe Beijing with signing a partnership agreement with both regional powers, wanted to clarify that China has no plan to take sides in their ongoing cold war in the region.
China’s growing relationship with regional competitors arose this question of how Beijing is getting away with developing relations with rival regional powers in the Middle East without taking any sides. Unfortunately, Chinese officials have not made any clear statements to help us find the correct response to this question. One can argue that China is offering a simple proposal; Beijing will not get involved in your regional dispute with others, but at the same time, it will not express any concerns regarding your domestic politics and issues such as human rights. To back this assumption, we simply need to review China’s neutral reaction to concerning news regarding human rights in the Middle East. For instance, China’s response[xxviii] to the execution of Sheik Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shia cleric and critic of the government, by Saudi was limited to an expression of concerns regarding the impact of that event on the rising tension between Iran and Saudi. Similarly, in 2019-20 when protests in Iran took place, China did not express any concerns regarding the crisis in Iran.
Who is the target of China’s Strategic Approach?
Despite how China manages her relations with these countries, the other important question is what motives Beijing to play such a complicated game, simply put, is an economic interest in the region the only factor that drives China to expand her bilateral relation with Middle Eastern states? or China has other strategic interests.
To respond to this question, we need to keep in mind that China, an industrial country with a vast economy, is largely relying on importing oil and gas from the Middle East; hence, it is natural for Beijing to be concerned about the dominant U.S. role in the Middle East. So, it is needless to say that China is interested[xxix] in establishing a balance of political influence over the Middle East with the United States. However, it does not mean that China necessarily is looking to replace herself with the U.S. in the region; at least, in theory, most high-rank Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping, have stated[xxx] that China will never pursue the position of “hegemon” power. Although, in practice, China never hid her intention[xxxi] to obtain the “great power status,” but Beijing still is cautious not to behave in a manner that can indicate China’s interest in seeking the “Hegemone power status.” Maybe that is why China has titled its grand strategy as the “China’s Peaceful Rise” (aka, Peaceful Development), claiming that Beijing will pursue its economic development without threatening the global status quo.
The Indian Factor in China’s Middle East Strategy
The U.S. is not the only country that China is interested in balancing with it in the Middle East; Beijing also has its eyes on the growing presence of India in the region. For a long time, India has been one of China’s significant rivals in East Asia, and even though that today China militarily and economically outpaced[xxxii] India, New Delhi still has the potential capacity to re-rise as China’s rival in the future. Hence, China needs to be observant of India and its presence worldwide, including in the Middle East. In the last three decades, India has been trying to create a trade route to Afghanistan and Central Asia; in this context, in 2003, India has started [xxxiii]its long-lasting negotiation with Iran, over-investing in Iran’s Chabahar Port, as India’s new gateway[xxxiv] to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Additionally, New Delhi is trying to create a new trade route from the Indian Ocean to Central Asia and Russia to counter[xxxv] China’s Belt and Road Initiative project. In light of this goal, after the implication of the Iran Nuclear Deal, India has started to invest a portion of its two billion dollars commitment[xxxvi] in developing the Chabahar Port and its railway. In response to India’s ambitious agenda, in 2013, China has established[xxxvii] the “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor” (OPEC), which is mostly about developing Pakistan’s transportation infrastructure. In light of OPEC, China has strongly invested[xxxviii] in Gwadar Port which plays a strategic role in China Belt and Road initiative project. The Gwadar port is the intersection[xxxix] that connects the Maritime Silk Road with Belt and Road Initiative Project; this port is set to help China expand its presence across the Indian Ocean and the Arab Sea.
While China and India were advancing their incompatible strategic agendas, all of a sudden, fortune smiles on China, not once but twice. First, the withdrawal of the US from the Iran Nuclear Deal led to a vast reduction of India’s investment in Chabahar and changed the race in favor of China. Second, the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan put a hold, if not an end, on the construction of India’s land bridge to Central Asia via Afghanistan. In the meantime, in March 2021, Beijing and Tehran have signed the Iran-China 25 Years Cooperation agreement, which promises Iran $400 billion[xl] of China’s investment in its infrastructure, including the Chabahar port. Additionally, in September 2021, the Sino-Persian relations developed one step forward, when Iran finally took[xli] membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization after a decade of waiting.
It seems China, with strengthening its relationship with Pakistan and boosting its ties with Iran, is trying to paralyze India’s further attempts to undermine China’s dominant role over the Middle East and Central Asia’s market.
What did China earn? And What is waiting for her?
At last, we can conclude that China’s Middle strategy so far has been successful. Simply put, while the US was struggling in wars across the Middle East, China took US’s leading role in trade with the Middle Eastern. In addition, China has maintained friendly relations with all countries in the region without[xlii] engaging in their competition. However, it’s hard to say that China’s “no-involvement” policy in the area can be permanently sustained. Especially after the recent Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan across China’s western borders next to mostly Muslim-populated Chinese provinces of Xinjian and Urumqi. Although the Taliban has promised[xliii] the Chinese government not to interfere in China’s domestic affairs, it is hard to estimate to what extent it is wise to count on Jihadis’ word. Thus, it is not outrageous to say that in the absence of the United States in the region, China eventually will have to get her hands dirty and play a more significant price for its presence in the Middle East.
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[x] Foreign Affairs Committee, “China Regional Snapshot: Middle East and North Africa.” March 16, 2021. https://gop-foreignaffairs.house.gov/china-regional-snapshot-middle-east-and-north-africa/
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[xviii] Ma, Alexandra.” The US is scrambling to invest more in Asia to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative mega-project.” Business Insider, 2019. https://www.businessinsider.com/what-is-belt-and-road-china-infrastructure-project-2018-1
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[xxv] Jinping, Xi. “Quick guide to China’s diplomatic levels.” South China Morning Post, 2016. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/1903455/quick-guide-chinas-diplomatic-levels
[xxvi] Strüver, Georg. “China’s Partnership Diplomacy: International Alignment Based on Interests or Ideology.” The Chinese Journal of International Politics, Volume 10, Issue 1, Spring 2017, Pages 31–65, https://doi.org/10.1093/cjip/pow015
[xxvii] LaGrone, Sam. “Africom: Chinese Naval Base in Africa Set to Support Aircraft Carries.” U.S. Naval Institute, 2021. https://news.usni.org/2021/04/20/africom-chinese-naval-base-in-africa-set-to-support-aircraft-carriers
[xxviii] Press TV, “China ‘concerned’ over Middle East tension after Saudi cuts Iran ties.” Last Update January 4, 2016. https://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2016/01/04/444507/China-Saudi-Arabia-Iran-Hua-Chunying-Sheikh-Nimr-alNimr-/
[xxix] European Council on Foreign Relations, “China’s great game in the Middle East.” October 21, 2019. https://ecfr.eu/publication/china_great_game_middle_east/
[xxx] Wang, Yanan. “China will ‘never seek hegemony,’ Xi says in reform speech.” AP News, 2018. https://apnews.com/article/4c9476378e184f238845337ba442715c
[xxxi] Bijan, Zheng. “China’s Peaceful Rise to Great-Power Status.” Foreign Affairs, 2005. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/asia/2005-09-01/chinas-peaceful-rise-great-power-status
[xxxii]Friesen, Garth. “Politic, Productivity & Population: Why The Chinese Economy Flew and India’s Just Grew.” Forbes, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/garthfriesen/2019/03/21/politics-productivity-population-why-the-chinese-economy-flew-and-indias-just-grew/?sh=7a4aad262e7d
[xxxiii] Yousefi, Amir Mohammad.” ژئوپليتيک، ژئواکونوميک و چشمانداز همکاري ايران و هند در چابهار [Geopolitics, Geoeconomics, and the Prospective of Iranian-Indian Cooperation in Chabahar Port]” The Geopolitics Journal, 2020. http://journal.iag.ir/article_106587_73649863f4b256ca4db39068a467766d.pdf
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[xxxv] Bhaumik, Anirban. “India wants Chabahar Port in North-South Transport Corridor to counter China’s moves to link it with Belt & Road Initiative.” Deccan Herald, 2021. https://www.deccanherald.com/national/india-wants-chabahar-port-in-north-south-transport-corridor-to-counter-china-s-moves-to-link-it-with-belt-and-road-initiative-958210.html
[xxxvi] Ramachandran, Sudha. “India Doubles Down on Chabahar Gambit.” The Diplomat, 2019. https://thediplomat.com/2019/01/india-doubles-down-on-chabahar-gambit/
[xxxvii] Sacks, David. “The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Hard Reality Greets BRI’s Signature Initiative.” Council on Foreign Relations, 2021. https://www.cfr.org/blog/china-pakistan-economic-corridor-hard-reality-greets-bris-signature-initiative
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[xxxix] Saran, Shyam. “What China’s One Belt and One Road Strategy Means for India, Asia and the World.” The Wire, 2015. https://web.archive.org/web/20151118041734/http:/thewire.in/2015/10/09/what-chinas-one-belt-and-one-road-strategy-means-for-india-asia-and-the-world-12532/
[xl] Hincks, Joseph. “What China’s New Deal with Iran Says About Ambitions in the Region.” The Time, 2020. https://time.com/5872771/china-iran-deal/
[xli] Bowman, Bradley. Brobst, Ryan. Zovak, Zane. “Iran Joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.” The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, 2021. https://www.fdd.org/analysis/2021/09/22/iran-joining-shanghai-cooperation-organisation/
[xlii] Lai, David. Lingwall, Noah. “ China; A Solution in the Middle East.” The Diplomat, 2015. https://thediplomat.com/2015/06/china-a-solution-in-the-middle-east/
[xliii] Lun Tian, Yew. “Beware Taliban promises, Afghanistan envoy to China warns.” Reuters, 2021. https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/beware-taliban-promises-afghanistan-envoy-china-warns-2021-08-06/