Strategic and stealthy are two words that characterize China’s expanding association with the Middle East. As America continues to renege on commitments made in the region, a gulf of potential geopolitical influence has emerged, leaving a tactical opportunity that China has welcomed with open arms.
The US’ influence in the region began rather uneasily but eventually snowballed into a major economic, political, and security role. The country will still be a major player within the Middle East due to its strategic importance, however, economic relations are continuously pivoting towards the East. The shifting center of gravity of American priorities, alongside current geopolitical tensions between the US and China, suggest the power dynamic in the Middle East is changing. And while the scope of China’s potential involvement is contested, it remains open.
China is the largest buyer of oil from the Middle East—a factor that cannot be understated when it comes to influence.
As it stands, China is the largest buyer of oil from the Middle East—a factor that cannot be understated when it comes to influence. Saudi Arabia’s oil exports to China rose 1.9 percent from the previous year to around 84.92 million tonnes, while Chinese purchases of Iranian oil climbed to record highs in 2021. Beijing has strong ties with all major countries within the Middle East, yet the deepening alignment with Iran is of particular concern to the US. The announcement of a 25-year-long economic and development agreement between China and Iran adds to the mounting concerns around Chinese ambitions in the region. It also serves as an Iranian warning to Washington indicating that Tehran is “not dancing to a US tune anymore.”
The agreement, dubbed the “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,” has security ambiguities which will undoubtedly trouble the US as well as other countries. More specifically, it is the geopolitical challenge this new dynamic poses, that informs Washington’s reaction in this scenario. Add pressure or release pressure? Strengthen sanctions or alleviate “maximum pressure” measures? By failing to curb this growing relationship between Beijing and Tehran, Washington will effectively be giving China a license to flourish strategically and economically within the region; the antithesis of its aim.
As geopolitical tension intensifies, Washington’s actions here can be used to symbolize the extent of its withdrawal from the Middle East. Physical withdrawal is one thing but abandoning geopolitical objectives is another thing entirely.
While China may not want to strengthen its political and security presence in the Middle East, it might not have a choice.
However, China’s role within the Middle East is by no means plain sailing. The Middle East is a region that stands to achieve great benefit from increased Chinese investment, but also one that is compounded by regional and geopolitical complexities. As such, while China may not want to strengthen its political and security presence, it might not have a choice.
For instance, on July 28, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Taliban officials and publicly recognized the Taliban as a legitimate political force in Afghanistan. China is also one of the few countries that have announced they will not close their embassies in Kabul, following the Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan in recent weeks.
While China wishes to play a bigger economic role within the Middle East, evidence of sustainable stability may dictate the extent to which this is achievable. Therefore, while this new partnership between China and the Middle East may be predominantly economic, that is not a comprehensive assessment of the current situation. As once happened to the US, there is a real possibility that China will get increasingly tangled in the web of security, and political matters. Successfully navigating this dynamic is key to the accomplishment of China’s aims.
China’s intentions in the Middle East are not meant to replace the US’ role. Rhetorically at least, they are solely developmental rather than political or of any security nature—though the likelihood of this remains to be seen. China’s inconspicuous aims are focused on its Belt and Road initiative, launched in 2013 with the goal of placing China at the center of global trade networks.
Essentially, the idea is to create a “belt” of overland corridors and a maritime “road” of shipping lanes. It includes 71 countries that account for half the world’s population and a quarter of global GDP. The economic belt is intended to establish both hard and soft infrastructure initiatives, reminiscent of the past Silk Road. Through this plan, China has the capacity to play a major economic role within the Middle East. Nonetheless, Beijing’s heavy reluctance to be pulled into political or security liabilities will likely prove to be an arduous task.
Ostensibly, Beijing’s official stance is that the Belt and Road initiative in no way advances its own geopolitical goals. While economic expansion has and remains a core – if not the core – foreign policy priority of Xi Jinping’s government, an economic expansion of this scale inevitably affects geopolitics. Moreover, while China may not be directly advancing its geopolitical goals, it is a threatening presence, looming over US foreign policy in the region. Accordingly, staying under the radar and negatively impacting Washington’s objectives would indirectly benefit Beijing’s aims.
China is taking advantage of the chasm of economic opportunity that is now more readily available than ever.
As such, while China has an increased strategic interest in the Middle East, it is not comparable to what was once the US’ role. Instead of replicating that role, China is taking advantage of the chasm of economic opportunity that is now more readily available than ever, following Washington’s retreat. The same can be said about its investment in Africa, a continent also neglected by the US in terms of investment. It appears that China is gravitating towards regions whereby the US is absent or diminishing its efforts, in order to become the primary nation in shaping global economic architectures.
World opinion is at an all-time low for China, therefore their method of deference based on dependence facilitates the swaying of allies. The Middle East is no exception. Hence, Joe Biden must make the US more competitive than it currently is. Too often Washington demonizes China instead of offering better options. The Middle East and Africa are two pertinent examples of a failure of Western states to efficiently get involved.
Upon close analysis, the increased presence of China in the Middle East is not the main issue, as that can be challenged. Instead, it is the absence of the West – in particular the US – that is problematic. To combat China’s expanding influence, the US must provide economic alternatives. Yet, it remains to be seen what actions Washington is willing to take and how effective those actions will be in diminishing China’s rise.