China’s Rise in the Middle East

China long ago mastered the art of casually sitting on the sidelines while regional and global economic and political forces clash, then swiftly swooping in to scoop up the spoils.
China’s Rise in the Middle East
Image by: Abdelillah Arahal/Inside Arabia

That was best exemplified when Chinese oil companies won a variety of contracts from the Iraqi government following the end of the Iraq War. China did not fight in that war, but that did not stop Beijing from seeking to benefit from it, nor did it stop the Iraqi government from awarding the contracts to Chinese firms at the expense of firms from the U.S.  and other coalition members. China’s geostrategic positioning vis-à-vis the Middle East has been deliberately and carefully choreographed to ensure that its oil and gas purchasing power is well spent.

Beijing clearly sees the region’s shifting political sands as an opportunity to enhance its economic and political role, particularly as America’s power and influence continue to decline.

Beijing clearly sees the region’s shifting political sands as an opportunity to enhance its economic and political role, particularly as America’s power and influence continue to decline. In 2016, President Xi visited Tehran just days after global sanctions were officially lifted (Beijing literally did not waste a single day in attempting to establish a foothold with Iran), which resulted in some $600 billion worth of contracts for Chinese firms. China had already become Iran’s number one export partner. By visiting both Iran and Saudi Arabia in the same trip, President Xi attempted to leverage both countries’ proxy regional conflicts for Beijing’s own benefit, keeping both sides in its camp.

China has clearly established itself as the future growth market for Saudi petroleum. Saudi oil exports to China exceeded those to the U.S. for the first time in 2009, and the kingdom exports in excess of three times more to five Asian countries (China, Japan, South Korea, India, and Singapore) than it does to Europe and North America combined. By 2030, Chinese demand for oil is expected to reach more than 16 million barrels per day.  In contrast, U.S. oil imports are expected to continue to dwindle as a result of increased domestic production due to fracking. In shifting its oil export focus, Saudi Arabia is joining the world’s major Muslim powers that have also deepened their economic ties with China over the past decade.

Given the kingdom’s ongoing economic crisis as a result of the chronically depressed price of oil, the Saudis need the Chinese to continue to buy as much crude as possible. The House of Saud wishes to maintain its historical relationship with Washington while giving itself the freedom to pursue alternative economic and political relationships. China’s military lacks the capacity to police the Persian Gulf and safeguard shipping, and no country other than the U.S. has the capacity to provide a security umbrella to countries in the region. The Saudis will, therefore, remain dependent on the U.S. for security, which also suits Beijing’s interests. China has been content not to be seen as actively promoting regional stability, but rather to ride the coattails of the U.S. militarily.

China, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. are likely to continue to practice a rather awkward triangular balance of power in the Persian Gulf, reflective of an understanding of their interwoven dependencies, which limits their mutual capacity to deny each other a preeminent role in the region. Beijing and Riyadh realize that with U.S.  military bases in all of Saudi Arabia’s fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states, neither Beijing nor Riyadh are capable of removing Washington from its position as the predominant military actor in the Persian Gulf. Of course, neither China nor Saudi Arabia would benefit from a change in the U.S. role, as America continues to bear both the burden and the cost of policing the region.

The path China is blazing in the Middle East is rewriting the rule book on how to become important and influential—economically, politically, and diplomatically—without using military force either to project power or as a bargaining chip. No other country in the world would dare to visit Riyadh and Tehran in the same trip and hope to maintain favorable relations with both, yet China has done just that. Beijing has also become masterful at using a variety of approaches to get what it wants.

That said, only so much can be achieved by waiting in the background for the right moment to pounce. That model has worked reasonably well for China up to now, but regional and global geopolitical dynamics are shifting at an accelerated pace. President Xi has an opportunity to up the ante by catapulting Beijing to the forefront of geopolitical diplomacy and crisis management. That is an objective worthy of a country which has already assumed leadership roles in so many other aspects of the global chess board.

Beijing is not afraid to enter into the swirling waters of the Middle East or to target the most historically important and trusted partners of Washington.

Beijing is not afraid to enter into the swirling waters of the Middle East or to target the most historically important and trusted partners of Washington. It can do so not only because it is a valued trading partner, but also because few see China becoming less important and the U.S. becoming more important to the region in the future.

Beijing has already proven itself to be a worthy competitor in the region. Washington, Europe, and the rest of the world could learn a lot from the manner in which Beijing has acted, and continues to act, with bravado, swiftness, and resolve in pursuing its political, economic, and military ambitions.

The question is not whether Beijing will continue its bold push onto the global stage, but rather, what, if anything, can be done to stop it.