Photo credit: https://www.arabnews.com/node/1594821/saudi-arabia
As the United States draws down its presence in the Middle East, many in the international community are wondering what actor might step in to fill the supposed power vacuum that will be left in place of the region’s main security broker. Russia and Iran are both known to routinely engage in efforts to influence the balance of power and regional dynamics in the Middle East. Less is known, however, about the intentions of a rapidly rising China in the region. To date, China has largely been freeriding on American security guarantees in the Middle East. As the US recalls troops and military equipment in support of its pivot to Asia, how China intends to protect its national interests in the Middle East is becoming an increasingly relevant question. While China’s energy and economic interests in the region are clear, the retracting US-security umbrella may force China to decide if it’s willing to shoulder the cost of providing its own security in the Middle East. An examination of Chinese interests in the region is a prudent place to look for answers.
For the most part, diplomatic ties were not established between Beijing and Middle East states until the 1990s, when China began its rapid economic development. As the Chinese economy grew, so did its domestic energy needs. Beijing looked to the Middle East to help meet its energy demand. In 2015, China surpassed the US as the largest importer of oil in the world. By 2020, Middle Eastern states supplied roughly 40 percent of China’s oil imports. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Oman, Iran, Kuwait, the UAE, and Libya are all important exporters in China’s oil portfolio.
In practice, the BRI more closely resembles a tool designed to help Beijing advance its geopolitical interests by economically shackling states of geostrategic significance to China.
While energy is undoubtedly China’s foremost national interest in the Middle East, Beijing has greatly increased its trade with the region as well. Presently, China is the single largest regional investor and trade partner of eleven Middle Eastern states. The Middle East has become crucial to President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the ostensible aim of which is to connect, through infrastructure development, lesser-developed regions of China with Central Asia and Europe on land, and southern provinces of China to the Middle East and South Asia by sea. In practice, the BRI more closely resembles a tool designed to help Beijing advance its geopolitical interests by economically shackling states of geostrategic significance to China. Nonetheless, twenty-one Middle Eastern states have partnered with China on BRI development projects.
It appears, at least to date, that China prefers its Middle East engagement to be limited to an economic capacity. Under a US-provided security umbrella in the Middle East, China has been mostly able to establish an economic and diplomatic presence in the region without engaging in policies that might irritate Middle Eastern states. As the US dials back its presence and the security umbrella shrinks, China risks being drawn into regional disputes to protect the national interests it has spent the last thirty-odd years cultivating. As the globe’s largest importer of oil, for instance, energy supply, energy price, and freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf and through the Strait of Hormuz have been solidified as essential Chinese national interests. Currently, however, the US dominates protection of those Middle East shipping lanes that are crucial to Chinese oil imports. China may come to see this arrangement as unacceptable and expand its naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, the BRI––deemed important enough to be written into the Chinese Communist Party’s constitution––is now a critical economic Chinese national interest. The BRI’s success is intertwined with China’s long-term foreign policy vision. China’s institutionalization of the initiative suggests that Beijing would go to great lengths to protect it.
But becoming too close to Iran risks alienating Beijing from the US and the greater international community, as well as Beijing’s Arab partners.
Thus far, China has been careful to engage in the Middle East in ways that do not upset the status-quo. However, its diplomatic balancing act is not likely to remain tenable forever. Two of Beijing’s most important partners in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Iran, are bitter regional rivals. Each views China as a source of leverage over the other, calling into question how long China will be able to maintain amicable relations with both states. If circumstances dictate that China choose sides, important energy resources from either Saudi Arabia or Iran would be jeopardized. China’s increasingly warm relationship with Tehran underscores Beijing’s diplomatic balancing act. From 2005-2018, Chinese investments in Iran totaled more than $27 billion, and a variety of BRI projects––including a direct freight railway from Tehran to China––link the two. But becoming too close to Iran risks alienating Beijing from the US and the greater international community, as well as Beijing’s Arab partners.
Beijing has enmeshed itself in the Middle East through reliance on energy and massive economic and infrastructure investment. As the US security umbrella retracts, it remains to be seen what lengths China will go to in order to protect its national interests. Beijing won’t be able to tiptoe around deep-seated regional tensions forever. When push comes to shove, China’s approach to protecting its national interests in the region has the potential to draw Beijing into a position necessitating military engagement. In the long run, China may become a Middle East power broker whether it wants to or not.