China’s increased engagement in the Middle East

March 19, 2023

China has continued to expand strategic interests in the Middle East, building new relations with countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran

China’s increased engagement in the Middle East


he recent photographs of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi presiding over a handshake between Iran’s top security official Ali Shamkhani and Musaid Al Aiban, Saudi Arabia’s national security adviser, are making headlines across the globe, highlighting China’s role as a power broker. This agreement has the potential to calm the Middle East and increase China’s influence in the region.

Initially, Iraq had been acting as a mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but after the arrival of the new Iraqi Prime Minister, the mediation process paused, frustrating Saudi Arabia. It asked China to take up the role of mediator, and the pause in mediation worked as a power play, bringing the dialogue back on track. China conveyed Riyadh’s message to Tehran, which was eventually accepted, and both countries have pledged to respect the sovereignty of states and non-interference in their internal affairs.

At a time when China’s global footprint is deepening, its engagement in the Middle East has grown dramatically, showing that China is determined to establish a comprehensive partnership with the Arab world. This development has offered a framework to generate economic growth and strengthen Chinese ties with various nations in the region. Today, China’s increasing dominance in the Middle East indicates that China has not only become a key economic player but is also enhancing defense cooperation among Arab states.

China is building alliances, promoting trade, and helping countries cope with crises during desperate times, thereby leveraging a broad range of foreign policy tools to build strong relations throughout the Middle East. The China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF), formed in 2004, is an example of a mutually beneficial collaboration, as is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Recently, China played host to Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during his visit to Beijing, where discussions were held regarding enhanced cooperation in the areas of economics, security, and infrastructure. This official trip was particularly significant for Iran, which has been grappling with economic sanctions. The visit has proven to be a much-needed respite for Iran, as Beijing and Tehran signed approximately 20 agreements aimed at further strengthening their cooperation.

During the opening ceremony of the first China-Arab State Summit, the Chinese President delivered a keynote speech, emphasizing the promising future of collaboration between China and Arab nations. He also called for joint efforts to address challenges such as food and energy security, radicalization, and terrorism. China is eager to invest in the Middle East while ensuring that all partners secure their respective interests. The development of trade routes and shipping links is among the crucial initiatives being taken by China to achieve this goal. These efforts hold great promise for China in the Gulf region, pointing towards a bright and rewarding future.

China is leveraging a broad range of foreign policy tools to build strong relations throughout the Middle East.

The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative is a project aimed at developing an interdependent market for China while also enhancing its political power. China has been successful in establishing strategic partnerships and negotiating free trade agreements in the Gulf region. In recent years, Beijing’s engagement with GCC countries has gained momentum, and it is committed to maintaining this beneficial relationship, especially in the wake of the declining influence of the United States in the Middle East.

China’s growing interest in the Middle East can be attributed to its increasing dependence on oil imports. China relies heavily on the Middle East to fulfill the majority of its oil requirements, which are essential for fueling its demanding economy. Saudi Arabia is the main supplier of oil to China, followed by Iraq, UAE, and Kuwait. As China’s domestic reserves for oil and gas are inadequate to meet its ever-growing demands, the Gulf region has emerged as a crucial source of this critical commodity.

These interests have expanded significantly beyond the energy sector, and China has emerged as an economic power in the Gulf region. Despite the dynamic security situation in the Middle East, China remains focused on expanding strategic, economic, and diplomatic relations with Arab nations. China has offered diplomatic support in Iranian nuclear talks, and the Chinese President has called for the resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue.

China has established similar strategic partnerships with other Arab countries as well, striking a delicate balance in its engagement with Middle Eastern allies. While China has maintained a non-interference policy in the Middle East and has been cautious in its political and security involvement, it has recently exhibited a degree of flexibility. China has not only gotten involved in mediation but also brokered a deal between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In the Syrian conflict, China is also playing a significant role as a mediator, and voted in favor of a UNSC resolution demanding the Syrian regime lift sieges and facilitate humanitarian access to war-torn areas. China has deployed various diplomatic tools across the Middle East to offer involvement without crossing the red line of interference, thereby respecting the national sovereignty of states.

China’s policy of promoting economic growth in the Middle East reflects its ideology of providing much-needed economic relief and improving the quality of life in the region. Beijing has invested billions of dollars in Belt and Road Initiative-related projects in Egypt and Iraq over the years. The Emirates have also been upgrading port infrastructure and cooperating with major Chinese companies. Some western countries have accused China of using “debt-trap diplomacy”. This refers to a situation where a country is unable to repay loans for infrastructure projects and may have to cede control of the project or other assets to China as a result. The Centre for Global Development in Washington reckons that China’s Belt and Road Initiative elevates debt risks in eight countries including Pakistan, Laos, Maldives and Mongolia 12. All eight countries would see their levels of debt owed to China rise “sometimes dramatically” due to the initiative. However, China has rejected these accusations and insisted these nations have reaped benefits from its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure projects.

While China has placed the economy at the heart of its foreign policy and shaped a discourse of lasting peace through economic development, its promising diplomatic efforts will have far-reaching positive implications across the Gulf region. China’s contribution to the stability of the Gulf region is enormous, and it continues to pursue active multilateral cooperation by expanding its economic ties and diplomatic contacts. As a result, China is poised to reap the benefits of lucrative partnerships with its Arab allies.

The writer is a freelance journalist

China’s increased engagement in the Middle East