China’s Growing Role in Revamping Middle Eastern Politics

Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.” This statement seems pertinent today. China has awakened and its growing role in revamping global political affairs has sent shock waves across the world. The recent political transformation in the Middle East took many stakeholders by surprise, when, in March 2022, Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia signed a historic agreement brokered by China to resume their diplomatic ties and resolve bilateral disputes with dialogue. This was the most significant political development in the Middle East after the historic Abraham Accords between Arab states and Israel under the umbrella of the United States. This agreement is of paramount significance for two reasons. First, it has paved the way for the normalization of relations between the arch-rivals of the Middle East. Second, this agreement speaks about China’s growing role in revamping Middle Eastern politics. 

Middle East has remained one of the most conflict-ridden regions throughout history. It remained a volatile region amid incessant inter-state conflicts, predominantly between Arab states and Israel over the Palestine-Israel conflict, and great power rivalry over energy resources. Since the end of World War II, this region found itself embroiled in the great power rivalry between the United States on the one hand and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the other. During Cold War, China was hostile towards Arab states due to their inclination towards Western anti-communism block. This is evident from the fact that Saudi Arabia voted against the membership of China in UN in 1971. However, since the latter half of the 1980s, China started revamping its relations with Arab states. After the end of the Cold War, the United States unilaterally exercised its unchallenged hegemony over the region. Although it maintained cordial ties with numerous Arab states of the region in order to bolster its stronghold on vast energy resources of the region, the relations between the U.S. and Arab states (notably Saudi Arabia) has declined over the years as evident from inclination of the Arab states towards China. 

China remained a passive observer towards the Middle East for decades, but its growing economic ties with Arab states encouraged Beijing to play more proactive role in the region. The deepening economic ties between China and Arab states is evident from the fact that from 1980 till 2021, China’s exports to the Gulf increased at annual rate of 11.7% while that of Gulf countries increased by 19.7% per annum during the same duration. In the year 2021, China imported more than 40% of crude oil from the Middle East with Saudi Arabia contributing to 17% of China’s total oil demand. Furthermore, in 2021, bilateral trade between China and Arab states increased to $330 billion. With Saudi Arabia alone, the bilateral trade volume increased from $417 million in 1990 to $65.2 billion in 2020. Since 2013, when China launched its historic Belt and Road Initiative, around 15 states from Middle East have joined it. From energy projects to infrastructure development, China is investing massively in multiple projects across the Middle Eastern countries. According to 2022 annual report of Shanghai-based Green Finance and Development Centre (GFDC), total BRI investments across the Middle East reached $67.8 billion with Saudi Arabia being the largest destination of investments. Furthermore, China peppered the Middle East with more than $273 billion investment between 2005 and 2022- being the largest investor in the region. Today, China has become the biggest purchaser of oil from Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

Initially, China abstained itself from entangling in internal conflicts of the region, but with expanding economic ties it has begun to assert itself more proactively in the regional affairs. The success story of China’s nuanced diplomacy came in the limelight when hostile regional powers- Saudi Arabia and Iran- signed a reconciliation agreement brokered by China. This deal ended seven years long diplomatic rift between both states. This is something rather extraordinary that China achieved in the region. China has successfully transformed its economic clout into diplomatic and political clout in an attempt to accomplish its economic and geopolitical interests in the region. According to Atlantic Council 2019 report, China has signed comprehensive strategic partnerships with Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Egypt. This strategic partnership entails full diplomatic support on regional and global affairs. In 2021, China also signed 25 years long economic cooperation deal to deepen its economic ties with Tehran. The rising China’s influence in the region indicates that its policies are underpinned by strategic imperatives. 

China also aims to mediate peace talks between Israel and Palestine to end their century-long conflict. It put forth a four-point peace plan in 2021 for the resolution of this longstanding dispute in 2021. Last Month China’s foreign minister had a telephonic conversation with her Israeli and Palestinian counterparts and offered to facilitate peace talks between both states. China is pursuing more pragmatic foreign policy as evident from its initiative to normalize ties between Israel and Palestine. If China succeeds in brokering a peace deal between Israel and Palestine the entire geopolitical landscape of the region will be revamped with China being the new and reliable bellwether. 

China’s rising political and economic influence in Middle East comes at the expanse of apparently diminishing role of the US in the region. There are debates that whether or not China will replace the US in the Middle East. Although China has grown its economic and diplomatic influence in the region it seems least interested in supplanting the US in the region. The United States has long been actively involved in the region as a single security guarantor. It has a notorious history of indulging in wars in the region, dethroning the elected regimes, and intervening in domestic affairs on the pretext of upholding human rights and democratic values. China is a reliable partner for Middle Eastern states in contrast to the US for two reasons. First, China firmly adheres to the principle of sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs of states which makes it an unparalleled interlocutor in the region. Second, China through BRI Project aims to deeply integrate the regional economies by enhancing trade, investment and infrastructure projects. Although China has recently started playing more proactive geopolitical role as evident from the recent mediation of Saudi-Iran deal and joint naval operations with Arab states, it is less likely that it would replace the US in the region. The United States thus far has remained the sole security provider of the region and it has more than 30 military bases with huge military presence across the region. It also has been the largest arms supplier to the regional states from past several years. The United States has retreated from the region for a while but has reiterated not to leave vacuum for any other player in the region. 

Experts are of the view that the recent Saudi-Iran accord mediated by China is an outstanding diplomatic success of China in the region. The growing China’s economic power coupled with its pragmatic diplomatic maneuverings makes it a reliable peace broker between states. As long as it avoids imitating policies pursued by US it would remain an incontrovertible power in the region. The active involvement of China in the region and the danger it poses to the established regional dynamics may bring it into confrontation with the US in the region. It remains to be seen in foreseeable future that whether or not China’s active involvement in the region will bring sustainable peace in the region.

[Photo by Kremlin.ru, via Wikimedia Commons]

Danish hanif is a Research Associate at the South Asian Strategic Stability Institute, Islamabad. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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