Middle Eastern states have always welcomed China’s involvement in economic fields. China’s total trade with the region has increased dramatically since the beginning of the twenty-first century, and it is growing steadily, rising from $180 billion in 2019 to $259 billion in 2021. On the other hand, the total Middle East trade with the United States has declined from $120 billion dollars in 2019 to $82 billion in 2021. China is still working to consolidate its economic ties, transcending regional divisions, which contributes to strengthening its position as the largest trading partner for regional powers such as Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
China has historically avoided getting involved in regional conflicts or taking direct positions on thorny disputes. Instead of challenging the US hegemony and military supremacy in the Middle East in the post-Cold War era, China, as a secondary superpower, benefited from the US security cover without contributing to it, without incurring the same security cost as the US, and without facing same strategic dilemmas. However, this reality seems to be changing today. By mediating the agreement to resume relations between Riyadh and Tehran, Beijing is embarking on a new turning point based on expanding its involvement in the region by moving from economic exchange to negotiating dispute resolution.
The way China works to achieve negotiated solutions to disputes is an attractive factor for the states of the region, which have on several occasions since 2011 criticized successive US administrations for their strategic withdrawal from the Middle East, and resented the failure of US intervention in Iraq, Libya, Syria and other states. China may hail its brokering of the Saudi-Iranian deal as a diplomatic success short for the United States, but Tehran and Riyadh must first honor their commitments to it.
As China plunges into the midst of Middle Eastern politics and its complexities, it will face strategic challenges that will undermine its image as a neutral party, and the success of its new strategy in the region will depend on local realities on the ground. China, as it has been Iran’s largest trading partner for ten years, is in a unique position to get Iran to live up to its commitments, although China’s willingness to do so remains uncertain. But it is clear that it made an ambitious bet in its mediating role between the two states, and the future course of events will depend on the amount of pressure that China intends to apply, and to a much greater extent, on the behavior that Iran and Saudi Arabia choose to follow.
In the next stage, beyond mediation, China will have to decide what role it wants to play in the region: that of a diplomatic mediator, a military sponsor, or a distracted economic giant. It is still too early to anticipate the shifts that China’s regional stature may undergo, but its recent forays into Middle Eastern diplomacy suggest broader geopolitical interests. The best example of this is the Chinese-Arab summit, which was held for the first time in Riyadh last December, and the strategic partnership agreements that China signed with Iran on the one hand and some Arab states on the other.
It is not clear whether Beijing’s “zero conflict” policy can distance it from diplomatic pressure to define final geopolitical alignments. But it will have to navigate this new geopolitical atmosphere in measured ways. China, through its work to promote the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, may cause the wrath of Israel, which is not enthusiastic about this rapprochement. And Beijing, as it continues to implement the “zero conflicts” approach, must not turn a blind eye to the permanent issue in the Middle East, that is, the Palestinian issue, if it wants to maintain its credibility among the Arab masses. In the face of these conflicting interests, China’s regional policy based on strategic hedging may inadvertently evolve into a comprehensive policy to balance power and ensure security in the Middle East. A rising China may hold prospects for global multipolarity in the Middle East, but it will have to face and overcome the same pitfalls that the United States encountered if it is to bring about tangible change in the regional status quo.
As for the United States, it should not view the expansion of Chinese involvement solely as a threat. Beijing cannot and does not want to usurp Washington’s role as the dominant military power in the region. Rather, the reality of the situation is that China’s expanded geopolitical involvement may open up avenues for increasing its cooperation with the United States, by investing in specific regional relationships that Washington lacks, the best example of which is the strong trade ties between China and Iran. Since these two great powers align on some of their core interests in the region, including ensuring the flow of global energy resources and freedom of navigation, the United States must act prudently by refraining from pressuring its Arab allies into exclusive partnerships. Instead of Washington fearing and contributing to a cold war in the Middle East, it should reassess its priorities in the region and look for ways to achieve positive and stabilizing outcomes from engagement with Beijing.
The Middle East may be preparing to become an arena for multipolar competition, but this competition may not be vertical and may not happen overnight. Therefore, the great powers must respond to the realities on the ground by listening to the local forces and adapting to the changing regional concerns. And as long as it is no longer possible to maintain American unipolarity, perhaps it is more appropriate for the United States to keep pace with the current changes to achieve its interests in the best way.