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Beijing’s Middle East Policy is Running Aground

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Despite limited diplomatic achievements this year, China finds the Middle East’s perennial conflicts and tensions difficult to navigate.

As the United States and the Soviet Union discovered half a century ago, China is finding that its deepening engagement with the Middle East is more frustrating than rewarding. Energy, economic interests, and security are the main goals ofChinese diplomacy in the Middle East. Beijing’s foreign policy, mimicking that of Washington’s in the 1950s, seeks as broad an appeal as possible to minimize energy dependence on a single country or coalition and offset the risks inherent in dealing with unstable regimes and regional alignments. China’s de-risking strategy means balanced relations with pairs of historical rivals, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, all of which puts it at odds with Israel. Beijing’s solution to the apparent contradiction of courting adversaries is a heavy dose of trade and investment while insincerely offering mediation over regional tensions.

Despite Beijing announcing its contribution to the Iran-Saudi rapprochement inApril of 2023, this development is more accurately characterized as a ceasefireprimarily facilitated by the winding down of the conflict in Yemen. Aside from diplomatic encounters and exchanges, there have been no substantive changesin either Tehran or Riyadh’s policy declarations or posture. In July 2023, during the inauguration of its embassy in Tehran, Saudi Arabia refused to hold a conference in a hall with a photo of General Qassem Soleimani, the former commander of Iran’s Quds Force, and the conference moved to another venue. Iran’s “Shia Crescent” strategy still remains, although now as a diplomatic rather than a military effort.

Beijing requested that the contents of its twenty-five-year accord with Iran not be published, most likely because of its blowback on Chinese-Saudi relations, though the New York Times managed to obtain a draft. The agreement focuses on exchanging Chinese investment as part of its Belt & Road Initiative for secure oil exports. What has not changed is China’s insistence on Iran curbing any move towards nuclear weapons, which it is pursuing primarily to assuage its Gulf Arab partners. Iran is a valuable geopolitical bridge if China extends strategic pipelines and rail links through Pakistan or Central Asia farther into the Black Sea region or the Eastern Mediterranean. During the visit of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Beijing, The China Daily described “Iran [as] an ideal country in the Middle East region to advance the Belt and Road project and in turn, [and] cooperation with China will be a key to Iran’s economic development.”

However, Iran’s publications and public opinion have taken a negative view of this accord, and some have questioned its fairness, given China’s propensity to demand complete control over its investment projects. To date, the accord has produced no observable economic benefits for Iran. This is partly because Iran’s manufacturing and non-energy sectors are not sufficiently developed to benefit from export opportunities to China. China has not yet made any significant infrastructural investments in Iran. In fact, because of concerns over Western sanctions and China’s Arab allies like Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Beijing has so far refused to invest in Iran’s oil fields and facilities. Some estimates show that Sinopec’s six-year delay in the first phase of “Yadavaran Square” has caused a loss of more than $3 billion to Iran’s economy. Furthermore, China is far more likely to displace Iranian influence in Central Asia than integrate their regional interaction.

The value of China’s trade with Iraq is double that of Iran. China has widened its relations with Iraq beyond energy and seeks to displace the dollar with the yuan. Tehran is aware that there is a zero-sum aspect to trade relations: any increase in Iraqi exports to China can decrease energy revenues for Iran. However, relations with Baghdad are further compromised by Beijing’s cultivation of good relations with the government of the U.S.-backed Kurdistan region of Iraq, giving it access to the oil output of the Irbil region. The Kurdistan region in turn is expecting China to pressure Tehran from conducting its occasional missile strikes against bases alleged to provide sanctuary to anti-Tehran dissidents and Kurdish separatists. Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran consider the independent Kurdish polities dangerous focal points for centrifugal ethnic social movementsand safe harbors for terrorist groups.

It is almost impossible for Beijing to satisfy both Iranian and Arab security interests fully. In December 2022, Chinese president Xi Jinping arrived in Riyadhand issued a joint statement with representatives of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council). Despite China’s broad diplomatic approach, its sidestepping of the territorial dispute between the UAE and Iran led to criticism from Tehran. There were calls by angry Iranian netizens suggesting a reciprocal withdrawal of the recognition of China’s claim to Taiwan.

Paradoxically, Qatar and Oman are the Gulf Arab countries that enjoy the friendliest relations with both China and Iran. Nonetheless, they are also strong U.S. partners and friendly with European NATO countries. Consequently, China’s dealings with Qatar have been limited primarily to energy and investment. Chinese extraction companies have made repeated investments in Qatar’s North Field, which will export liquid natural gas to China for at least the next two decades. On the other hand, Doha is also the only Persian Gulf government to side with the Western democracies on the issue of China’s genocidal treatment of the Uyghur ethnic minority.

Doha’s diplomacy is complex, to say the least, with significant influence on regional public opinion managed through media outlet Al Jazeera. It shares in common with Iran, the world’s largest gas field (the South Pars). Qatar also hosts the largest U.S. airbase in the Persian Gulf and has refused Russian arms purchases, such as the S-400 missile defense system. It furthermore consistently supports Turkish initiatives in Syria and Iraq, which go against Iranian interests. Yet, Doha acts as a mediator between the United States and Iran, as well as the Taliban and Yemeni Houthis. Similarly, while Doha has conditioned recognition of Israel on progress on the status of Palestinians, Al Jazeera has hosted a preponderance of commentators that condemn any agreement with Israel. Qatar may be exchanging information with Israel’s security establishment, given that, unlike other Gulf States, its foreign aid transits to Gaza solely through Israeli checkpoints.

Finally, despite China’s growing commerce with Israel, a major U.S. ally, Beijing has stated its interest in resolving the Palestinian issue. Iranian officials consider the visit of Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, to Beijing as evidence of China’s efforts. This visit represented the highest level of recognition of Palestinians conferred to date by China. Wang Wenbin, the spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told reporters: “Abbas is an old and loyal friend of the Chinese people and the first Arab head of state to visit China this year.” He added: “China has always supported the just cause of the Palestinian people to restore their legitimate national rights.” At the beginning of this year, China’s foreign minister, Chin Gang, announced to both Israeli and Palestinian officials that Beijing is interested in playing a constructive role in negotiations over the status of the Palestinians. In addition, in July of 2023, Chinese media announced that China’s Foreign Minister Chin Gang reiterated in a telephone conversation with Israeli foreign minister Eli Cohen and Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Maliki that Beijing is ready to mediate between the two sides. Tel Aviv did not take up China’s offer, and there were no resulting changes to Chinese-Israeli commerce.

Unlike the Soviet Union, which was energy self-sufficient and free to pursue an ideological foreign policy against the Western democracies, China’s freedom of action is severely constrained by its dependence on imports from a region with many cross-cutting cleavages. Furthermore, the history of regime and domestic upheavals compels China to spread its imports as widely as possible among the oil and gas-rich states of the Middle East, further immobilizing any pursuit of security diplomacy. To avoid any retaliatory energy supply disruptions, such as what the West suffered during the 1973 oil embargo following the 1973 October War between Israel and the frontline Arab states, Beijing has prioritized avoiding political controversy. Given China’s trade with close U.S. allies, there is no room even for “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy. Integrating the Persian Gulf and the Middle East into Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative is not particularly controversial, at least for the countries in the region, given their long experience with managing engineering firms and mega-projects. In the event of war over Taiwan, Beijing might find its diplomacy sorely tested as many of its regional trading partners will be compelled by the close presence of the U.S. Navy to pick sides. The implication for Western states, particularly the United States and India, is not to exaggerate the security consequences of China’s deeper penetration of the Middle East.

Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill is an associate professor of international relations at Concordia University and the author of Militarization and War (2007) and Strategic Nuclear Sharing (2014). He has published extensively on Pakistan security issues and arms control and completed research contracts at the Office of Treaty Verification at the Office of the Secretary of the Navy and the then Ballistic Missile Defense Office (BMDO).  He has also conducted fieldwork in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and Egypt and is a consultant. He is a former Operations Officer of the 3rd Field Engineer Regiment from the latter end of the Cold War to shortly after 9/11.