China’s Strategy in the Middle East
More Analysis

China’s Strategy in the Middle East

Recent tensions in the Middle East have drawn global attention to the region, where China’s engagement has grown substantially over the past decade. How does Beijing assess its relationships with states in the Arab world, and how are Chinese policymakers viewing the future of U.S.-China tensions in the region? Experts in China-Middle East relations analyze recently translated Chinese scholarship on Beijing’s evolving strategy for engagement with countries in the MENA region.

FacebookTwitterLinkedInEmailPrintCopy Link

Newly translated documents discussed in these analyses include:

  1. The Accession of Arab Countries to the BRICS Is an Important Milestone in the Trend of Diversification in International Politics by Gu Zhenglong, fellow with the Middle East Institute of the Shanghai International Studies University and a fellow with the China Foundation for International Studies.
  2. Coexistence with the United States: New Challenges in China’s Middle East Policy by Niu Xinchun, director and researcher at the Institute of Middle East Studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.
  3. China’s Middle East Major Country Diplomacy against the Background of Upheaval in the Middle East by Liu Shengxiang, professor at the Shanghai International Studies University Institute of Middle East Studies and Gao Han, PhD candidate, School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Institute of Middle East Studies, Shanghai International Studies University.

Jump to commentary from:

Ahmed Aboudouh | Ádám Koi

Ahmed Aboudouh

Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House Head of China Studies, Emirates Policy Center

In the three articles by Niu Xinchun, Gao Han and Liu Shengxiang, and Gu Zhenglong, U.S. influence in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is predictably depicted as the source of regional instability and turmoil. Han and Liu even go so far as to put forward the questionable charge that the United States helped overthrow Arab governments during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Not only does this claim echo the “color revolution” anxiety dominating Chinese strategic thinking, it also lays the groundwork for presenting China’s rising influence as a pillar of stability and noninterference. In this narrative, China’s regional footprint is a counterbalance that guarantees stability and diversification, nominally through economic cooperation, ultimately leading to MENA countries’ desired outcome: multipolarity.

Niu’s and Gu’s emphasis on designing an interactive economic development relationship that guarantees political stability and security is particularly notable. This theorization aligns with the official “peace through development” principle enshrined in China’s vision for global governance. Nevertheless, it sheds light on a consensus among Chinese scholars that this is the remedy to the region’s constant tumult—as long as competition with the United States does not act as a destabilizing factor.

Niu astutely presents the accurate conclusion that Chinese-U.S. interests in the Middle East generally overlap, while only a few diverge. Like Han and Liu, however, he believes the MENA region is heading toward a new phase of intensified strategic competition since China’s rising capabilities, especially in the high-tech sector, naturally threaten the United States’ hegemonic regional posture. In this way, economic incentives for peace and stability also cause magnified strategic competition, especially in the context of the U.S.-China tech war and the U.S. push to decentralize supply chains.

The two articles notably focus on the fact that China’s development path is unintentionally disrupting the United States’ centrality in the regional system; this is not a conscious choice by China to promote itself as a “vacuum filler” or an alternative security provider. However, although the authors agree that this could worsen regional volatility, they do not necessarily offer a unified assessment of its underlying causes. Niu believes China and the United States will lock horns due to their systemic competition worldwide rather than to regional root causes. Han and Liu, on the contrary, argue that the turmoil arising from worsening regional rivalries, especially between Saudi Arabia and Iran, will also impact great power competition. 

The United States’ “strategic contraction” and its role as a source of regional anxiety is a central theme. However, the three authors look at MENA countries’ policies and strategic objectives differently. While Niu sees regional countries as “willing to exaggerate” China’s influence to counterbalance the United States, Han and Liu highlight their appeal to China to behave as a superpower and “shoulder responsibility” for regional security. Gu, meanwhile, sees the decision by Egypt, Saudi Arabia (to be confirmed), and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to join BRICS as part of their push for a multipolar international system. China is depicted as the agent of economic multipolarity, with Gu emphasizing the compatibility between the two sides’ goals of economic diversification and Arab countries’ multi-alignment strategy.  

Gu offers a compelling argument that the future restructuring of the global energy market is a central motivation for the BRICS expansion. Russia’s membership—and the accession of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran—would allow the economic grouping to control both oil production and consumption markets since China and India, the other two members, are major energy importers. He agrees with Niu that the war in Ukraine will accelerate MENA countries’ diversification policies. One can say the same about the Gaza war, too.

These authors’ lack of a credible critique of Beijing’s policies in the MENA region is understandably conspicuous, given the state’s tight control of the narrative inside China. Nonetheless, these readings are a valuable window into a notable change in Chinese scholars’ views about the country’s role in the Middle East. There is a shift in academic research away from the traditional focus on purely economic policies as the sole dynamo behind China’s involvement in Middle Eastern affairs toward examining its great power competition objectives in the context of MENA countries’ own strategies. This is a positive development, as it generates a more realistic discussion on the region’s future—albeit one that is short on scrutiny of the Chinese government’s choices and does not present it with a clear policy direction.  

Ádám Koi

Research Fellow, ChinaMed Project

In recent years, China’s engagement in the Middle East has become increasingly institutionalized, following a trend of growing Chinese economic presence, as seen through recent data on trade and foreign direct investment (FDI). On the diplomatic front, in March 2023 China successfully provided a stage for the diplomatic reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and in July it facilitated the expansion of BRICS into the Middle East, with six new members joining. These developments have sparked debates on China’s involvement in the Middle East, as it has been increasingly vocal in promoting its new “security architecture” for the region.

The translated articles delve into the triangular relations between the Middle East, the People’s Republic of China, and the United States. The article by Professor Niu Xinchun from the Institute of Middle East Studies at Ningxia University’s China Institute of Contemporary International Relations provides an in-depth look into the dynamics between the United States, China, and regional players. The article cowritten by Liu Shengxiang, a professor at the Institute of Middle East Studies at Shanghai International Studies University, with Gao Han, a PhD candidate at this institute, also discusses Chinese engagement in a detailed manner. Finally, the article by Gu Zhenglong, the director of the same institute, mainly focuses on the motivations of Arab countries to join BRICS. It is crucial to note, however, that these articles reflect the state of the Chinese discourse before the October 7 attack on Israel, which prompted adjustments in Chinese diplomacy.

Some common features of the Chinese takeaways are apparent, especially terminology-wise: The Chinese scholarly debate revolves around “shifts,” “transitions,” and “great power games.” Chinese scholars tend to reiterate and expound the key concepts of Chinese foreign policy, such as the “shared future of mankind” and “major country diplomacy,” rather than put them under rigorous scrutiny. With regard to the Middle East, ideas like “Chinese solutions” (i.e., being timely and able to address regional issues) and “win-win” cooperation are relatively common. Unsurprisingly, the actions of the United States are consistently interpreted through the anti-hegemonic lens that is typical of the Chinese academic and policy discourse. That said, the words of these scholars should not be entirely dismissed, as it is quite common in many Chinese academic articles to highlight policy implementation problems, raise awareness among readers about external criticism of Chinese policy measures, and probe new ideas.

As for whether China’s growing economic presence translates into greater political and military presence in the Middle East, the authors offered somewhat differing opinions.

Liu and Han, in support of their thesis that China is not seeking hegemony, point to its past of suffering under colonialism, quoting official statements on Beijing’s unwavering allegiance to “peaceful development” and “international fairness and justice”—which stand in stark contrast to Western criticism of China being merely a “security free rider.” Although they highlight, and arguably overstate, the significance of Chinese diplomatic envoys and roadmaps in peacebuilding they acknowledge that China’s efforts in the Middle East are primarily driven by economic interests and the desire to enhance its global standing as a “responsible major power”. Their analysis backs China’s careful diplomatic tiptoeing while suggesting that issues such as the petroyuan could easily cause disturbances if seen as stepping on U.S. national interests. In any case, Liu and Han, much like Gu Zhenglong, seem optimistic about the expansion of China’s influence in the region, framing this process as part of the broader transition to a multipolar international system.

Against this background, while Niu agrees that China has been picking the low-hanging fruits in diplomacy, he is more critical of the idea that a power or order transition is happening. Indeed, he argues that neither the United States nor China is particularly interested in a fundamental change to the status quo in the short term. Although successive U.S. presidents have made it clear that the United States should not “govern” the Middle East, Niu believes that U.S. national interests and its ironclad commitment to Israel make a U.S. withdrawal unrealistic. Similarly, he argues that China lacks the military capabilities to effectively challenge the United States as a security provider. However, Niu cautions that distorted American perceptions of China’s actions, combined with the escalating tensions between these two major powers on a global scale, might incite undesired tensions in the region. Therefore, his article warns of the potential risks China could face if it chooses to involve itself deeply in Middle Eastern security dynamics.

Interestingly, all scholars express that Arab countries do not show a desire to pick a side between Washington and Beijing, as they can maximize their interests by keeping a flexible approach. Therefore, although China’s diplomatic response to the war in Gaza may close a chapter in its relations with Israel, its regionwide influence is arguably on the rise. This is evident in increased diplomatic activity from Beijing, which is eager to establish a positive track record on mediating conflicts and, in doing so, solidify China’s image as responsible and influential global actor. While regional stability is an area where goals seem to align, Beijing’s prospective entry into security could spark conflicts between the United States and China.

To top