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China’s Middle East Major Country Diplomacy against the Background of Upheaval in the Middle East


Scholars at the Shanghai International Studies University suggest Beijing is deepening its economic, diplomatic, and security engagement in the Middle East largely at the request of countries in the region. Going forward, the authors suggest that as it seeks greater international influence, Beijing will need to carefully manage its regional engagement in order to avoid disappointing expectations among these states and minimize points of frictions with other extra-regional powers such as the U.S. and EU.

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Since the upheaval in the Middle East at the end of 2010, countries in the region have for a decade experienced varying degrees of political, economic, and social turmoil. Coupled with the ravages of terrorist organizations represented by “Islamic State” and the interference of some external forces, economic recession and unstable popular sentiment have become significant features of the development of Middle Eastern countries. To forge order from chaos and seek change in its midst have become the urgent desires of the governments and peoples of countries in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was held in November 2012, and China’s diplomacy entered into a new period, i.e., the period of major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics. This dovetailed fortuitously with the aspirations of Middle Eastern countries. On one hand, they hoped to establish close economic ties with China through the Belt and Road Initiative, and realize mutual benefits and win-win outcomes by hitching a ride on the “train” of rapid economic development; on the other hand, China hoped to demonstrate its responsibility as a major power in the Middle East and build up its image as a responsible great power. As of 2020, China’s Middle East major country diplomacy in the new era has been developing rapidly, with its concepts gradually taking shape and its role gradually maturing.


The results of research on China’s Middle East major country diplomacy by domestic and foreign academics have been fruitful. Domestic research has mainly focused on three levels. The first is research on the situation in the Middle East. A considerable number of scholars have been generally pessimistic about the security situation in the Middle East since the upheaval there, and suggest that China’s Middle East major country diplomacy should be cautious. They may be called “cautious pessimists.” They believe that the pattern of the Middle East has now entered a period of deep adjustment. The upheaval in the Middle East since the end of 2010 “is the product of the tortuous processes of nation-building and social development in the post-war Middle East… and is also a regional manifestation of the major changes, adjustments, and developments in the global international political and economic system in the post-Cold War era.” 1 The Middle East region has plunged into the most turbulent period in nearly a century, with more and more countries in turmoil, traditional security threats growing, and an escalating arms race. At present and for some years to come, the Middle East will be full of contradictions and obstacles as it moves from chaos to governance under the influence of strategic forces from within and outside the region.2 The second level is research on the promotion of the Belt and Road Initiative in the Middle East. Here, there are two main points of view: the “risk theory” and the “interest theory.” According to the “risk theory,” the Belt and Road Initiative faces great political, security, and third-party risks in the Middle East, and China’s Middle East policy must adhere to the principle of being “reasonable,” “beneficial,” and “segmented.”3 According to the “interest theory,” it is in China’s interest to properly manage friendly relationships with five key Middle Eastern countries: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, and Turkey. As long as the Belt and Road Initiative is successfully linked with the development strategies of these five key countries, and other countries are appropriately covered, China’s relations with the Middle East can be assured to develop along their intended track.4 Promotion of the Belt and Road Initiative should take into account overall national interests and strategies, and emphasize the comprehensiveness of China’s interests in the Middle East.5 The third level is research on China’s Middle East major country diplomacy. These researchers believe that China’s Middle East major country diplomacy presents both opportunities and challenges,6 and that China should proactively take responsibility in the Middle East, so they can be called “positive optimists.” They argue that China’s Middle East diplomacy should not remain at the level of stance and attitude, and China should actively participate in the resolution of regional hotspot issues and put forward China’s ideas and programs. As a responsible major power, if China wants to play a more responsible role in the geo-strategically important Middle East region, it must improve its ability to manage Middle East crises.7 It must shift from a general diplomacy of overall detachment, biding time, and concealing strength, to a Middle East diplomacy that is energetic and aggressive.8 The Middle East region provides an important platform for China to assume the responsibilities of a major power, and is a rare opportunity for China to provide public goods and a new growth driver for diplomacy.9 China needs to increase its investment to “enhance its influence and voice in Middle East affairs.”10


The main viewpoints in relevant studies in foreign academic circles are the “alternative theory,” the “non-substitution theory,” the “responsibility theory,” and the “cooperation theory.” According to the “alternative theory,” China is an alternative to the United States in the Middle East. As the U.S. government has implemented a global strategic retrenchment, it has reduced its investment of strategic forces in the Middle East, resulting in a power vacuum there to some extent. Also given the transformation requirements of Middle Eastern countries since the upheaval in the region, China’s development model provides a more attractive alternative to the United States for Middle Eastern countries.11 In addition, China’s vast energy market provides a strong incentive for Middle Eastern countries to turn from the West to the East.12 The “non-alternative” view is just the opposite. For example, a RAND Corporation study, “China in the Middle East: The Wary Dragon,” points out that China’s main concern in the region is economic interests, and it does not seek to replace the United States and dominate the Middle East. China is worried about getting involved in the Middle East’s chaos, so it will adopt a “light footprint” in the region.13 Both the “responsibility theory” and the “cooperation theory” hold that China should try to maintain friendly relations with all forces in the Middle East, so as to avoid making enemies and endangering itself.14 China’s Middle East major country diplomacy is free riding on the United States, and the United States is deeply dissatisfied with this. It hopes that China will shoulder responsibility for maintaining security and stability in the Middle East,15 and suggests that the United States and China should cooperate in maintaining security and stability in the region.16


Domestic and foreign academics have analyzed China’s Middle East major country diplomacy mainly from the perspectives of the Middle East security situation, China’s Middle East security responsibilities and interests, and China-U.S. relations. There is overlap when it comes to the responsibilities aspect of China’s Middle East major country diplomacy, with all hoping that China will take on greater responsibilities in the region. However, the academic research on the strategic connotations, diplomatic concepts, roles, and major achievements of China’s Middle East major country diplomacy in the Middle East since the upheaval in 2010 needs to be explored further, and here the authors have attempted to perform a systematic analysis and explanation.


The Strategic Connotations of China’s Middle East Major Country Diplomacy


“How to accurately position the Middle East strategically has become a problem that must be solved by a top-level design approach to Middle East diplomacy.”17 The design of diplomatic strategy mainly includes the objective conditions of the strategy, strategic goals, and strategic means. China’s Middle East major country diplomacy strategy is based on the Middle East’s objective need to seek change in the midst of chaos since 2010, as well as China’s own trend of peaceful development. These have indicated  the direction of China’s strategic goals for major country diplomacy in the Middle East, and chosen a specific practical paths for realizing these strategic goals.


(1)  Objective Conditions


The objective global and regional environment is the external basis for the top-level design of China’s Middle East major country diplomacy strategy. At the global level, the world is in the midst of “great changes unseen in a century.”18 The trends toward political pluralism, economic globalization, social informatization, and cultural diversification are accelerating, and countries around the world today remain in a state of high interdependence. While the process of globalization has not been interrupted, “anti-globalization” is gathering momentum. Currently, changing power shifts among countries are intensifying international competition, and there is great uncertainty in the world. This requires the international community to make joint efforts to propel the evolution of the international order in a just and reasonable direction and promote the common development of all countries and world peace.19 China’s Middle East major country diplomacy should be designed to meet the development needs of this overall environment and situation. At the regional level, peace and development have not always been the main currents. Since the upheaval in the Middle East in 2010, the situation in the region has been exceptionally complex. Politically, multiple contradictions and conflicts are intertwined. A camp-like confrontation centered on two Middle East regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, has formed within the Islamic world, and a Cold War-like trend has intensified.20 The situation in the Middle East has been further complicated by interference from extra-regional powers. Within the Arab world, conflicts among the Gulf States have deepened as a result of the polarization and confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Economically, the overall economic development of the Middle East has been slow, and some countries have even fallen into stagnation and regression. “The most fundamental reasons that triggered the anti-government wave in the first place were unemployment, poverty, and other economic difficulties. The United States only helped the people to overthrow a group of original governments, but it had neither the will nor the ability to revitalize economies or improve people’s livelihoods, leaving the people to struggle in a maelstrom of chaos, poverty, and bloodshed.”21 In addition, the wave of refugees triggered by the civil war in Syria, and the influx of refugees in Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine, worsened the already fragile economic situation. In terms of security, traditional security issues such as the confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are intertwined with and exacerbated by non-traditional security threats such as terrorism and public health. Middle East terrorism has been a focus of the world’s attention ever since the events of September 11. The “Islamic State” became a growing threat to the region in the wake of dramatic changes in the Middle East, and has pushed the boundaries of traditional terrorist organizations. After the elimination of the “Islamic State” entity in November 2018, a large number of foreign national “jihadist” elements returned home. They will inevitably bring back to their countries the violent psychology and ideology of the extremist organization they participated in during their time in Syria, thus bringing long-term potential security threats to their host countries.22


The political, economic, and security issues in the Middle East are closely interrelated. On one hand, unemployment, poverty, and other problems brought about by stagnating and regressing economic development have been the economic root causes of the upheaval in the Middle East, leading to political unrest. This in turn triggered the political transformation of Middle Eastern countries, and was also one of the reasons for the breakdown of relations among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. On the other hand, failure to solve the problem of people’s basic needs, and high youth unemployment,  made it easy for extremist ideology to penetratethe Middle East, thus making it a breeding ground for terrorists. The Cold War trend in politics has not only caused the level of traditional security threats in the Middle East to rise continuously, but the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran has also been exploited by extremists, and has turned into a root cause behind the growth of extremist organizations. Whereas the security situation in the Middle East has been created by the region’s deteriorating economic and political problems, it in turn further affects the political and economic situation in the region. Many problems at the three levels interact and influence each other, and have deteriorated further under the intervention of the United States, Russia, and other foreign powers. The Middle East has thus long been caught in a “quagmire” of intertwined economic, political, and security problems from which it is unable to extricate itself.


China’s growing interests in the Middle East and the enhancement of China’s comprehensive national strength are the internal conditions for the top-level design of China’s Middle East major country diplomacy strategy. In the face of the Middle East’s complicated objective security environment, China has, since reform and opening up began, insisted on “biding its time and concealing its strength.” It has tried to avoid direct involvement in the region’s contradictions and disputes as much as possible, maintaining a detached attitude.23 Some scholars believe that the Middle East is a swamp that entraps superpowers, and that China can strengthen economic cooperation with Middle Eastern countries on economic matters, but politically it is better to stop at stating its position.24 However, China’s interests in the Middle East are growing as its goods, labor, and personnel continue to enter the region. In the years from 2014 to 2019, import and export trade between China and Arab countries in the Middle East totaled $227.098 billion, $178.13 billion, $171.1 billion, $191.34 billion, $244.3 billion, and $266.4 billion, respectively.25 “The Middle East has been upgraded from a strategic extension area of China’s periphery to an important part of its larger neighborhood,”26 and the fate of the Middle East is closely related to China. Middle Eastern countries caught in their predicament are making ever stronger appeals for China to shoulder the responsibilities of a great power, and that is also an inevitable requirement for the development of China’s national strength. On one hand, China is a rising power, and “if it refuses to assume the ‘responsibilities of a major power’ that it should assume, it will be regarded by the international community as a ‘free-rider,’ or an ‘extreme egoist’ that only cares about obtaining benefits from the international community but is unwilling to make contributions to it. As such, it is likely to become a loner in the international community, and it will then find it very difficult to become a major power that is accepted by the international community.”27 On the other hand, for China, “to provide more public goods to the world on the basis of the continuous development of its own national strength is also the responsibility of a major developing country.”28 Therefore, assuming the responsibilities of a major power and providing public goods to the Middle East region has become necessary path for China to enhance its international voice and influence. As an extension of China’s major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics, China’s Middle East major country diplomacy needs to “make its contribution,” and China’s new generation of leaders, with President Xi Jinping as the core, has seized the opportunity and designed China’s major country diplomacy strategy in the Middle East in a timely manner.


(2) Strategic Goals


The objective requirements of the Middle East and the responsibilities of a major power accompanying China’s rise have prompted China and the Middle East to reach a series of principled consensuses: First, both sides have emphasized that they should “take concerted action and cooperate in building a new type of international relations, safeguarding the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of China and the Arab States.”29 Second, the two sides have clearly emphasized that they “adhere to resolving differences and disputes between countries by peaceful means through dialogue and consultation,”30 and that “force is not the solution, and a zero-sum mindset cannot bring lasting security. Although the dialogue process is lengthy and perhaps even repetitive, it has the least negative aftereffects and the most sustainable results.”31 The only way to properly resolve disputes and differences between countries is through peaceful means such as negotiation and dialogue. Third, the two sides have agreed to further enhance strategic partnerships in order to achieve common development and mutual benefits. Fourth, the two sides have emphasized that “different civilizations are all crystallizations of human wisdom, and are noble humanitarian aims. We should have mutual respect and accommodation, promote mutual exchanges and friendship among peoples, and be committed to achieving the harmonious and peaceful coexistence of different civilizations.” 32


On the basis of these principled consensuses, China has established goals for its cooperation with the Middle East countries, including political goals, economic goals, security goals, and humanistic goals. Politically, we further clarify strategic mutual trust and partnership relationships. Strategic mutual trust and partnership are the political foundation of cooperation between the two sides. The concept of global partnership was first put forward in the report of the 19th Party Congress in 2017.33 Upgrading China’s partnerships with Middle Eastern countries was put on the agenda. “We shall deepen strategic partnerships, consolidate political mutual trust, continue to support each other on issues involving each other’s core and major interests, and strengthen bilateral political consultation and coordination on major and unexpected political issues and crises.”34 “Since the start of the 21st century, China has established partnerships with 15 countries in the Middle East, including comprehensive strategic partnerships, comprehensive partnerships for innovation, strategic partnerships, and strategic cooperative partnerships.”35 From the ancient overland Silk Road and the “maritime spice road,” to today’s mutual aid, it all reflects the deep friendship that China and the Middle Eastern countries have with each other.


Economically, the emphasis is on building a diversified cooperation network between China and the Middle East. The complementary economic strengths of the two sides are the driving force for sustained cooperation. Both sides, “in accordance with the principle of mutual benefit and win-win outcomes, and in accordance with the requirements of the laws and regulations of each party, will further deepen cooperation in the fields of energy, infrastructure, trade, and investment facilitation, give full play to China’s advantages in production capacity and the richness and diversity of Arab energy resources, and continuously strengthen cooperation in the fields of high and new technologies such as nuclear energy, space satellites, and new energy,”36 emphasizing the construction and development of diversified economic cooperation mechanisms, i.e., gradually expanding from isolated energy cooperation to institutionalized cooperative relationships in fields such as trade, investment, and finance, and forming a diversified economic cooperation network.


In terms of security, cooperation focusing on non-traditional security is promoted. Security cooperation is a prerequisite and assurance for cooperation between the two sides. In the field of traditional security, [the goals are to:] Expand military personnel exchanges; deepen cooperation on weapons and equipment and various types of professional and technical cooperation; carry out joint army training; and support Middle Eastern countries’ own counter-terrorism efforts and counter-terrorism capacity building. In the field of non-traditional security, [the goals are to:] Support the fight against piracy, aggressive responses to terrorism, and joint response to pandemic diseases; establish a long-term security cooperation mechanism and an intelligence and information exchange mechanism; improve the ability to deal with non-traditional security threats; and achieve sustainable peace and security in the Middle East. 37 In November 2019, China initiated and hosted the first Middle East Security Forum, where participants held in-depth discussions on peace and security in the Middle East. China’s security cooperation with the Middle East thus entered a new phase.


In terms of cultural relations, the institutionalization of exchange platforms has been promoted. Cultural exchange platforms are bridges of civilizational awareness and mutual understanding for cooperation between the two sides. China’s cultural exchange activities to the Middle East have gradually increased since 2013. “China’s Arab Policy Paper,” released in January 2016, for the first time systematically elaborated China’s plans with Arab states in the fields of cultural exchanges (covering civilization and religion, culture, broadcasting, film and television, the press and publishing, think tanks, etc.), people-to-people exchanges, and exchanges among youth and women, as well as tourism cooperation. Goals and requirements have been specified for each of these fields. Among them, the words “platform” and “mechanism” appear many times, such as “build bilateral and multilateral platforms for religious exchanges,” “actively study the establishment of long-term mechanisms for China-Arab think tank exchanges,” and “improve the China-Arab Friendship Conference mechanism.”38 This suggests that China’s cultural exchanges with Middle Eastern countries are to be elevated to a new level, i.e., transitioned from a state of fragmentation to one based on platforms and mechanisms.


(3) Practical Paths


The practical paths of China’s Middle East major country diplomacy mainly include four aspects: in politics – partnership diplomacy ; in economics – the Belt and Road Initiative; in security – coordination of diplomacy by special envoys; and the official cooperation forum mechanism. In terms of partnership diplomacy, China has gradually deepened its partnership network by establishing bilateral strategic partnerships with Middle Eastern countries. “China has taken the lead among major powers in establishing partnership as a guiding principle for interstate relations.”39 Since the 18th Party Congress, promoting the construction of a holistic, multi-level, and three-dimensional global partnership network has become an important task of major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics. China has always maintained good relations with countries in the Middle East. “With the continuing enhancement of China’s comprehensive national power and international status, as well as the growing interest of Middle Eastern countries in China … China and Middle Eastern countries have increased their interdependence.”40 In this kind of context, it is imperative that China expand its political partnership network in the Middle East.


With regard to the Belt and Road Initiative, in June 2014, President Xi Jinping stated at the opening ceremony of the Sixth Ministerial Conference of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) that China and the Arab states should jointly carry forward the spirit of the Silk Road and jointly build the Belt and Road.41 In March 2015, the “Vision and Action for Building the Belt and Road” was released, putting forward the principles, framework, cooperation priorities, cooperation mechanisms, and action paths of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).42 In July 2018 in Beijing, China and the Arab states signed the “Declaration of Action on China-Arab States Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative,” in which the two sides committed to carrying forward the Silk Road spirit of peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual understanding, and mutual benefit and win-win outcomes, so as to achieve the communication of policies, the connection of facilities, the smooth flow of trade, the integration of funds, and the mutual understanding of people’s hearts and minds.43 The Middle East occupies an important geographic location connecting Asia, Africa, and Europe, and is a key participant in the Belt and Road Initiative. Therefore, building the Belt and Road in cooperation with states in the Middle East region is of far-reaching strategic significance for promoting the economic development of the two sides and realizing mutual benefits and win-win outcomes.


In terms of coordination of diplomacy by special envoys, as early as September 2002, the Chinese government appointed Wang Shijie as China’s first special envoy for Middle East issues, and in November of the same year, he traveled to six countries in the Middle East. This coordination of diplomacy by special envoys “demonstrates the concern that China, as a world power, has for Middle East affairs.”44 As of 2020, China has appointed five special envoys on Middle East issues.45 Their duties are mainly to “urge peace and promote dialogue” and to advance the peace process in the Middle East region, including understanding the latest situation of hotspot issues in the Middle East and the positions of various parties, expressing the Chinese government’s views on Middle East issues, maintaining communication with the parties concerned on hotspot issues, actively playing a third-party mediator role, and offering China’s propositions and solutions for the Middle East.46 Non-interference in internal affairs is a consistent principle that China adheres to in the Middle East, but “non-interference is not the same as doing nothing,”47 and China has tried to promote constructive participation in the region. Coordination of diplomacy by special envoys is a form of constructive diplomatic practice that can “transform zero-sum games into win-win cooperation in conflict management.”48


As to the cooperation forum mechanism, construction of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum has been promoted. The China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF), which began in 2004, aims to strengthen dialogue, cooperation, and exchanges between China and the Arab states. Since the 18th Party Congress, the CASCF has held its sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth ministerial conferences in 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2020. The action implementation plans issued at the meetings have also become increasingly systematic and detailed. The Forum “has not only played a political leading role in China-Arab cooperation and promoted mutual political trust between the two sides, but has also broadened cooperation to many areas.”49 As a result, the CASCF mechanism can effectively promote further cooperation between China and Middle East countries in the political, economic, security, and cultural fields.


China designed its Middle East major country diplomacy after the 18th Party Congress in the face of changes in the world unseen in a century and the upheaval in the Middle East. Guided by the top-level strategic design, China’s Middle East major country diplomacy since the upheaval in the Middle East has achieved fruitful results, and this is closely related to the basic concepts behind China’s Middle East major country diplomacy.


Basic Concepts of China’s Middle East Major Country Diplomacy


In 2014, President Xi Jinping proposed that “China must have major country diplomacy with its own characteristics.”50 In June 2018, at the CCP’s Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs, President Xi Jinping once again emphasized that China’s foreign affairs work should “adhere to the ideology of socialist diplomacy with Chinese characteristics in the new era as the guiding principle, and strive to create a new situation of major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.”51 “China has always been a builder of world peace, a contributor to global development, and a maintainer of international order.”52 China’s major country diplomacy in the Middle East embodies precisely this assumption of responsibility and reflects China’s constructive major country diplomacy concepts, including the concepts of responsibility, sharing, and rules. The concept of responsibility prompts China to assume the obligations of a major power in Middle East diplomacy and contribute to the peace and development of the region; the concept of sharing prompts China to strengthen cooperation with countries in the Middle East in various fields, so as to build a community of shared interests and a community of common destiny; and the concept of rules prompts China to abide by international law and rules together with the countries of the Middle East, and is the legal assurance that guarantees the smooth implementation of China’s Middle East major country diplomacy. Together, the concepts of responsibility, sharing, and rules constitute a complete conceptual structure for China’s Middle East major country diplomacy.


(1) The Concept of Responsibility

(一) 责任理念

Different countries bear different global responsibilities. As the largest developing country, China has been assuming increasing global responsibilities in the course of its rise, as in “when the Way prevails, the world is shared by all [大道之行,天下为公].” The concept of responsibility in China’s Middle East major country diplomacy refers to China’s willingness to shoulder responsibility for and contribute strength to the peace and development of the Middle East region as far as it is able. In terms of peace in the Middle East, China plays a constructive role. On one hand, it has been actively proposing constructive solutions to Middle East security hotspot issues by urging peace and promoting dialogue. On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, China has taken the initiative to invite key Palestinian and Israeli leaders to visit China. On May 6, 2013, President Xi Jinping put forward China’s four-point proposal for resolving the Palestinian issue during his talks with Palestinian President Abbas in Beijing.53 On May 9, Xi Jinping met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and said that China would continue to maintain an impartial and objective position, work hard to promote a political settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli issue, and contribute to maintaining peace and stability in the Middle East. 54 This was the first time that China had taken the initiative to invite the Palestinian and Israeli leaders to visit China at the same time, indicating that China had actively assumed responsibility for maintaining peace in the Middle East. On the Iranian nuclear issue, China supports a comprehensive agreement on the issue. On July 14, 2015, a comprehensive agreement to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue was reached despite difficulties. As a permanent member of the Security Council, China has participated constructively throughout the process of the Iranian nuclear negotiations. When the negotiations encountered difficulties and reached an impasse, China always began with the common interests of all parties, actively sought new ideas to solve the problems, and put forward China’s proposals.55 Unfortunately, the agreement is facing collapse due to the Trump administration’s withdrawal moves, and as a result the Middle East has been plunged into a more dangerous situation. On the Syrian issue, since the upheaval in the Middle East at the end of 2010, China has been playing a constructive role in promoting a political solution to the issue. It has successively put forward the “six-point proposal,” “four-point initiative,” “five insists,”56 and “four steps”57 with respect to the Syria issue, and has actively participated in the work of urging peace and promoting dialogue.58 On the other hand, China has taken the initiative to assume peacekeeping responsibilities in the Middle East. On September 28, 2015, when attending a peacekeeping summit at the UN headquarters in New York, President Xi Jinping emphasized that China would establish an 8,000-strong peacekeeping standby force and actively participate in peacekeeping operations. 59 China has become a major troop-contributing country and contributor to UN peacekeeping operations, and has formed a hotspot issue resolution path with Chinese characteristics. Between 2006, when China set up its first peacekeeping force in the Middle East—the Lebanese Peacekeeping Engineer Battalion60—and May 2020, 18 contingents of Chinese peacekeeping troops have entered Lebanon, contributing China’s strength to resolve conflicts, ease tensions, and shape peace in the Middle East.


In terms of development in the Middle East, China has been actively involved in economic development. In June of 2014, President Xi Jinping pointed out that “China pursues common development. We not only want ourselves to live well, but also want others to live well.”61 In November, President Xi Jinping re-emphasized, “We should effectively implement the correct concept of righteousness and benefit, do a good job in foreign aid, and truly succeed at promoting justice for others and accommodating their interests,”62 Since the upheaval in the Middle East, the economies of the region have stagnated, and “problems that have long plagued West Asian countries, such as people living in poverty, economic stagnation, high unemployment, lack of fairness, institutional rigidity, and corruption of the powerful and wealthy, have led to serious ‘governance deficits’ in the countries of the region.”63 Middle Eastern countries face a difficult transition, with the emergence of problems such as national economic structures that are deeply dependent on traditional energy trade, lack of high-tech industrial systems, and backward agricultural infrastructure. As a result, “many countries in the Middle East are also showing strong demand in many areas, such as infrastructure construction, capacity optimization and upgrading, industrial transformation, and agricultural development.”64 Given Middle Eastern countries’ fragile state of economic development and their economic transformation requirements, China has insisted on contributing to the development of the Middle East, and has always insisted on treating both the symptoms and the root causes. On one hand, “treating the symptoms” means providing humanitarian assistance to Middle Eastern countries to alleviate the negative impacts of economic deterioration on the people. After the Middle East was beset by security difficulties, China gave timely emergency relief supplies or cash to countries in the region in which civil wars had occurred or that had fallen into turmoil, in order to help the people of the war-torn countries weather their difficulties. In January 2016, President Xi Jinping pledged: “To resolve hotspot issues, a ceasefire is the top priority, political dialogue is the fundamental path, and humanitarian relief cannot be delayed. China will provide another 230 million yuan of humanitarian aid to the people of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, and Yemen this year.”65 On the other hand, “treating the root causes” means providing industrial development assistance to Middle Eastern countries to help them achieve economic transformation. As President Xi Jinping has pointed out, “We shall promote the industrialization of the Middle East and launch production capacity linkage operations … The cost-effectiveness Chinese equipment, coupled with technology transfer, personnel training, and strong financing support, can help Middle East countries establish steel, non-ferrous metals, building materials, glass, automobile manufacturing, power plants, and other urgently needed industries at less cost, fill in industrial gaps, and develop new comparative advantages. The combination of China’s superior production capacity and the Middle East’s human resources can create more and better employment opportunities.”66 In short, even as China achieves national prosperity and strength through rapid economic growth, it has not forgotten its international responsibilities, including those to the development and prosperity of Middle Eastern countries. China will take the path of common prosperity together with the countries of the Middle East. The Middle East is one of the most volatile regions in the world today. Various contradictions and conflicts are intertwined, and there is mutual interaction between conflicts, which are mixed with ethnic issues, religious beliefs, ideologies, national development models, and geopolitical interests, so they are exceptionally difficult to resolve. Achieving regional peace will require not only the efforts and development of the region’s countries themselves, but also external assistance. China is a power that is getting ever closer to the center of the world stage. As such, its national interests have extended to the Middle East region, and the region’s turmoil and chaos harm not only the Middle East itself, but also China and the world. According to the United Nations Charter, one of the powers of the Security Council is to “maintain international peace and security in accordance with the principles and objectives of the United Nations.” As a permanent member of the Security Council, China has the responsibility and obligation to contribute to the maintenance of global and regional peace. In today’s rapidly changing world, the time that it can set aside for the Middle East is limited. If Middle Eastern countries are to successfully complete their economic transformation and boost their level of economic development, they will also need help from external forces. Since the 18th Party Congress, China has provided humanitarian assistance to Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and other troubled countries in the Middle East to the best of its ability, demonstrating China’s firm belief in proceeding from the fundamental interests of the people of the Middle East and contributing China’s strength to the cause of humanitarian assistance to Middle Eastern countries. As a major power among developing countries, China has deep traditional friendships with Middle Eastern countries, and has the historical friendship and responsibility to help them successfully complete the task of transformation and achieve national development. “In their exchanges through time and space, the two peoples of China and Afghanistan have treated each other sincerely, lived in harmony coming and going on the ancient Silk Road, shared their joys and sufferings in the struggle for national independence, and watched over and helped each other on the journey of nation-building.”67


China’s concept of responsibility for Middle East major country diplomacy is the result of the combined effect of China’s rising comprehensive national power and the expectations of the international community and Middle Eastern countries. As China’s international standing and influence gradually increase, calls from the international community and Middle Eastern countries for China to play a more initiative-taking role in the Middle East have grown louder as well. In this regard, China must respond to the expectations of the international community and countries in the Middle East by assuming responsibility for the region’s peace and development. Assuming the responsibilities of a major power is an important sign that China practices major country diplomacy in the Middle East.


(2) The Concept of Sharing


The concept of sharing in China’s Middle East major country diplomacy refers to abandoning the “zero-sum game” mindset and working together to build a community of shared interests and a community of common destiny. As a major developing country in the world today, China’s economic achievements have attracted the world’s attention. In 2019, China’s gross domestic product amounted to RMB 9,908.65 billion, an increase of 6.1 percent over the previous year, and it has ranked second in the world for a decade. China’s development is not for its own enjoyment. Rather, it wants to share the fruits of development with the world, especially with the numerous developing countries. As early as 2012 when President Xi Jinping attended the opening ceremony of the World Peace Forum, he emphasized, “If a country wants to seek its own development, it must let others develop; if it wants to seek its own security, it must let others be secure; if it wants to seek its own well-being, it must let others enjoy well-being.”68 In a speech delivered at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in March 2013, President Xi Jinping pointed out: “The world … is increasingly becoming a highly interdependent community of common destiny.” “Countries and peoples should enjoy dignity together,” “enjoy the fruits of development together,” and “enjoy security together.”69 This was the first time that China put forward to the world at an international occasion the idea of a “community of common destiny” with its concept of sharing. Therefore, the concept of sharing in China’s Middle East major country diplomacy can be reflected specifically in the following three aspects:


First is shared dignity. The most fundamental manifestation of shared dignity is respect for national sovereignty. In the international community today, there are differences between countries in terms of territory, comprehensive national power, and international influence, but national sovereignty is an attribute that all modern countries possess. This means that countries are equal. They have the supreme right to govern internally and the right to independence externally, and they have strong exclusivity. Therefore, countries have the right to choose their development paths independently, and interference by any external forces is not permitted. “A country’s development path can only be decided by its people, based on their own historical heritage, cultural traditions, and level of economic and social development.”70 In January 2016, when President Xi Jinping held talks with Iranian President Rouhani, he pointed out that China respects and supports the countries and people of the Middle East in independently exploring the political systems and development paths that suit their national conditions.71


Second is the shared fruits of development. Here, sharing has two interrelated aspects: On one hand, China welcomes Middle Eastern countries to “free ride” on China’s economic development. The countries of the Middle East have low levels of economic development. They are deficient in infrastructure and lack mature modern industrial systems. China can help Middle Eastern countries improve their levels of economic development through industrial aid, technical assistance, project-based cooperation, and other ways. On the other hand, China can profit from the resource advantages of Middle Eastern countries. In the context of sustained economic development, China’s demand for fossil energy such as crude oil and natural gas has grown dramatically, and it can import the energy resources necessary for its development from Middle Eastern countries. Therefore, there are comparative advantages in the development of both sides, and from those comparative advantages China and the Middle East can form a virtuous cycle development mechanism.


Third is shared security. Both China and Middle Eastern countries face a series of traditional and non-traditional security issues, including the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, religious extremism, and ethnic separatism. In contemporary times, these issues are not only clearly cross-border in nature, but are also increasingly pervasive, catalyzed by the rapid development of media technology. Hence, no country can solve these problems on its own. Cooperation between countries is needed to cope with them. “Security is not just the state of one country, but also a state of ‘superior coexistence’ among regional actors. It requires enhanced cooperation, collaborative innovation, and a heightened sense of mission and responsibility, so as to jointly cope with the challenges of terrorism.”72


China’s concept of sharing is rooted in traditional Chinese culture, which emphasizes that “if poor, you can help yourself alone; become rich, then you can help everyone.”73 A person should have a heart of kindness and compassion, and “if you want to establish yourself, help others establish themselves; if you want to become rich, help others become rich,”74 but do not be insensitive or uncaring. This is the cultural foundation of China’s concept of sharing. Since the 18th Party Congress, the concept of sharing has taken on new connotations under the new conditions of the times: “Sharing means equal development and sharing together with all countries, so that all the world’s countries and their people can enjoy equal opportunities for development and share the fruits of the world’s economic development together.”75 In June 2014, President Xi Jinping pointed out, “Sharing means having the fruits of construction benefit the Chinese and Arab peoples more, and more equitably, creating a Chinese-Arab community of interests and community of common destiny.”76


The concept of sharing is an inevitable product of the conditions of interdependence between China and the Middle East, and is the key to shaping a community of common destiny. Rapid advances in human material technology have made global transportation and interconnection networks more developed and refined, enabling instant connectivity and complete synchronization across continents, regions, and countries. The deepening development of economic globalization has enabled all countries of the world to participate in transnational financial, trade, and sales networks, and it is difficult for any country to be detached from these networks and isolated from the world. In this interdependent world, it is only through sharing that humanity can truly express the value of people as human beings. China and the Middle East are also increasingly interdependent within globalized networks, and it is only through sharing rather than exclusivity that the community of common destiny between China and the Middle East can be shaped.


Due to historical reasons and their own specific conditions, different countries have experienced different results under the impact of the wave of globalization, resulting in different gaps or even chasms. Changing this situation will require a sharing mindset rather than a zero-sum game mindset. With a zero-sum game mindset, one wants to benefit oneself alone and not work with others, attending only to one’s own security and ignoring the security of others. Therefore, zero-sum game thinking is incompatible with an era of peace and development, and is a “tumor” in the increasingly close international community. The future of the international community is sharing.


Therefore, in the context of the new era, China adheres to the concept of sharing in Middle East diplomacy: Politically, respecting each other and seeking common ground while maintaining differences; economically, complementing each other’s strengths for mutual benefit; and in terms of security, cooperating in order to cope with challenges and ensure that all human beings can share political dignity, economic development benefits, and common security.


(3)  The Concept of Rules


The concept of rules in China’s Middle East major country diplomacy means that, in its exchanges and cooperation with Middle Eastern countries in various fields, China adheres to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and to international law and rules based on the United Nations Charter. International law and rules have been established over centuries and have withstood the test of time. Therefore, adherence to international law and rules is a fundamental concept that every country today should uphold.


The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence still have a fundamental guiding role and fresh vitality under the conditions of the new era. In June 2014, when President Xi Jinping participated in a conference commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, he noted the significance of carrying forward the Five Principles in the new situation, including “adherence to sovereign equality, common security, common development, win-win cooperation, inclusiveness and mutual understanding, and fairness and justice.”77 China’s exchanges and cooperation with countries in the Middle East do not come at the cost of infringing any party’s national sovereignty or interfering in the internal affairs of a country, but rather, on the basis of mutual equality and voluntariness, they are aimed at achieving mutual benefits and win-win outcomes by upgrading political and friendly relations, deepening economic and trade cooperation, strengthening security cooperation, and promoting the development of cultural exchanges. In January 2016, the Chinese government issued “China’s Arab Policy Paper,” which made it clear that “China adheres to the development of relations with Arab countries on the basis of the five principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.”78 The priority of upholding the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence was emphasized in the declarations of the ministerial conferences of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in both 2016 and 2018.


The basic principles of the UN Charter and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence are fundamental rules that all countries in the world need to abide by. In January 2017, President Xi Jinping emphasized in his speech titled “Jointly Building a Community of Common Destiny for Mankind” at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva: “Based on the UN Charter, countries have concluded a series of international conventions and legal instruments in fields such as political security, trade and development, social and human rights, science and technology and health, labor and property rights, and sports and culture. The life of the law lies in putting it into practice. All countries have the responsibility to uphold the authority of the international rule of law, exercise their rights in accordance with the law, and fulfill their obligations in good faith.”79 The declarations signed at the ministerial conferences of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in 2014, 2016, and 2018 emphasized: “Abiding by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter,” dealing with the Middle East within the framework of UN and international law resolutions, “strengthening dialogue and cooperation within the framework of the United Nations and other international organizations, and promoting the development of the Middle East region in the framework of the United Nations and other international organizations,” “reaffirming the importance of upholding the authority and the leading role of the United Nations in international affairs,”80 and reaffirming unwavering commitment to the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-aggression and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, and respect and support for each country’s independent choice of its own path of development and its own social system.”81


There are four main reasons why China’s Middle East major country diplomacy upholds the concept of rules: First, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence are the fundamental guiding principles of China’s foreign relations. They have long been enshrined in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, and the inclusion of these principles in the country’s fundamental law determines their guiding status in China’s foreign relations. These principles serve as a guide for China’s exchanges and contacts with all countries, regions, and organizations in the world. Secondly, practice has proven repeatedly that, in the Middle East, only adherence to international law and rules based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence is conducive to maintaining peace and stability in the region. The Palestinian-Israeli issue has remained a chronic problem in the Middle East to this day. The failure of the two sides, especially Israel with the support of the United States, to comply with international law and rules, and its behavior based on self-interest, is one of the major reasons why this issue has not been properly resolved for so long. Israel started the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank of the Jordan River in 1963. In December 2019, the Israeli Defense Minister announced in a statement the approval of a plan to build new Jewish settlements in the Palestinian city of Hebron in the West Bank. The international community considers these illegal settlements a threat to peace and stability in the Middle East.82 If Israel were to abide by international law and rules, stop the expansion of new Jewish settlements, and respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Palestine, the gravity of the Palestinian-Israeli problem might be largely alleviated. Again, rules-based governance is conducive to promoting the Middle East’s development. President Xi Jinping has emphasized, “Only the people of a country have the final word as to whether its development path is appropriate or not, just as we do not expect all flowers to be violets.”83 In dealing with the development issues of different countries, we cannot “cut the feet to fit the shoes.” Respecting the development paths chosen by other countries and not interfering in their internal affairs is one of the necessary preconditions for promoting development in the Middle East. Finally, adherence to the concept of rules helps China play a constructive role in the Middle East. Historically, Britain, France, the United States, and other countries have adopted the strategy of violating the sovereignty of Middle Eastern countries, interfering in their internal affairs, and using divide and rule, and have safeguarded their own interests in the Middle East region by installing puppet regimes, seizing oil and gas resources, and occupying strategic sites. Such practices not only jeopardize the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Middle Eastern countries, but also hurt the feelings and self-esteem of all their citizens. China treats all countries in the Middle East equally, respects their sovereignty and territorial integrity, does not interfere in their internal affairs, [adheres to] equality and mutual benefits, and develops mutual relations on the basis of compliance with international law and rules. Consequently, China plays a constructive rather than a destructive role in the Middle East. This is why, wherever China goes, it brings with it international rules and peace and development.


The concept of responsibility is the core of China’s concept of Middle East major country diplomacy. It is China’s response to the expectations of the international community and the Middle East for China following the rise in its national strength and international standing. The concept of sharing is the foundation of China’s Middle East major country diplomacy, and is an important guiding principle for China and Middle Eastern countries in achieving common development and building a community of common destiny. The concept of rules is the guarantee of China’s Middle East major country diplomacy. It is an important assurance for China and the Middle East countries to safeguard the inviolability of their respective national sovereignty and interests during exchanges and cooperation in various fields. Based on the concepts of responsibility, sharing, and rules of China’s Middle East major country diplomacy, the roles China plays in that diplomacy are to be a good partner of the Middle East in mutual learning and mutual understanding, a maintainer of peace and stability, a promoter of common development, and a defender of fairness and justice in the Middle East.


The Roles Defined for China’s Middle East Major Country Diplomacy


“There are two dominant views among international observers on China’s role in the Middle East: “security free rider” and “business seeker.”84 China has in fact become increasingly active in the Middle East, playing the role of a constructive participant. Since the upheaval in the Middle East, and especially since the 18th National Congress of the CCP, President Xi Jinping has elaborated on China’s role in the world on various international occasions: China must build a network of partnerships around the world and be a “builder of world peace,” “a contributor to global development,” “a maintainer of international order,” and “a defender of international fairness and justice.”85 In keeping with this, China in the Middle East should also play the roles of “a good partner in the Middle East for mutual learning and mutual understanding,” “a maintainer of peace and stability in the Middle East,” “a promoter of common development in the Middle East,” and “a defender of fairness and justice in the Middle East.”


(1)  Good Partner for Mutual Learning and Mutual Understanding in the Middle East

(一) 中东互学互鉴的好伙伴

In today’s world, there are different races, nationalities, and countries, and everyone lives on the same planet. No race, nation, or country should be conceited and disparage other races, nations, and countries. “They may be compared to the four seasons in their alternating progress, and to the sun and moon in their successive shining. All things grow together without injuring one another, their paths running in parallel without collision.”86 President Xi Jinping has emphasized: “The diversity of civilizations is a basic feature of human society. The world today has a population of 7 billion, more than 200 countries and regions, more than 2,500 ethnic groups, and more than 5,000 languages. The different peoples and civilizations are richly varied, each with its own unique contributions. None are superior to others, and they only differ in their characteristics.” Based on considerations of respect for the diversity of peoples and civilizations, we should also establish the concept of mutual learning and mutual understanding. “Everything has its strengths and weaknesses. We should advocate exchanges and mutual learning, draw on all the excellent cultural achievements created by different countries and peoples, complement each other’s strengths, and incorporate the best from everywhere in a joint effort to create a splendid human civilization.”87 In its dealings with Middle Eastern countries, therefore, China has always insisted on the role of partner in mutual learning and mutual understanding.


China’s dealings with countries in the Middle East are a continuation of history. The Western Han Dynasty sent Zhang Qian as an envoy to the Western Region, and thus began the history of China’s interaction with Middle Eastern countries. “By the Sui and Tang dynasties, the Silk Road prospered as never before, with merchants from West Asia, the Middle East, and beyond gathering in the eastern capital of Luoyang and the western capital of Chang’an, and with tens of thousands of Arabs and Jews settling there. Through the Silk Road, ancient Chinese science and technology were transported to all parts of Western Asia along with a great number of commodities, while religions from areas to the west of China, such as Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and Nestorianism, also came to China along the Silk Road and gained many adherents in the Chinese heartland.”88 China and Afghanistan have a splendid and glorious historical tradition of mutual learning and mutual understanding through the ancient Silk Road land route and maritime spice route. Therefore, it is necessary to carry forward and develop this excellent tradition in the new historical period.


Mutual learning and understanding between China and the Middle East have evolved from the physical dissemination of cultural achievements to today’s exchanges of experience and cooperation in governance, as well mutual dependence on each other. The China-Arab Research Center on Reform and Development, initiated by President Xi Jinping, has made China and the Arab states good partners in mutual learning and understanding since its establishment. President Xi Jinping has pointed out, “The China-Arab Research Center on Reform and Development has been functioning well and has become a platform for the two sides to exchange experience in reform and opening up and governance. In the future, the center should be enlarged and strengthened to provide more intellectual support for both sides.”89 Therefore, China is willing to be a good partner for mutual learning and understanding with countries in the Middle East, so that we gain more wisdom and nourishment from each other under the conditions of the new era, and at the same time introduce China’s experience in governance to the Middle East.


(2)  Maintainer of Peace and Stability in the Middle East

(二) 中东和平稳定的维护者

Conflicts and turmoil in the Middle East are both problems of the Middle Eastern countries themselves and problems of interference by external forces. Big power hegemony in particular is one of the root causes of conflict and turmoil in the Middle East. Western countries, led by the United States, have always practiced the logic of power politics in which big countries control small countries and strong countries dictate to weak countries. In order to maintain its global hegemony after the Cold War, the United States has continuously waged wars and promoted color revolutions in the Middle East. Especially since the Trump government came to power and started “fanning the flames” everywhere in the Middle East, a series of policies has been implemented to stir up the situation in the region: Moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and so on, but also continuing to agitate the Saudis, support Israel’s confrontation with Iran, even issuing irresponsible statements and taking irresponsible actions at will, including assassinations of Iranian intelligence and military leaders. On December 29, 2019, the United States suddenly bombed Iranian bases in Syria and Iraq. During this operation, Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s overseas intelligence and special operations forces, the Quds Brigade, was killed. On January 5, 2020, Trump again threatened on Twitter that 52 Iranian targets had been identified. These statements and actions have exacerbated the geopolitical conflict in the Middle East. The essence of the Trump administration’s Middle East strategy remains hegemonic logic. In contrast, since China established diplomatic relations with Egypt in 1956, China has always maintained politically friendly relations with all Middle Eastern countries, and played an active role in maintaining peace and stability in the Middle East.

中东地区的冲突与动荡既有中东国家本身的问题,也有来自外部力量的干涉问题。其中,大国称霸是中东地区冲突与动荡的根源之一。以美国为首的西方国家始终操持大国控制小国、强国指挥弱国的权力政治逻辑。冷战后美国为了维护其世界霸权地位,不断在中东地区发动战争并推进颜色革命。尤其是特朗普政府上台以来在中东到处“煽风点火”,实施了一系列搅乱中东局势的政策:将美国驻以色列大使馆从特拉维夫搬迁到耶路撒冷,退出伊朗核协议,承认以色列拥有戈兰高地主权等,还不断鼓动沙特、支持以色列对抗伊朗,甚至随意发出不负责任的言论和采取不负责任的行动,包括暗杀伊朗情报与军方领导人。2019年12月29日,美国突然轰炸叙利亚和伊拉克的伊朗系基地。在这次行动中,伊朗海外情报和特种作战部队“圣城旅”总司令苏莱曼尼 (Qasem Soleimani) 被炸死。2020年1月5日,特朗普在“推特”上又威胁已锁定了52处伊朗目标。这些言行加剧了中东地区的地缘政治冲突。特朗普政府中东战略的本质依旧是霸权逻辑。相比较之下,自1956年中国与埃及建交以来,时至今日中国与所有中东国家始终保持政治友好关系,为维护中东和平稳定发挥积极作用。

Historically, China has suffered from imperialist bullying, and therefore China “has an instinctive rejection of the “power-based nature of Western big power diplomacy, an innate aversion to imperialism, colonialism, and hegemony, and a strong desire for equality, independence, democracy, and inclusiveness in international relations.”90 The Chinese people finally gained hard-won peace and stability after an arduous struggle. Therefore, not only does China itself reject foreign interference, hegemony, and power politics and maintain its own peace and stability, but it also firmly champions the maintenance of peace and stability in the Middle East.


China’s role as a maintainer of peace and stability in the Middle East is mainly reflected in two ways: First, it respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries in the Middle East, does not interfere in the internal affairs of Middle Eastern countries, and does not invade the Middle East out of self-interest, triggering conflicts and turmoil in the region. Exchanges and cooperation between China and Middle Eastern countries are all based on the norms of international law, for which the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence are fundamental. With regard to the future development of Middle Eastern countries, China maintains that, as sovereign states, they have the right to freely choose their own development paths. Any brutal interference in or trampling on the sovereignty of other countries is bound to cause turmoil and unrest. Secondly, China has always insisted on resolving conflicts in the Middle East through political dialogue, negotiations, and other peaceful means. Communication and dialogueare the only ways to achieve peace and stability, rather than countering violence with violence. “China will participate in regional affairs in a constructive manner, fight for justice, work with Arab states to promote dialogue to find the largest common denominator of the concerns of all parties, and provide more public goods for the proper resolution of regional hotspot issues.”91 China has always played the role of maintainer of peace and stability in the Middle East.


(3) Promoter of Common Development in the Middle East


Today’s international community has long since ceased to be a Hobbesian jungle world. Life-and-death struggle and zero-sum games are no longer the mainstream of the times, and the concepts of peaceful coexistence, common development, and mutual benefits have taken root in people’s hearts. China’s engagement with the Middle East aims to promote the region’s common development and thereby achieve win-win outcomes. As the world’s second largest economy, China hopes that other countries will benefit from its economic development. At the same time, China also benefits from cooperation with developing countries.


Middle Eastern countries have still not been able to extricate themselves from economic development difficulties since the upheaval in the region, but this is also a development opportunity for countries in the region—an opportunity to independently explore development paths and changes in their political and economic systems—so the countries of the Middle East are at a critical moment in their development. At the same time, China has entered a decisive stage in building a well-off society in an all-round way and achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Both China and the countries of the Middle East are at critical points in their national development. Therefore, deepening economic and trade cooperation between the two sides and promoting their common development has become the only way to go.


To this end, China is willing to help Middle Eastern countries build complete industrial development systems, help them promote the industrialization process, and lead them as they set forth on a new cost-effective, people-oriented, and green industrialization path. “The cost-effectiveness of Chinese equipment, coupled with technology transfer, talent training, and strong financing support, can help Middle Eastern countries establish iron and steel, nonferrous metals, building materials, glass, automobile manufacturing, power plants, and other urgently needed industries at less cost, fill in industrial gaps, and cultivate new comparative advantages. The combination of China’s superior production capacity and the Middle East’s human resources can create more and better employment opportunities.”92 An important facet of China’s promotion of common development in the Middle East is facilitating the linkage of China’s development strategies with those of Middle Eastern countries, so that each country can make use of its own strengths and capabilities, and give full play to each other’s potential and strengths in order to promote common economic development. The “1+2+3” [nuclear energy, space satellites, and new energy] cooperation pattern proposed by President Xi Jinping emphasizes that, given the Arab states’ superior location and outstanding energy endowment, and China’s mature infrastructure development and outstanding human resource advantages, the two sides should deepen their cooperation and jointly promote the economic development of the Middle East. What countries in the Middle East need for development is capital, technology, and production capacity, and what China needs to expand its foreign exchange and cooperation is to export capital, technology, and production capacity. Economic cooperation between the two sides is thus mutually beneficial. China is willing to be a promoter of common development in the Middle East, adding momentum to deepening cooperation and common development.


(4) Defender of Fairness and Justice in the Middle East


China has always started out by looking at matters on their own merits, without taking sides. It has expressed its position based on the standards of international law and rules, and put forward China’s proposals for solving hotspot issues in the Middle East. On one hand, China has no self-interest in the conflicts among Middle Eastern countries. It does not have any intention, nor will it take any action, to support one side and criticize the other. In the face of the Palestinian-Israeli issue, the Syrian issue, the Iranian nuclear issue, and many other hotspot issues in the Middle East, China will state its attitude based on the merits of the issues themselves. On the other hand, international law and rules based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence are the rules that maintain international fairness and justice. The program that China has put forward on Middle East issues based on international law and rules is a program of international rule-based governance, the core of which is the maintenance of fairness and justice in the Middle East. Therefore, China can be said to be the defender of fairness and justice in the Middle East.


To a large extent, the chaos in the Middle East today is due to the divide-and-rule policies of Britain, France, and the United States in the 20th century. After the end of the Cold War, some Western countries, led by the United States and adhering to the Cold War mentality and zero-sum thinking, manipulated the situation in the Middle East through armed invasion, economic control, and cultivation of proxies, aiming to polarize and disrupt the Middle East, constantly create hotspot issues, and benefit in the aftermath. In contrast, China not only has no intention of controlling the Middle East, but also has not acted or sought to fill so-called “vacuums.” The Middle East is located in the “land of five seas and three continents,” and is endowed with extremely rich oil and gas resources. Given the continued development of China’s comprehensive national strength and the rise of its international standing, its interests in the Middle East have inevitably expanded. However, the expansion of its interests does not mean that China has pursued only self-interest like a hegemonic country, or tried to dominate and control the Middle East. Therefore, in the face of the complex situation in the Middle East, China has always been able to take international law and rules as the standard and propose solutions that are not biased toward any side, thus becoming a genuine defender of fairness and justice in the Middle East.


Specifically, on the Palestinian-Israeli issue, China insists on achieving a just, comprehensive, and lasting peace in the Middle East on the basis of a “two-State solution.” In accordance with the relevant treaties and agreements, China supports the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, including the right to self-determination and the right to establish an independent state based on the borders of June 4, 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and supports the obtaining of full-fledged United Nations member status by the State of Palestine.93 On the Syrian issue, China has emphasized the maintenance of Syria’s unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, and strives to seek a political solution in order to protect the lives and security of Syrians.94 On the Iranian nuclear issue, China insists that, as Iran denuclearizes, the international community should respect and protect Iran’s normal economic interests, including safeguarding legitimate economic and trade exchanges with Iran, encouraging further investment in Iran, and allowing Iran to continue to export its oil and gas resources.95 On the issue of counter-terrorism, China opposes all forms of terrorist activities and organizations. At the same time, China opposes linking terrorism to any ethnic group, religion, country, or civilization, and advocates international counter-terrorism cooperation on the basis of mutual respect.96


In summary, the role of China’s Middle East major country diplomacy has been basically clarified: To become a good partner in the Middle East for mutual learning and mutual understanding, a maintainer of peace and stability in the Middle East, a promoter of common development in the Middle East, and a defender of fairness and justice in the Middle East. Accurate role positioning is also the key reason why China’s Middle East major country diplomacy has made a series of achievements.


Major Achievements of China’s Middle East Major Country Diplomacy


With its concept of major country diplomacy and by playing a constructive role, China’s Middle East major country diplomacy has achieved fruitful results since the 18th Party Congress: Multi-layered strategic partnerships between the two sides, diversified economic and trade cooperation, dual-track security cooperation, and institutionalized cultural exchanges and cooperation.


(1) Multi-Level Strategic Partnerships between China and the Middle East


Since the 18th Party Congress, strategic partnerships between China and Middle East countries have been developing steadily, and are characterized by being differentiated and multi-level. In November 2014, President Xi Jinping pointed out that “we should make a wide range of friends and form a network of partnerships across the globe on the premise of adhering to the principle of non-alignment.”97 Guided by this idea, China has steadily developed strategic partnerships with countries in the Middle East. It maintains good relationships with almost all countries in the region,98 including relationships on two levels—partnership and non-partnership. Partnerships comprise three levels: comprehensive strategic partnership, strategic partnership, and comprehensive partnership for innovation. As of May 2020, nine countries in the Middle East had established strategic partnerships with China (see Table 1): Comprehensive strategic partnership countries (first level) are the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran; strategic partnership countries (second level) are Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, and Iraq; and Israel and China have established a “comprehensive partnership for innovation (third level).”99 The strategic partner countries in the Middle East region have different degrees of “pivot country” status in China’s Middle East major power diplomatic strategy. With pivot countries as strategic partners, “China will gain ‘levers’ in the Middle East with which to leverage Middle East affairs, and China will have an important geo-strategic support for promoting Middle East strategy,”100 which is conducive to China’s constructive involvement in Middle East affairs and the protection of China’s interests in the region.


Strategic partner relationships are the basis for China to play a constructive role in the Middle East: It is only with partnerships that China and the Middle East can better learn from and understand each other, and that China can have the legitimacy to act as a defender of peace and stability in the Middle East, be more willing to take part in the process of common development in the Middle East as a promoter role, and be more motivated to act as a defender to support fairness and justice in the Middle East.


Table 1. Middle Eastern countries that have established partnerships with China (as of May 2020)

1 与中国建立伙伴关系的中东国家截至20205

Note: China and the UAE established a strategic partnership in 2012, which was upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2018. Source: Author’s own work based on information from the website of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs: https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/web/gjhdq_676201, 2020-05-12.
说明:中国与阿联酋于2012年建立战略伙伴关系,于2018年升级为全面战略伙伴关系, 资料来源:笔者根据中华人民共和国外交部网站信息自制,参见中华人民共和国外交部网站: https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/web/gjhdq_676201,2020-05-12.

(2) Diversification of China-Middle East Economic and Trade Cooperation


China’s economic and trade cooperation with the Middle East is the embodiment of China’s role as a promoter of common development in the Middle East. Traditionally, economic and trade cooperation between the two sides has focused mainly on oil and gas resources, but since 2013, it has increasingly diversified into the “1+2+3” cooperation pattern proposed by President Xi Jinping. Under the guidance of this pattern, China and the Middle East countries have achieved fruitful results in terms of economic and trade cooperation mechanisms.


1. Energy cooperation has been perfected. First, China’s crude oil import transactions with Middle Eastern countries have increased year by year. From 2013 to 2018, the overall trend in tons of crude oil imports by China from oil-producing countries in the Middle East region has shown steady growth (see Table 2). Second, cooperation in oil exploration, extraction, refining, and other upstream oil sectors has been gradually developed. For example, in December 2015, China National Petroleum Corporation signed a strategic cooperation agreement with Mubadala Petroleum [now Mubadala Energy] of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that specifically includes cooperation in onshore conventional projects, offshore projects, and liquefied natural gas projects;101 in January 2016, Sinopec set up a technology innovation center in Dharan Techno Valley Science Park in Saudi Arabia;102 in July 2018, BGP Inc. (4P) signed a contract with Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) for physical exploration and acquisition.103 Third, the construction of oil and gas resource channels between China and Middle Eastern countries is being perfected. In 2013, the Abu Dhabi crude oil pipeline project, which plays a positive role in stabilizing the supply of oil and natural gas in the Middle East, was put into operation by China Petroleum Pipeline Bureau.104


Table 2. China’s crude oil imports from Middle Eastern countries, 2013-2018 (in units of 10,000 tons)

2 2013-2018年中国从中东国家进口原油数量单位万吨

Source: “Sources and Quantities of China’s Crude Oil Imports in 2013,”Contemporary Petroleum and Petrochemicals, No. 5, 2014, p. 48; “Sources and Quantities of China’s Crude Oil Imports in 2014,” Contemporary Petroleum and Petrochemicals, No. 5, 2015, p. 48; website of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs: https://www.fmprc.gov.cn, 2020-05- 12.
资料来源:《2013年我国原油进口来源及数量》,载《当代石油石化》2014年第5期,第48页; 《2014年我国原油进口来源及数量》,载《当代石油石化》2015年第5期,第48页;中国外交部网站:https://www.fmprc.gov.cn,2020-05-12。

2. The demonstration effect of project promotion cooperation has been obvious. First, the construction of infrastructure projects by China and countries in the Middle East has developed rapidly in recent years. The Mecca Light Rail project in Saudi Arabia, constructed by China Railway Construction Corporation, has provided 30,000 jobs for Saudi Arabia’s young labor force and more than 2,000 trainings for students of several universities, and will provide training for managers in the future.105 Second, China and Middle Eastern countries have seen rapid development in the construction of power stations and other major projects. In September 2015, PowerChina signed a $230 million contract with Saudi Electricity Company (SEC) for a large-scale power station.106 This has played a positive role in further deepening power cooperation between China and Saudi Arabia and expanding the influence of Chinese power and engineering contracting enterprises in the Middle East.


3. Cooperation in high-tech fields has grown rapidly. In the field of nuclear energy, in August 2017, a joint research project on uranium extraction from seawater between China National Nuclear Corporation’s Beijing Chemical Metallurgy Research Institute and King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology was officially launched. In the field of new energy, the ministers of finance of China and Israel signed a China-Israel clean technology financial cooperation protocol in Beijing in September 2017. According to the protocol, Israel will support the construction of Chinese projects in the field of clean technology and provide China with preferential loans for the introduction of Israeli equipment and technology.107 In the aerospace field, the first China-Arab States BeiDou Cooperation Forum was held in Shanghai in May 2018. China and the Arab states will jointly study satellite navigation application technologies and solutions in the fields of intelligent transportation, land surveying and mapping, precision agriculture, public security, etc., and promote the BeiDou system to serve the economic and social development of Arab countries.108


4. Negotiations on the construction of free trade areas have made positive progress. As of July 2019, three free trade areas (FTAs) had been negotiated between China and Middle Eastern countries, namely the China-GCC FTA, the China-Israel FTA, and the China-Palestine FTA.109 In February 2016, the sixth round of negotiations on the China-GCC FTA was completed in the Saudi capital, Riyadh,110 and in January 2019, the first round of negotiations on the China-Palestine FTA was held in the provisional Palestinian capital, Ramallah.111 In May, the sixth round of negotiations on the China-Israel FTA was held in Beijing.112 “The FTA negotiations involve trade in goods and trade in services, including government procurement, technical cooperation, standardization and many other complex contents,”113 but all parties are still actively promoting the negotiation process and making positive progress.


5. The construction of industrial parks has expanded. Industrial parks refer to large tracts of land developed “for simultaneous use by a number of enterprises to facilitate their geographical proximity and sharing of infrastructure.”114 “Enterprises entering an industrial park can not only share infrastructure and various services, but may also reduce logistics costs and even transaction costs due to the geographic proximity of supporting or cooperating enterprises.”115 China’s construction of industrial parks in Middle Eastern countries aims to promote exchanges and cooperation between the two sides in the policy, economic and trade, and social and cultural fields through the development of local infrastructure construction, agricultural and mining resource development, high-tech industry, medical industry, etc., by resident Chinese enterprises. The China-Egypt Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone is a key project in China’s “Going Global” strategy. By the end of 2018, the project had exceeded $1 billion in actual investment, paid more than 1 billion Egyptian pounds in taxes, directly met the employment needs of more than 3,500 people, and trained and made available a number of excellent management personnel and technical staff for Egypt.116 The Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone provides a model for the construction of cooperation zones. It plays an active role in the Belt and Road Initiative through effective linkage with the development strategies of other countries. In addition, in April 2019, Guangdong Evergreen Group Co., Ltd. signed a contract with Saudi company Falcon Vision for an aquaculture industrial park in Saudi Arabia. After completion, the industrial park will greatly promote the development of Saudi Arabia’s aquaculture industry, provide high-quality aquatic products for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, benefit the Saudi people, and contribute to Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030” plan.117


6. The construction of financial cooperation mechanisms has grown rapidly. In December 2015, China and the UAE signed a memorandum of understanding on an investment cooperation fund, with the two sides seeking to invest in a variety of fields, including conventional and renewable energy, infrastructure, science and technology, and advanced manufacturing.118 Going from traditional economic and trade project cooperation to the establishment of a China-UAE investment fund represents an important step for deepening economic cooperation between the two countries in the new era, which is of strategic significance for cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative. In addition, the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (AIDB) and the China-Arab States Bank Consortium have played a positive role in establishing a long-term, stable, and mutually beneficial financial partnership between China and the Arab states, and have provided important financial support for China-Arab state cooperation in various fields. As of May 2020, the UAE, Oman, Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Iran, Bahrain, and Lebanon were all members of the AIDB.119 This not only strengthens bilateral financial exchanges and cooperation between countries and effectively coordinates their development plans with the Belt and Road Initiative in the financial field, but also enables them to obtain funds through the AIDB to promote the construction of infrastructure projects in their respective countries.


Economic and trade cooperation between China and the Middle East has gradually gone from traditional single-commodity trade to industrial cooperation, technical cooperation, and financial cooperation. From the viewpoint of industrial cooperation, the two sides have formed their own industrial systems in different areas of trade in goods, and China is helping Middle Eastern countries achieve industrial upgrading. From the perspective of technical cooperation, the two sides seek to deepen cooperation in clean energy and alternative energy technologies in order to take more initiative in the future, and China is helping countries in the region achieve technological innovation. In terms of financial cooperation, if the Middle East countries are to feel more assured, they need cooperation in the exploitation of petrochemical energy, mastery of advanced extraction technology, and a solution to the problem of energy funding. On the other hand, technology and capital are precisely the advantages China has for helping the Middle East. In addition, the petro-yuan and the central bank’s digital currency (DCEP) will be conducive to financial cooperation between the two sides and the enhancement of China’s financial role. With the accelerating internationalization of the yuan, the petro-yuan has been launched. “The establishment of the petro-yuan will expand the application of the yuan in international settlements based on international trade in oil, and will drive the implementation of yuan settlement in other international trade areas, establish a mechanism for the circular flow of the yuan in the international monetary and financial systems, and boost the yuan’s internationalization.”120 And the DCEP, which had already been proposed by the People’s Bank of China in 2014, is in the works.


(3) Dual-Tracking of Non-Traditional Security Cooperation between China and the Middle East


China’s cooperation with the Middle East on responding to non-traditional security threats has moved from single-track to dual-track cooperation with both official and civil channels. This fully reflects China’s role as a maintainer of peace and stability in the Middle East. In addition to traditional security threats, the Middle East is also subject to non-traditional security threats. Since the upheaval in the Middle East in late 2010, non-traditional security threats in the Middle East have mostly included piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the “three forces” (terrorism, separatism, and extremism), with official cooperation being the main way for coping with them. Piracy in the Gulf of Aden has had a serious impact on the security of oil and gas sea lanes in the Middle East. From December 2008, when China first participated in escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and Somali waters, through to May 2020, China had dispatched a total of 35 escort formations, which have accomplished their escort missions well and ensured the smooth flow of the Maritime Silk Road’s key corridors.121 The “three forces” are the primary security threats to people in the Middle East. At the same time, China has also targeted these “three forces” for resolute attack. Also, the “Eastern Turkestan” terrorist forces represented by the “Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement” have used the Middle East as their base, posing a huge threat to the safety of Chinese embassies and diplomats in Middle Eastern countries. Therefore, there is great potential for cooperation between China and the Middle East in combating the “three forces.” Specific measures include joint counter-terrorism exercises, transnational operational training for police personnel, establishment of a joint crisis early warning mechanism, and the curbing of extremist ideology. For example, in April 2016, during the Fifth Foreign Ministers’ Meeting of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu and Foreign Minister Wang Yi reached an agreement on effectively strengthening the two countries’ cooperation on counter-terrorism and security, combating the “Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement,” and curbing illegal migration. In October 2016, China and Saudi Arabia held their first joint counter-terrorism training. In November 2016, May 2018 and June 2019, China held three consecutive sessions of the Great Wall International Forum on Counter-terrorism, at which representatives from Egypt, Jordan, Israel and other Middle Eastern countries explored and shared effective measures for combating the threat of terrorism.122


The outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic at the end of 2019 led to the dual-tracking of China’s non-traditional security cooperation with Middle Eastern countries, the results of which have been fruitful. Dual-tracking means that the official and private sector tracks run in parallel. The first is the official track. It can be divided into two phases: In the first phase, mainly after the outbreak of the epidemic in China, Middle Eastern countries provided support and assistance to China. Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Israel, and Qatar “provided emergency medical supplies to China.” In the second phase, after the COVID-19 epidemic in China was basically under control, China returned the favor to the Middle Eastern countries. “China sent emergency medical teams, assisted with ventilators and masks, set up a COVID-19 testing center, donated epidemic prevention manuals, held a video conference on epidemic prevention, introduced its experience in fighting the epidemic, and provided medical assistance to Middle Eastern countries.”123 On March 25, 2020, during the critical period in Iran’s fight against the epidemic, the Chinese government provided emergency medical supplies to Iran, the country in the Middle East where the epidemic was most severe, effectively alleviating the difficulties of Iran’s shortage of medical supplies.124 On March 26, China held a video conference with health officials and experts from 16 countries in the Middle East region as well as the GCC, with the aim of exchanging information, deepening cooperation in the fight against the epidemic, and working together to safeguard regional and global health security. The video conference was jointly hosted by the Department of Asian and African Affairs of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the International Department of the National Health Commission, with assistance from Chinese embassies in West Asia and North Africa. 125


The second is the private sector track. Guided by cooperation and exchanges at the official level, Chinese private sector groups have made important contributions to the fight against the epidemic in Middle Eastern countries. On March 25, Chinese-funded enterprises and overseas Chinese in Turkey donated a total of 65,200 masks, 10,000 pieces of surgical headgear, and 5,000 surgical gowns to Turkey;126 the Sichuan Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai donated a total of 220,000 masks to Iran, and the Islamic Association of Shanghai donated a total of RMB 100,000 worth of medical equipment to Iran. Shanghai enterprises such as Ctrip, 54Traveler and China Resources C’estbon Beverage donated more than 500,000 masks to Iran,127 and a large number of medical supplies were donated by the Jack Ma Foundation and the Alibaba Foundation to 54 African countries,128 including North African countries, to help them fight the COVID-19 outbreak.


The dual-tracking of non-traditional security cooperation between China and the Middle East breaks past the single-dimensional nature of cooperation at the official level to form a dual-track mode of cooperation with official guidance and carried out by both the governmental and private sector. This makes up for the shortcomings of official cooperation on the one hand, and on the other hand makes cooperation more flexible. Compared with the more programmed official cooperation, private sector cooperation is more flexible, and appropriate cooperation strategies can be formulated and cooperation methods can be changed according to the specific situation, thus making the cooperation more effective. This has provided inspiration for China and Middle East countries to carry out dual-track cooperation in other non-traditional security areas.


(4) Institutionalization of Cultural Exchanges between China and the Middle East


If China and the Middle East are to become good partners in mutual learning and mutual understanding, they need to make breakthroughs in the field of cultural exchanges. With the rising tide of political, security, and economic relations between China and the Middle East, cultural exchanges between the two sides have increased. Cultural exchanges between China and Middle Eastern countries have clearly strengthened since 2013. The 2014 Beijing Declaration of the Sixth Ministerial Conference of the CASCF states that it “welcomes 2014-2015 as the Year of China-Arab Friendship, which will enhance understanding and friendship between the Chinese and Arab peoples through the development of cooperative activities in various fields, such as economy and trade, culture, education, science and technology, journalism, health, youth, and women.”129 In both the 2016 Doha Declaration of the Seventh Ministerial Conference of the CASCF and the 2018 Beijing Declaration of the Eighth Ministerial Conference of the CASCF, the action goals in humanities fields have been increased compared to the previous ones, with 10 and 15 entries, respectively, and the division of action goals has become more detailed, with a greater number of humanities fields involved, such as scientific research and education.130 On July 6, 2020, the Ninth Ministerial Conference of the CASCF was held virtually, with the theme of “Joining Hands to Build a China-Arab Community of Common Destiny for the New Era.” The meeting produced the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum 2020-2022 Action Implementation Plan, which elaborates on China-Arab cooperation in broad areas of cultural exchanges. The rich and varied content includes cooperation in tourism, human resource development, intellectual property rights, cultural cooperation, and dialogue of civilizations, as well as cooperation in the fields of libraries and information, education and scientific research, health and social development, journalism, the private sector, women, youth and sports, sustainable development, and population policy.131 Humanities exchanges have evolved from the occasional introduction of history and culture and lauding of cultural achievements to fixed and organized exchanges. At present, the institutionalization of cultural exchanges between China and the countries of the Middle East is mainly manifested in the holding of regular conferences on dialogue of civilizations, the building of cooperative research centers, and construction of Confucius Institutes.


First is the holding of conferences on dialogue among civilizations. In June 2013, the Fifth Seminar on China-Arab State Relations and China-Arab Civilization Dialogue was held in Urumqi, Xinjiang. The seminar emphasized that the Chinese and Islamic civilizations are treasures of human civilization and have made great contributions to the civilizational progress of human societies, and that the continuous deepening of the concepts of peace, inclusiveness, understanding, and dialogue among civilizations can help to promote exchanges and mutual understanding between China and the Arab states and their peoples, and is helpful for jointly maintaining the diversity of world cultures and expanding China-Arab cooperation.132 In August 2017, the China-Arab Dialogue of Civilizations and Roundtable on Eradicating Extremism was held in Chengdu, bringing to fruition the proposal for a China-Arab conference on dialogue of civilizations and eradicating extremism put forward by President Xi Jinping during his visit to the headquarters of the Arab League in 2016. The main topics of the conference were “Dialogue of Civilizations in the Context of the Belt and Road Initiative” “Eradicating Extremism,” “Golden Mean (Doctrine of the Mean) Thought in Chinese and Arab Civilization,” and “Respecting and Protecting Diversity.” At the conference, in-depth discussions were held on how to cut off the spread of extremist ideas through the Internet, social media, etc., and a consensus was reached on promoting positive reporting in the field of eradicating extremism on both sides, facilitating interaction among religious communities, and further promoting the philosophy of moderation and the golden mean.133 In December 2019, the 8th Seminar on China-Arab State Relations and China-Arab Dialogue of Civilizations was held in Morocco. At the seminar, the issues of “Using Soft Power Diplomacy to Promote a Culture of Peace,” “The Role of Sustainable Development in Promoting a Culture of Peace,” “Promoting Cultural Diversity” and “Using Traditional and Modern Means of Communication to Oppose Terrorist Violence and Extremist Ideologies” were discussed in depth.134


Second is the establishment of the China-Arab States Research Center on Reform and Development and holding the China-Arab States Forums on Reform and Development. In January 2016, Xi Jinping initiated the establishment of the China-Arab States Research Center on Reform and Development, and the Center was formally established in April 2017. The research center is committed to integrating external exchanges, joint training, think tank consulting, and other functions as a world-class think tank and thought exchange platform.135 The Center holds the China-Arab States Forum on Reform and Development every year, in which government officials, experts, and scholars from China and Arab countries exchange their experiences in governance, and explore China’s path and the development paths of Arab states, and promoting construction of the China-Arab “Belt and Road,” among other topics. At the first China-Arab States Forum on Reform and Development, held in Beijing in April 2018, in-depth discussions were conducted on these topics.136 In April 2019, the second China-Arab States Forum on Reform and Development was held in Shanghai under the theme of “Building the ‘Belt and Road’ and Sharing Development and Prosperity,” and discussions were held on “Policy Communication,” “Deepening Cooperation,” and “Think Tank Exchanges.”137


Third is the promotion of cultural exchange through Confucius Institutes. Confucius Institutes have become an important platform for cultural exchanges between China and foreign countries. Since 2013, the implementation plans announced by the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum have all emphasized “supporting training programs for Chinese language teachers in Arab countries by opening Confucius Institutes in Arab countries and other means.” As of June 2019, China had set up 17 Confucius Institutes and 3 Confucius Classrooms in 9 countries in the Middle East.138


In July 2019, the Confucius Institute Headquarters and the Ministry of Education of the UAE signed a “Memorandum of Understanding on Integrating the Chinese Language into the Primary and Secondary Education System of the UAE,” making the UAE the first Arab and Middle Eastern country to incorporate Chinese into the national education system.139 This will have a positive impact on language and cultural exchanges between China and the UAE, and will play an important role as a model for Chinese language teaching in the Middle East and around the world. China’s opening of Confucius Institutes and Classes in Middle Eastern countries helps people in the Middle East understand China’s history, culture, current development situation, and development concepts. Confucius Institutes have become important nodes and cultural links between China and the Middle East.




Since the upheaval in the Middle East in 2010, China’s diplomacy entered a turning point stage in the implementation of major-country diplomacy. As China’s national strength and international standing have increased, calls for China’s participation in Middle East affairs by the international community and countries in the Middle East region have gradually grown louder. In the face of the complex security situation and the need for stability and development in the region following the upheaval in the Middle East, China, on the basis of a series of principled consensuses on the development of mutual relations with the countries of the Middle East region, has designed its strategic goals for the Middle East, choosing the four major practical paths: partnership, the Belt and Road Initiative, coordination of diplomacy by special envoys, and the mechanism of forums for official cooperation. In order to promote its Middle East major country diplomacy strategy, China adheres to the three major diplomatic concepts of “responsibility, sharing, and rules,” strives to play the role of a constructive participant in the Middle East region, and has achieved fruitful diplomatic results. China’s Middle East diplomacy has formed a holistic logical framework of “strategic connotation—diplomatic concepts—diplomatic role—diplomatic achievements.”


In the future, China’s Middle East major country diplomacy will face many difficulties: First, a Cold War-style tit-for-tat relationship has formed between Iran, the leader of the Shiite sect in the Islamic world, and Sunni countries led by Saudi Arabia. China needs to think deeply about how to maintain policy balance in its dealings with each. Second, although the Israeli-Palestinian issue has been gradually marginalized due to the upheaval in the Middle East, the civil war in Syria, and the ravages of the Islamic State, the Trump administration’s series of Middle East policies have again intensified the Israeli-Palestinian issue. China needs to pay attention to how to respond to the Israeli-Palestinian issue more flexibly and effectively on the basis of adherence to the principles of international law. Third, while China’s promotion of the BRI in the Middle East has made great achievements in general, the progress of some specific cooperation projects has been slow, and there have been many contradictions. This has generated both optimism and pessimism. Therefore, how to prevent over-optimism and pessimism is another major issue that China’s Middle East major country diplomacy will face in the in the future. Fourth, properly handling relationships with extra-regional actors in the Middle East, such as the EU, Russia, and the United States, especially handling the strategic competition with the United States, is a major challenge for China’s Middle East diplomacy. In the view of the United States, China’s influence in the Middle East continues to rise, rendering the United States’ “strong monopoly” unipolar structure in the Middle East somewhat out of control, and the United States is worried that China, Russia, and others will become “vacuum-fillers” in the region. It is constantly casting suspicion on China with insinuations, in the belief that China, Russia, and other countries will fill the vacuum in the Middle East region caused by the collapse of states and prolonged regional conflict.140 Fifth, the security, economic, and social risks in the Middle East have become more pronounced in recent years. Especially after Trump came to power, the U.S. government has arbitrarily bombed the Middle East, arbitrarily expanded sanctions against Iran, and arbitrarily assassinated Iranian leaders,141 so the uncertainty of the U.S. Middle East strategy is increasing, and all kinds of security risks in the Middle East will become even more complicated and confusing. In the future, the top priority will be to promptly design, adjust, and gradually adapt China’s Middle East major country diplomacy strategy and China’s role as a constructive participant in the Middle East, on the basis of adherence to the concepts of responsibility, sharing, and rules, and in accordance with changes in Middle East issues and the strategic environment, so as to avoid the major security risks that may appear in the Middle East region.


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髙瀚 (Gao Han), 刘胜湘 (Liu Shengxiang). "China’s Middle East Major Country Diplomacy against the Background of Upheaval in the Middle East [中东剧变背景下中国中东大国外交论析]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in West Asia and Africa [西亚非洲], May 1, 2020

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