China and the Middle East share a similar recent history as they both suffered from colonialism, aim to maintain their independence, and develop their economy (Zhang, 1999, 153). While Chinese-Middle Eastern relations have been relatively lull since the 1980s (Liangxiang, 2004, 113), the rise of China into a major power in the world has led to an expansion of Chinese influence into the Middle East for a variety of reasons such as geopolitical importance, resources, and trade (Tella, 2016, 133). While this entry into the region has not been as dramatic as other interventions such as the US invasion of Iraq or Russian military involvement in the Syrian civil war, its impacts will undoubtedly be increasingly felt in the coming years (Singh, 2016). This paper will briefly go through the main stages of Chinese-Middle Eastern relations since the formation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the rising importance of the region, its centrality to the new Silk Road, the possible retreat of the United States (US) and whether China is willing to fill the vacuum, and some key challenges that lie ahead.
In spite of the first contact between the PRC and Middle Eastern countries taking place during the 1950-1953 Korean War, China’s policy towards the region was not formulated during that time. Instead, it began taking shape following the Bandung Conference in which many Middle Eastern countries were present. This enabled China to realize the importance of engaging with the region as part of its challenge to the Western-dominated international system led by the US (Niu, 2015, 8; Radtke, 2007, 395).
From the 1950s till the 1970s, China aimed to spread the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary ideology and mainly supported pan-socialist and communist organizations in the Middle East (Niu, 2015, 2; Rubin, 1999, 345; Daojiong & Meiden, 2015, 6; Zhang, 1999, 150-151). Key examples of Chinese policy in the region include financial and military support to Abdel Nasser in Egypt, condemning Israel and supporting Egypt and Syria during the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars (Niu, 2015, 8-9; Zhang, 1999, 150-151), granting military assistance and permission to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to open offices in China during the 1960s, and supporting the Popular Front for the Liberation Front of Oman (Ibid; Rubin, 1999, 345); however, because of the falling out between China and Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the relations between socialist anti-government groups and China began to decline. This led to a shift in Chinese policy towards the formation of normal relationships with Middle Eastern regimes that oppose USSR influence, even if they were pro-Western, like the Sadat regime in Egypt (Niu, 2015, 9; Rubin, 1999, 346; Neill, 2014, 207-208).
Further normalization and acceptance of operating within the established international system occurred following the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the US, opening up of the Chinese economy, and outbreak of the China-Vietnam War. This led to the adoption of a more pragmatic rather than ideological foreign policy. Signs of such change include selling weapons even to countries without established diplomatic relations such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran, and allowing individual workers and companies to provide labor and participate in construction projects in the Middle East (Niu, 2015, 9; Daojiong & Meiden, 2015, 6; Zhang, 1999, 151; Radtke, 2007, 397-398).
After the end of the Cold War, guided by Deng Xiaoping’s “never take the lead” policy, China did not build an alliance capable of challenging the international system and adopted a wary approach (Niu, 2015, 2, 9-10). This gradually shifted towards more involvement, albeit with a low profile, while some openly called for China to adopt an assertive role fitting of its power status (Fardella, 2015, 15). Under President Xi Jinping, those calls have found receptive ears as China began “striving for achievement”, especially in the Middle East whose importance has been increasingly recognized (Zhao, 2015).
Importance of the Middle East
Since the late 1980s, the Middle East had grown in importance for China politically, economically, and militarily. Following the Tiananmen protests, brutal suppression, and subsequent Western sanctions, China concentrated its efforts on the Third World in general, and Middle East in particular, to break its isolation. The region is very attractive to China because it harbors some of the wealthiest regimes, oil reserves, and markets. Politically, it provided opportunities for China to take part in settling regional differences and thus playing a greater role internationally. Economically, it constitutes a significant portion of China’s exports of goods and labor while also providing funds for investment and loans (Shichor, 1992, 87-88). Militarily, Middle Eastern regimes were one of the largest buyers of Chinese arms until the late 1990s before increasing again in the past years (Ibid; Daojiong & Meiden, 2015, 6).
The Chinese-Arab relationship is based in its core on energy cooperation along with infrastructure, trade, and investment as supporting factors. A further layer of future cooperation is nuclear energy, clean energy, and aerospace technology (Hornschild, 2016; Neill, 2014, 207, 214; Kamel, 2018, 77-78).
Following the decrease in military trade because of UN and US sanctions on Iraq and Iran coupled with ineffectiveness of Chinese arms in battlefield conditions, Chinese-Middle Eastern trade fell to modest levels in the 1990s but increased again with oil trade. Even though China possesses Asia’s largest oil reserves, its rising energy demands in the past decades, due to high economic growth and structural shifts in energy use, entailed oil imports reaching 6.2 million barrels per day in 2014, a big jump from 2 million barrels per day in 2002 (Daojiong & Meiden, 2015, 2-8). Since 2011, slightly above 50% came from the Middle East, specifically Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran (Hornschild, 2016; Salman & Geeraerts, 2015, 103; Evron, 2017, 126). Another example is China’s national companies obtaining rights for the development of key oil fields in Iraq (Daojiong & Meiden, 2015, 2-8; Neill, 2014, 217; Dorraj & English, 2012, 185) and has become the largest receiver of Iraqi oil with almost half of total production (Arrango & Krauss, 2013). This demand is expected to reach a total of 18 million barrels per day in 2035 thus indicating a continued interest on the region, in spite of Chinese efforts for supplier diversification to avoid a potential oil shock. Furthermore, China’s reliance on Middle East oil is also related to its technical fitting with refineries and close shipping networks (Daojiong & Meiden, 2015, 2-8). Because of the centrality of the Middle East to China’s energy security, a peaceful and stable order in the region has become a priority (Lei, 2012, 63).
The New Silk Road
As the Middle East is an integral part of China’s revival of the old Silk Road, the 2013-launched “Belt and Road” initiative, it has pushed and supported infrastructure projects focusing on high-speed railway links and telecommunication networks that improve the economies of receiving states. The new Silk Road aims to integrate Asia, Europe, Middle East, and Africa through two routes: a maritime one moving through the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, and Mediterranean to Greece, and a land route connecting the Chinese hinterland with Europe through Central Asia and the Middle East; however, due to China’s limited ability to secure them, the Persian Gulf has been excluded from the maritime route whereas key Middle Eastern cities have been avoided as only Tehran is a waypoint in the land route. For example, upgrades to Saudi Arabia’s telecommunications network and the overhaul of Syria’s network have been awarded to Chinese companies. High-speed railways are also being constructed by Chinese contractors in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Libya, and Israel. In addition, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in January 2016 plans of $55 billion worth of investments and loans for such projects in the Arab World (Hornschild, 2016; Neill, 2014, 207, 214-218).
The Middle East is important to the project because of: strategic position at the intersection of the land and maritime roads as it connects Asia, Africa, and Europe and links three crucial economic maritime regions, South China Sea, Persian Gulf, and Mediterranean; ports that are vital connections for China’s land and sea trade routes covering the Indian and Pacific Oceans; inclusion of maritime chokepoints critical for energy transportation such as Bab al-Mandab strait through which most of China’s $1 billion daily exports to Europe pass, Hurmuz strait through which 20% of global oil ships pass (Kamel, 2018, 79-80; Bianchi, 2013, 103-104; Neill, 2014, 215), and Suez Canal through which 14% of global trade goods and 60% of Chinese exports to Europe pass (Fardella, 2015, 11); possession of large markets; and being half of China’s imported oil source with expectations that it will double by 2035 (Kamel, 2018, 79-80).
As some argue that the Silk Road is an entry point for China into reshaping the global political and economic system in its favor, the Middle East holds an essential position. It provides energy security, transportation routes, trade and investment partners, promotion of Chinese soft power, and a possible increase in military presence in the region (Kamel, 2018, 78). The region’s centrality is reflected in the spread of Chinese influence to the west through trans-continental networks of roads, pipelines, and trains (Bianchi, 2013, 103-104; Neill, 2014, 215).
The successful completion of this project will enable China to further integrate into the global economy, increase exports, counter the US advances in Asia and limit their influence in Europe, expand its sphere of influence, and internationalize its currency. Such a bold project signals a shift from the previous risk-averse foreign policy towards a more risk-embracing one under President Jinping given the challenges and instability that lie ahead with involved countries (Kamel, 2018, 76-77).
A quick look at China’s trade boom in the region shows that between 2000 and 2010, trade and energy cooperation increased more than tenfold between China and Saudi Arabia (Daojiong & Meiden, 2015, 2-8), an annual rate increase of 35% with both Iran and Algeria, and an annual rate increase of 58% with Libya. Furthermore, non-oil producing countries such as Tunisia, Lebanon, Egypt, and Morocco had a lower annual rate of increase but did reach 24%. This goes hand in hand with an increase in foreign direct investment (FDI) from $0.24 million in 2003 to $760 million in 2010 in Saudi Arabia, $22 million to $715 million in Iran, $483.45 million in Iraq, $5.7 million to $937.26 million in Algeria in the same time period. Non-oil producing countries had significantly lower FDI at $2 million in Lebanon, $2.53 million in Tunisia, and $16.61 million in Syria (Salman & Geeraerts, 2015, 112-115). This falls in line with China’s formation of the Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) which is showcased as an alternative to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Central to the One Belt One Road, the newly formed AIIB is becoming increasingly linked to projects in several regions, including the Middle East (Hsu, 2018).
As a whole, China considers the Middle East as a logistics, financial, and trade hub, and it has become at the core of China’s economic and political interests. By 2014, China became the Middle East’s biggest partner in trade which was worth over $300 billion with Arab states (Neill, 2014, 217; Tella, 2016, 140) and increased twenty-one-fold with the GCC between 1999 and 2010 (Salman & Geeraerts, 2015, 107) reaching $165 billion in 2013. They also account for more than half of the entire region’s market for Chinese exports reaching a value of $60 billion in 2013 thus placing them only after the EU, US, Japan, and South Korea (Fardella, 2015, 11).
Relations with Iran
Some point to the importance of Iran to China’s plans in the region due to extensive relations and cooperation between the two countries. China is Iran’s largest trading partners along with a significant number of agreements related to nuclear energy, road and rail facilities, oil, and arms supplies with the aim of surpassing $600 billion in bilateral trade by the next decade. This is coupled with China’s possible support of Tehran joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization thus bringing it closer to its sphere of institutional influence (Sidhu, 2016). This even extends to alleged Chinese assistance to Iran’s nuclear program (Tella, 2016, 141). Tehran could also be the most viable partner for China in maintaining stability in the region amid a retreating US (Fardella, 2015, 24).
These relations are shrewdly used by China as a bargaining chip in its ongoing rivalry with the US. For instance, China would not agree to the imposition of economic sanctions against Tehran before it gains some form of concession from the US thus preserving its trade interests and oil supplies (Dorraj & English, 2012, 184). Ideally for China, Iran would be allowed to pursue its nuclear program with international monitoring to ensure nuclear weapons are not being developed. This would coincide with the lefting of sanctions as they have led to huge losses for Chinese companies investing in Iran. Furthermore, Chinese interests go beyond these two factors as it prioritizes peaceful resolutions and stability in the region through which its new Silk Road passes and whose success hinges upon (Zhao, 2015).
In spite of this, it is expected that China would aim to avoid any direct or proxy regional conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia because instability would negatively impact its crucial oil supplies and rising investments in the region (Luft, 2016).
Will China Replace a Retreating US?
Several opinions exist within the China regarding expanding into the Middle East. Some view the decline of the US as an opportunity but disagree on whether they should exploit this or leave the US in its own mess while others are more hesitant of traps they might encounter. Skeptics view Asia as divided into two parts: a Far East progressing forward and a Middle East consumed by conflicts (Yin, 2008). The wariness towards expansion is rooted in the political instability gripping the region, fear of Arab Spring replication in mainland China, and spread of Islamic radicalism to Uighur separatists in Xinjiang (Neill, 2014, 205; Mclaughlin, 2015, 7).
On the other side of the globe, with the discovery of shale oil in the US, its reliance on oil and gas imports is quickly decreasing; thus, the continued geopolitical and energy importance of the Middle East to the US has come under question (Daojiong & Meiden, 2015, 1; Fardella, 2015, 24). The International Energy Agency predicts that US oil imports from the Middle East will fall to just 3% of total oil imports by 2035 (Downs, 2013). While oil imports were not the only determining factor in US Middle Eastern policy since the Gulf only accounted for 10% of US oil supplies, strategic interests did lie in the oil flow from the region into the global economy (Daojiong & Meiden, 2015, 5). Even with the relative retreat of the US, it will continue to push for certain interests such as the free flow of oil to prevent any disruption of world oil prices, control over nuclear proliferation, and counterterrorism (Downs, 2013); however, the era of unchallenged US dominance in the Middle East is coming to a close (Singh, 2016).
Countries in the region might look towards China as an alternative power than the US. Initial signs were seen through the series of high profile visits that occurred in the mid-2000s with Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Tunisia, Yemen, Oman, Egypt, and Iraq (Liangxiang, 2004, 114-116; Dorraj & English, 2012, 183). This trend continued as mutual high level official visits were held between Middle East rulers, specifically from the Gulf, and China such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt Kuwait, and Iran (Sidhu, 2016; Daojiong & Meiden, 2015, 9).
While such visits mainly revolve around economy and trade, they also indicate possible diplomatic and strategic discussions; however, China’s involvement in security matters in the region remains limited. This limitation does not extend to commercial ties as China seeks to expand such relationships through a Free Trade Agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) (Daojiong & Meiden, 2015, 9). It also signed “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” agreements with three key states in the region, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, along with five other strategic partnership agreements with United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, Iraq, and Oman. An additional three are expected to follow (Hornschild, 2016; Kamel, 2018, 81-82).
China has also begun employing its political power for economic gains. For example, it signed long-term energy deals, joint investments, and construction projects with the GCC in return for not vetoing the UNSC sanctions against Iran’s nuclear enrichment (Bianchi, 2013, 105).
Contrary to the US, China, as of yet, has not adopted hegemonic policies in the region and does not possess stationed military forces, except in adjacent Djibouti. Through its “peaceful rise” strategy, China has deepened its economic and trade ties with key states in the Middle East (Dorraj & English, 2012, 176).
The entrance of China into the region provides several countries with a rocky history with the US with an alternative to counter-balance Washington’s excessive power. While the US will attempt to limit this spread of influence because of its interests in preventing the rise of another hegemon in the Eastern Hemisphere, it cannot be reversed especially as the US is overstretched economically and geographically (Bianchi, 2013, 105-106). Countries where US influence and interests have diminished, China has moved in such as Libya, Iraq, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia (Neill, 2014, 205).
Even though China wants to increase its economic and military competitiveness as well as build good relations with states in the region, it wants to do so without entering into a direct confrontation against the US as such a scenario would be costly and risky. Such attempted balancing between China-Middle East relations and China-US relations can be noticed through the example of China and Iran. While Iran is highly important to China’s economic, energy, and geopolitcal interests, it did reduce imports and purhcases of Iranian oil as well as arms sales during negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program in 2012. As a result, new strategic alliances are built while maintaining commitments to the West (Salman & Geeraerts, 2015, 104-108; Singh, 2014, 11).
Economy as an End Goal or Entry Point?
Reluctance on Chinese security involvement in the region echoes public stances by Chinese officials calling for the resolving of issues by the people of the region themselves. They want to avoid getting involved in the complex regional, ethnic, sectarian, and political struggles of the region and lean more towards economic engagement. This approach is believed to lead towards development which helps address the root causes of security issues such as extremism (Zhao, 2015).
China is not merely watching from the sidelines however as it exhibits more willingness in sharing the burden of maintaining order in the region. For example, it has provided troops for the UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, provided warships to counter piracy on the Gulf of Aden, and sent military vessels to the Mediterranean to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons as part of the mission of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (Niu, 2015, 2, 9-10; Neill, 2014, 209-210).
This coincides with increasing its military capabilities and naval power to protect its sea transport lines (Neill, 2014, 214; Salman & Geeraerts, 2015, 106) in a shift referred to by Chinese naval commanders from “coastal defense” to “far sea defense” (Mclaughlin, 2015, 6). Initial signs of this gradual shift are naval exercises with Russia in the Mediterranean, refueling of fighter jets in Iran, warships making port calls in Iran and the UAE (Sing, 2016), and set-up of a Chinese naval base in Djibouti (Arab Weekly, 2018). Moreover, China passed an anti-terrorism law in 2015 allowing the Chinese army to conduct counter-terrorism operations outside the country while stressing the respect of the UN Charter, international norms, and sovereignty (Chaziza, 2016, 26). In spite of China’s limited military capabilities and low inclination to perform such actions overseas, it did lay the groundwork and open possibilities for the future (Ibid; Fardella, 2015, 20).
The exclusion of such military interventions does not extend to arms exports, participation of Chinese companies in military modernization of Middle Eastern countries such as Iran, increased intelligence and information sharing, funding and training for military and police, and provision of equipment to partners in the Middle East with the aim of stabilization (Fardella, 2015, 20; Neill, 2014, 214).
As China’s military capabilities increase, decision-makers could be more tempted to use that power in settling conflicts or contested issues in their favor (Ikenberry, 2008). A showcase of Chinese power occurred militarily during the Libyan civil war as 36,000 nationals unable to reach the coast were evacuated from the Libyan Desert. This involved the movement of Chinese warships from the Gulf of Aden into the Mediterranean for the first time in history (Bianchi, 2013, 110; Neill, 2014, 212). This sent a dual message: one to MENA countries that China is willing to back its rising economic interests in the region with force when necessary, and another to NATO that they no longer have an exclusive clout over North African territory (Bianchi, 2013, 110). On the other hand, it also highlighted the absence of a permanent military base and center of influence for China in the region (Neill, 2014, 212), but this is rapidly changing as seen with the opening of the Chinese naval base in Djibouti in 2017 (Reuters Staff, 2017).
Is China Different than the US?
Historically, China has called for peaceful solutions for conflicts in the region without external intervention, especially Western ones. It distances itself from taking sides as the US did and adopts a rhetoric of neutrality, non-intervention, mutual benefits, and multilateralism (Shichor, 1992, 92-93; Rubin, 1999, 352; 210-211; Kamel, 2018, 80). This was seen with the abstention from voting in the UNSC Resolution 678 sanctioning military operations against Iraq (Shichor, 1992, 92-93; Rubin, 1999, 352; 210-211), vetoing resolutions regarding Syria, and abstaining from the UNSC Libyan intervention decision; however, it did support the 2003 UN decision for the invasion of Iraq (Neill, 2014, 210-211).
China’s policy in the region is different than the US and Russia since it is not bound by interests and commitments such as Russia with Assad and the US with Israel (Bianchi, 2013, 111). It is one of the rare states that maintain good relations with Arabs, Persians, Turks, and Jews (Tella, 2016, 141; Singh, 2016). For instance, it has trade deals with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. It also maintained good relations with the Mubarak regime, Muslim Brotherhood, and current Sisi regime, and kept its links to Assad while initiating a relationship with the opposition. This provides it with more flexibility in maneuvering around the region (Bianchi, 2013, 111; Neill, 2014, 211), but it does prioritize “restoring the leash” that NATO broke with its Libyan intervention (Bianchi, 2013, 111; Fardella, 2015, 16-17). Thus, China is more supportive of a regional security arrangement which guarantees the territorial integrity and security of all major states, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel. Such arrangement would be in cooperation with the US and Russia (Olimat, 2010, 319).
Even among the Arab public, China constantly receives higher favorability than the US as shown by the 2005 Pew Global Attitude Project Surveys, 2009 Arab Youth Survey, 2010 BBC World Service Opinion Poll, and 2010 Brookings Arab Public Opinion Poll (Chen, 2011, 3-4). This is greatly attributed to the absence of Chinese colonial history or involvement in the geographic and sectarian divisions of the region (Lai & Lingwall, 2015) as opposed to Western, and specifically US foreign policy which includes the invasion of Iraq and drone attacks. This favorability goes hand in hand with the establishment of Confucius Institutes in Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, UAE, Morocco, Egypt, and Israel to promote Chinese culture and language (Chen, 2011, 3-4). Furthermore, scholarships, health assistance, and aid are being provided as an exemplification of soft power projection (Tella, 2016, 142).
It must be stated that, in spite of this public favorability, Arab countries must be wary of what some have called “debt-trap diplomacy” as a form of Chinese imperialism. Due to the low short-term returns on investments of Chinese-funded projects, some African countries might be unable to repay the debts to China thus resulting in different outcomes, some of which include territory or infrastructure control as compensation. This was the case with Sri Lanka which owes more than $1 billion in debt handing over the Hambantota port to a state-owned Chinese company (Fernholz, 2018), and Kenya is under threat of losing control of the key port of Mombasa in a similar fashion (Mcquaid, 2018).
China continues to be reluctant towards political involvement due to the instability and violence that plague the region. This is clear from the avoidance of taking any leading role in meditating conflicts as well as the un-impactful diplomatic initiatives they launched. Such initiatives, such as Palestinian-Israeli peace talks and bringing together representatives of opposing Syrian groups, serve to promote China’s image, influence, values, and interests in the region without committing political and military resources to push for their success (Evron, 2017, 126-127; Singh, 2016). While Beijing may not want to play the traditional role of leadership and security in the region in a similar manner to the US, its rising economic power will make it harder to remain uninvolved in regional problems and solutions as time passes, interests deepen, and conflicts arise (Neill, 2014, 222; Zhao, 2015).
Stance on the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict
Initially, China adopted a strong pro-Palestinian stance and provided support to the PLO. It refused to recognize Israel as a state in spite of Israel being the first to recognize the PRC as the legitimate government of China. This aimed at gaining the support and trust of Third World countries against the hostile West; however, until the 1970s, nine Arab countries continued to refuse to recognize the PRC (Zhang, 1999, 151). As the importance of ideology in foreign policy declined and adapting to reality after decades of conflict China recognized the unilaterally declared Palestinian state in 1988 and followed by establishing diplomatic relations with Israel after the 1991 Madrid Conference (Rubin, 1999, 352; Singh, 2014, 10; Evron, 2017, 131; Zhang, 1999, 152).
While China’s support to Palestine had remained mostly symbolic in the past decades, secret military ties with Israel are traced back to 1980 (Olimat, 2010, 320), and the public recognition of Israel opened the door towards deeper relations (Liangxiang, 2004, 120; Singh, 2014, 10). Its trade has increased two hundred fold in the past couple of decades reaching $10.8 billion in 2013. Coupled with trade, China is interested in Israeli technology (Singh, 2014, 10; Olimat, 2010, 320). This was reflected with Israel becoming a key supplier of advanced weapons and investor in Chinese development projects (Rubin, 1999, 352), in spite of US objections about the transfer of military technology to China (Olimat, 2010, 321).
In brief, China’s position regarding the conflict has become one similar to the international middle ground, based on a two-state solution, almost identical to that of the European Union and US (Singh, 2014, 10; Evron, 2017, 130); however, many Arabs prefer China’s involvement because of their belief it will create some form of balance in the peace process that has been biased in favor of Israel (Olimat, 2010, 321). Especially today, with rising talks about the so-called “deal of the century” by the Trump administration, the Chinese stance calling for an independent Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, an end to illegal settlements, and East Jerusalem as the capital is becoming an increasingly favorable one which the Palestinians can push for as an alternative (Middle East Monitor, 2018).
The dominant religion in the Middle East, Islam, might pose a dilemma and even a threat to Chinese military operations based on public opinion and extreme Islamist organizations (Niu, 2015, 3). Experiences until now have been mixed. While local populations had a favorable impression of the abidance and respect of Chinese military personnel with local and Islamic customs, Chinese soldiers have also rejected religious invitations and gestures because of their “belief in Marxism” and “neither believing in Gods nor religions”. Non-military capabilities of soldiers have to be improved if daily interactions with populations are to succeed and move beyond the mere respect of culture (Niu, 2015, 10-11, 18).
The rise of political and extremist Islamic groups in the region may pose a direct threat to China’s internal stability if it spreads towards its increasingly conservative Muslim-inhabited regions (Singh, 2014, 7; Fardella, 2015, 12; Mclaughlin, 2015, 7; Kamel, 2018, 79-80). For example, Chinese Muslim Uighurs from the Xinjiang province have radicalized segments which launched terrorist attacks and are reported to have connections and received training with Pakistan and Afghanistan-based extremist groups and ISIS (Chaziza, 2016, 26; Fardella, 2015, 13; Mclaughlin, 2015, 7; Luft, 2016).
While many Middle Eastern authoritarian rulers prefer China’s pragmatic approach to the development of economic relations along with its lack of interest in the conducting of internal politics, human rights, and democratic elections (Tella, 2016, 141-142; Dorraj & English, 2012, 189), the strengthening of relations with authoritarian regimes may become a challenge in the future in case of occurrence of a similar event such as the Arab Spring. This could make it difficult to rebuild ties due to past support for overthrown regimes (Singh, 2014, 6-7; Dorraj & English, 2012, 189); however, as pointed previously, it was able to shift support from Mubarak to Morsi to Sisi as well as cultivating relations with both Assad and opposition.
In spite of being able to maintain good economic relations regardless of political discontent arising with its Middle Eastern partners, the economic power of China has enabled it to prevent this discontent from impacting the economic relationship. For example, Gulf countries, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, were not pleased with China’s approach to the Syrian crisis but did not react in economic terms (Neill, 2014, 211). Another incident was the cancellation of President Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia following the break-out of war in Yemen. While he succeeded in not appearing as if he is taking a stand against Iran, he did anger the Saudis (Singh, 2016). Whether Chinese diplomacy will continue to maintain this balance in a multipolar system remains to be seen (Neill, 2014, 211; Singh, 2014, 11; Singh, 2016).
Political instability may also impact oil prices and supply to China as well as endanger the large number of Chinese workers present such as the example of Libya which required military evacuation (Singh, 2014, 7).
With the recent announcement of a $20 billion loan and $1.6 billion financial aid package by President Jinping in front of representatives of 21 Arab countries in Beijing, along with the formation of a consortium of banks from China and Arab countries, China is moving forward with its economic engagement in the Middle East. Jinping also stated that development lies at the core of solving security problems and called for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in a just manner that maintains regional stability (Arab Weekly, 2018). This echoes previosuly stated Chinese policy for the region which revolves around economic development, continued oil supplies, protection of land and sea routes of the new Silk Road, peaceful resolutions, and regional stability amid minimal Chinese political and military involvement. While China has been able to succeed until now with its engagement and cultivation of good relations with all major powers, it has refrained from taking the lead in concretely solving major disputes. The fact that the US and Russia continue to exercise that role provides a form of cover for China to continue in the same manner; however, if China is expected to assume a leading role in maintaining regional stability and protecting its interests, then the complexities of the Middle East will be much harder to juggle. Whether China will succeed where the US and others failed remains to be seen as its economic, political, and military influence multiply.
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