As China’s interests, influence and power increase in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its preferences for regional order and security become a more salient consideration. It is frequently assumed that Beijing is aiming to challenge US preponderance in the MENA region. However, Chinese leaders consistently insist that they have no interest in playing a similar dominant regional role to the US; they are far more focused on domestic pressures and issues on their own periphery. In the near term, it is likely that Beijing will continue to play a secondary role in MENA security initiatives, calling for dialogue and voicing support for home-grown solutions. At the same time, Beijing’s worsening bilateral relationship with Washington means that it will be reluctant to commit to any US-led initiative in the region.
What shapes China’s approach to MENA security?
China’s unwillingness to wade too deeply into MENA security affairs is a result of interest-based logic. In their classic book China’s Search for Security, Nathan and Scobell use a set of four concentric circles to represent the hierarchy of security-related issues that dominate the thinking of the Communist Party of China (CPC) leadership.1 The first circle, considered the ‘core interests’, is China’s sovereign territory and preoccupies the bulk of the CPC’s attention. With environmental issues, uneven development, economic pressures, demographic concerns and constant pressures coming from Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, domestic issues are first-level considerations. The second circle includes the 20 states that share borders and maritime boundaries with China. This includes weak or fragile states, countries with difficult relations with China (Japan, South Korea, Vietnam), and, in India’s case, a rival Asian power which has had open conflict with it in recent years. This circle is also a major concern and indicates that Beijing’s own neighbourhood has the potential to stall any greater geopolitical agenda beyond Asia. The third circle contains six regional orders – Northeast Asia, continental Southeast Asia, maritime Southeast Asia, Oceania, South Asia and Central Asia – that are home to a large portion of Chinese security-related interests. The fourth circle, the rest of the world, is where the MENA region appears, along with all the other countries and regions where China has interests. This is not to diminish the Middle East in China’s strategic thinking, but simply to emphasize that several other priorities must be thought through before properly evaluating the region’s significance to Beijing.
This is important in considering the kind of role that China can be expected to play in Middle East security issues. It is not realistic to think of China as an alternative to US regional security commitments. Furthermore, the fact that China has a long-standing non-alliance policy means that any Chinese approach to regional security affairs would operate under a very different framework. Rather than alliances, China uses strategic partnership diplomacy, with a set of hierarchical designations for partner states depending on their perceived importance to Beijing. These partnerships differ from alliances in that they are interest-based rather than threat-based and do not focus on third parties. Typically, China and the partner country builds trust on the foundation of economic interests, and gradually introduces political and strategic concerns.2 Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) each have comprehensive strategic partnerships, putting them at the highest level of China’s diplomatic hierarchy. Those partnerships suggest that Beijing believes it can be a different type of great power in the region, achieving balanced relationships with competing or rival regional actors. In practice, this interpretation indicates that Beijing would be more willing to support a Persian Gulf security framework that does not actively counter any regional countries. An inclusive cooperative security dialogue involving all Gulf states would be consistent with China’s interests and preferences.
How do US–China relations affect MENA security?
At the same time, China’s presence in the Middle East has to be analysed within the context of a deteriorating China–US bilateral relationship. The US pivot or rebalance to Asia has slowly taken shape with the designation of the Indo-Pacific as the priority theatre, and with strategic competition becoming the new foreign and defence policy framework for Washington. China is front and centre of this framework. In May 2022 US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave a speech outlining the Biden administration’s approach to China in which he described it as ‘the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it’.3 For the US, the China challenge means more resources should be directed to the Indo-Pacific and away from the MENA region, a process that has been delayed by ongoing tensions between the US and Iran.
From Beijing’s strategic perspective, the US shift has two important implications. First, a US pivot potentially challenges China in Asia, a region that Beijing considers far more consequential than the Middle East and North Africa. Second, it could weaken the existing MENA security architecture that has allowed China to develop a significant regional presence. This adds a layer of complexity when Chinese leaders consider Persian Gulf security. Regional stability is necessary for Chinese commercial and energy interests, but at the same time the threat of regional instability in the form of Iranian aggression means the US will remain deeply engaged in the Gulf.
These implications may partly explain China’s willingness to challenge the US in the Gulf in recent years. Prior to the trade war initiated by the Trump administration, Beijing appeared satisfied with the US preponderance in the Middle East. Since then, however, the region has come to resemble a playing field. Beijing began to offer more support to Iran during the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign,4 both with the comprehensive strategic partnership (signed in January 2016 but not implemented until March 2021) and the offer to make Iran a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. At the same time, China has intensified relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, reportedly helping the Saudis with their indigenous ballistic missile programme5 and reportedly beginning work on a military installation in Abu Dhabi before abandoning it due to US pressure on the Emiratis.6 None of this requires significant resources from Beijing but creates friction that seems designed to keep the US anchored in the Gulf.
China’s Five Point Initiative
Geopolitics and economics aside, China has been gradually building towards a more meaningful presence in the region. In a 2014 interview with Al Jazeera, Foreign Minister Wang Yi was pressed on the widespread perception that China was only interested in the Middle East for economic reasons. He was asked if it would play a larger political and security role. His response acknowledged ‘a need for China to build up its capabilities for sustained expansions of such cooperation … We will play a role in the political field as well. China’s political role in the Middle East will only be enhanced, not diminished’.7 This can partly be attributed to the need to be more proactive in a geopolitically crucial region where it has many interests. It is also an indication of status – a rising power with global interests needs to be seen as playing an important role in the Middle East.8 To that end, China has been building a larger political presence. It established the China Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) in 2004, a multilateral forum that promotes policy coordination and includes China and the 22 Arab League member states. Another development was the appointment of special envoys to offer Chinese mediation on regional hotspot issues, with one for Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and another for Syria. Beyond inserting China into these issues, however, and demonstrating Beijing’s awareness that it needs to be more actively involved, there have been few tangible results from these envoys.9
In 2021 Foreign Minister Wang made a significant trip to the MENA region,10 where he presented an initiative that provided explicit details on Beijing’s preferences for regional security. The Five Point Initiative on Middle East – North Africa Security and Stability was announced while Wang was visiting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Neom. The initiative’s five points are: advocate mutual respect; uphold equity and justice; achieve nuclear non-proliferation; jointly foster collective security; and accelerate development cooperation. While these read as rather vague, there are specific issues addressed in them, reflecting Chinese preferences for a revised international political order.
‘Advocate mutual respect’ is essentially a call for respecting sovereignty, a central pillar of Chinese foreign policy. ‘Uphold equity and justice’ refers specifically to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Wang said in a statement announcing this initiative, ‘Nothing represents equity and justice in the Middle East more than a sound solution to the question of Palestine and earnest implementation of the two-state solution’.11 He said that China would use its presidency of the UN Security Council (UNSC) in May 2021 to encourage it to ‘fully deliberate’ on the Palestinian Territories. As events turned out, the outbreak of violence there that month was a major issue during China’s presidency of the UNSC, and China distinguished itself as a different type of actor than the US on Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Whereas Beijing condemned violence against civilians and emphasized Israel’s responsibility for resolving the tensions, Washington blocked several UN statements condemning Israel’s military response.
‘Achieve nuclear non-proliferation’ is of course directly linked to the Iranian nuclear issue. As one of the P5 states involved in negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), China sees this agreement as an important diplomatic achievement, and Chinese officials were actively involved behind the scenes in the run-up to the JCPOA.12 That the US unilaterally withdrew from it undermined Chinese preferences for Gulf stability. Its officials have frequently condemned this, with Foreign Minister Wang repeatedly criticizing the move as one that destabilizes the Gulf. This is about more than US–China competition; in March 2021, just before the first meeting, the Anchorage Summit, between the Biden administration and Chinese officials, Vice-Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu expressed concern that ‘there are some new changes in the current Iranian nuclear situation. All parties should increase their sense of urgency’.13 A nuclear Iran is a threat to China, as is the prospect of anticipated nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East that would likely result. This is an issue that would be especially suited to Chinese engagement through a cooperative security dialogue.
The fourth point, ‘jointly fostering collective security’, seems actually to be a call for cooperative rather than collective security. It was accompanied with a proposal that China host a multilateral security dialogue conference for the Persian Gulf, with the goal of first discussing the security of oil facilities and shipping lanes, and gradually building towards a more comprehensive regional security framework. This is a clear indication that if Gulf states were to develop a cooperative security dialogue, they could count on Chinese participation and support. Collective security initiatives, which promote security cooperation against a shared threat, run counter to China’s non-alignment policy described above. For example, a grouping like the Middle East Strategic Alliance, proposed during the Trump administration, would not be supported by Beijing since the objective was to contain Iran. By stressing that ‘the legitimate concerns of all parties should be accommodated’, Beijing’s proposal in this point is consistent with a cooperative approach to regional security.14
The fifth point of the initiative, ‘accelerating development cooperation’, is consistent with a Chinese approach to security achieved through development. In recent years several Chinese leaders have articulated this belief. Ambassador Li Chengwen, former representative to the CASCF, summarized this, claiming, ‘The root problems in the Middle East lie in development and the only solution is also development’.15 The announcement in 2021 of the Global Development Initiative, while not yet widely discussed outside China, indicates the diplomatic weight that Beijing plans to put behind this concept – and it is clearly attractive across the Middle East.16
The long-term outlook
Taken together, it is clear that China sees a need for a larger role in MENA security, and it appears to have a vision of what shape this would take. At the same time, Sino-American competition is a factor that needs to be taken into consideration. The Middle East is a region where the two countries’ interests align quite closely and would benefit from policy coordination. Given the political climates in both Washington and Beijing, however, it is difficult to foresee this happening unless it concerns an issue where both believe their interests and preferences are threatened.
Among regional actors, substantive Chinese support for a cooperative security dialogue would be welcome. China is already a major economic power in the MENA region and its regional interests require a deeper level of political engagement. Middle Eastern leaders, uncertain of the long-term outlook for US commitment, are looking to other extra-regional powers to play a larger role. China’s ambition and growing status, combined with its already significant regional presence, means that its views on MENA security must be taken seriously.
This article is part of a series for the ‘Building a Cooperative Regional Security Architecture in the Middle East’ project, a partnership between Chatham House’s MENA Programme and the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California, Los Angeles.
1 Nathan, A. J. and Scobell, A. (2012), China’s Search for Security, New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 3–7.
2 On China’s strategic partnership diplomacy, see: Sun, D. (2021), ‘China’s Partnership Diplomacy in the Middle East’, in Fulton, J. (ed.) (2021), Routledge Handbook of China – Middle East Relations, Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 299–311; Goldstein, A. (2005), Rising to the Challenge: China’s Grand Strategy and International Security, Stanford: Stanford University Press; Strüver, G. (2017), ‘China’s Partnership Diplomacy: International Alignment Based on Interests or Ideology’, The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 10(1), pp. 31–65, https://doi.org/10.1093/cjip/pow015
3 U.S. Department of State (2022), ‘The Administration’s Approach to the People’s Republic of China: Speech, Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State’, The George Washington University, Washington, D.C., 26 May 2022, https://www.state.gov/the-administrations-approach-to-the-peoples-republic-of-china/
4 After withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Trump administration implemented intensified sanctions against Iran.
5 Cohen, Z. (2021), ‘US Intel and Satellite Images Show Saudi Arabia Is Now Building Its Own Ballistic Missiles with Help of China’, CNN, 23 December 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/12/23/politics/saudi-ballistic-missiles-china/index.html
6 Lubold, G. and Strobel, W. (2021), ‘Secret Chinese Port Project in Persian Gulf Rattles U.S. Relations with U.A.E.’, The Wall Street Journal, 19 November, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/us-china-uae-military-11637274224
7 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (2014), ‘Wang Yi Gave an Interview to Al Jazeera’, 9 January 2014, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjdt_665385/zyjh_665391/201401/t20140109_678127.html
8 On the importance of status in China’s foreign policy, see: Pu, X. (2019), Rebranding China: Contested Status Signaling in the Changing Global Order, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
9 On the CASCF and China’s special envoys, see: Murphy, D. C. (2021), ‘Chinese Diplomatic Outreach to MENA: Cooperation Forums and Special Envoys’, in Fulton (2021), Routledge Handbook of China – Middle East Relations, pp. 384–395.
10 Fulton, J. (2021), ‘Mr. Wang Goes to the Middle East,’ Atlantic Council MENASource, 1 April 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/mr-wang-goes-to-the-middle-east/
11 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (2021), ‘Wang Yi Proposes a Five-Point Initiative on Achieving Security and Stability in the Middle East’, 26 March 2021, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjb_663304/wjbz_663308/activities_663312/202103/t20210327_9168120.html
12 Garver, J. (2018), ‘China and the Iran Nuclear Negotiations: Beijing’s Mediation Effort’, in Reardon-Anderson, J. (ed.) (2018), The Red Star & the Crescent: China and the Middle East, London: Hurst & Company, pp. 123–148.
13 Ng, T. and Zhang, R. (2021), ‘China Urges US to Seek Iran Nuclear Talks after “New Developments”’, South China Morning Post, 26 March 2021, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3127101/china-urges-us-seek-iran-nuclear-talks-after-new-developments
14 Jones, P. (2022), ‘A Middle East Cooperation and Security Process: Has the Time Come?’, Middle East Policy, 29(1), pp. 74–89, https://doi.org/10.1111/mepo.12620
15 China.org.cn (2016), ‘Development Key to Solving Middle East Problems: Chinese Diplomat’, 25 August 2016, http://www.china.org.cn/world/Off_the_Wire/2016-08/25/content_39159959.htm
16 National Development and Reform Commission, People’s Republic of China (2022), ‘Global Development Initiative will respond to the needs of all countries’, 31 March 2022, https://en.ndrc.gov.cn/news/pressreleases/202203/t20220331_1321484.html