China’s interactions with the Middle East have grown this year. Despite negotiating a fraught world economy and sluggish economic growth at home, Beijing’s breathless activities have continued unabated, thickening China’s involvement in Middle Eastern affairs. Whether this foreshadows China becoming a meaningful political actor in the region anytime soon, however, remains in doubt.
China’s recent activity in the region has consolidated its economic primacy; its status as the region’s largest trading partner, investor, and energy exporter, remains unwavering. China’s intensifying presence in the Middle East reflects numerous opportunities afforded Beijing by evolving global politics and regional demands.
Amid the dawn of a new era of great power competition, China’s relationship in the Middle East has come under strong scrutiny in Washington and stirred much speculation about its political motivations and capabilities in the region. Although it is debatable whether Beijing’s activities merit such a deluge of attention, the turning of geopolitical tides has increasingly made analysis of China-MENA relations difficult to disentangle from the global context of Sino-US competition.
Recent months attest to the gradual diversification of China’s activities and the reshaping of its interactions with the Middle East. They also shed further light on the increasing implications of China’s courting of the Middle East on both the regional and international level.
Active Duty 388th and Reserve 419th F35's at Hill Air Force Base, Itah, Jan 6th 2020. The UAE purchased Chinese L15 fighters after negotiations to purchase the F35 broke down in 2021. | AFP
Beijing’s Activities in 2022
Faithful to recent years, Beijing’s activities in 2022 have proceeded briskly, still firmly guided by economic considerations. The promise of “win-win cooperation” with regional governments is underpinned by the tightly transactional nature of Chinese foreign policy; for many in the Middle East, business with Beijing presents a welcome antidote to the political pressures knotted into relations with the West.
Beijing’s primary focus on energy cooperation has diversified, coupled to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Technological and arms interests have also enriched Beijing’s economic cooperation, showcased during the last 6-months or so.
While Russian forces swelled on Ukraine’s eastern borders in January, Sino-MENA relations marked the new year with intent. The secretary-general of the GCC and foreign ministers from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Oman visited the coastal province of Jiangsu for a series of meetings with Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, over the course of five-days.
Among the notable developments was an agreement to establish the China-GCC strategic partnership, and progress made in negotiations on a China-GCC Free Trade Agreement (initiated in 2004), foreshadowing the deepening of Sino-Gulf ties.
Beijing’s expansive interests complement the strategies of Gulf regimes to modernise and ally their economies with an environmentally sensitive world. Greater engagement with the GCC also shows Beijing’s desire to nurture its regional engagement on a multilateral footing, offering a pathway to skirt regional tensions and their complications when business is conducted on a bilateral basis.
Thereafter followed the visit of Iran’s Foreign Minister to Beijing during which the 25-year strategic agreement signed in March 2021 of $400 billion, enhancing economic, energy and cultural interactions, became operative. This reaffirmed Beijing’s contempt for Western sanctions and its role as primary counterweight to Tehran’s international isolation.
Regional tensions outside the GCC framework, so a common argument proceeds, challenge the limits of Beijing’s ability to cultivate economic partners indiscriminately. But its responses to regional conflicts and enmities in recent years show China’s neutrality in Middle Eastern politics, despite its minor role in JCPOA negotiations and token expressions of support for Palestinian plight, has been steadfast.
However, Beijing’s conscious detachment from regional politics cannot always be squared with its economic appetites; it often entangles itself in deals marked with political risk.
In April, a Chinese company agreed to build 4 dams in Kurdistan. The BRI has driven infrastructure projects by Chinese companies in recent years, whether directly or peripherally associated with Beijing’s aim to bolster trans-continental connectivity.
This agreement appears to have come about without the knowledge of Baghdad, who has grave concerns around the implications of these dams for its domestic water sources. It is unlikely that this instance of hydro-political friction threatens Beijing’s respective relations with Iraq, the largest beneficiary of China’s BRI 2021 investments (approximately $10.5 billion in construction contracts). Nonetheless, it points to the uncertainty of whether China will continue to successfully evade political complications as its economic presence in the Middle East expands.
Moreover, seeking to strengthen its defences in the face of intensified conflict in the new year, the UAE announced in February its designs to purchase a dozen Chinese L15 aircrafts. This decision represented a snub to the United States whose $23 billion arms deal with the UAE, including F-35 fighter jets, has yet to materialise since negotiations were suspended by the UAE in December 2021.
The UAE’s decision was a response to severe conditions imposed on the deal by Washington surrounding Abu Dhabi’s strengthening relationship with China and the risk this poses to sensitive F-35 technology and information. Last month’s announcement that the first overseas office of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) will be in Abu Dhabi is a testament to the flourishing of Sino-UAE relations.
In July, Saudi Arabia obliquely threatened to follow suit and purchase arms from China if unable to acquire US arms.
The US cannot possibly compete with China in most areas of commerce. But in the sphere of security, it will act accordingly to preserve its interests. However, the unfavourable responses of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh to this new reality reveals their frustration in the face of Washington’s inflexibility.
While business with Beijing may be ever more inviting, Arab states need to be mindful of how this might imperil US security guarantees. On the other hand, US anxiety about Beijing’s arms deals could be used by Arab leaders to pressure Washington for greater leniency on other issues, like domestic governance.
With the first China-Arab summit scheduled this year in Saudi Arabia, China’s imprint on the Middle East will strengthen further as the remainder of 2022 unfolds.
In December 2021, authortities in Abu Dhabi halted construction on an Chinese port following US pressure. The Chinese funded BRI port of Gwadar in Pakistan (above) has the potential to become a regional hub for Middle East and Africa. | AFP
Sino-US Competition in the Middle East
The Middle East is not immune from the far-reaching implications of escalating strategic competition between America and China. As indicated by recent Sino-MENA developments, this new global reality has announced itself on the political landscape of the region, although its impact has been relatively modest until now. For Beijing, the commercial environment has become more challenging.
Encapsulated in the widely publicised image of President Biden and MBS trading wintry half-smiles while bumping fists, Biden’s visit in July sought to reaffirm America’s engagement in the region through a renewal of realpolitik. Although oil production defined Biden’s agenda, anxieties about US geopolitical tensions loomed large.
“We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran'' declared Biden at a session with Arab leaders by the Red Sea. The unfamiliar presence of China on America's list of adversaries in the Middle East reflects rising tension in Washington over Beijing’s regional activities.
In prior years, analysts have touted the Middle East as a region which could alleviate Sino-US tension elsewhere in the world because of shared interests in preserving regional stability and the free flow of oil.
However, regional friction between the two superpowers has surfaced amid the swift deterioration of relations in recent years, chiefly in the domains of security, arms, and technology.
China’s security activities in the Middle East are limited. Beijing seeks to maximise its economic interests while minimising costs and risks; consequently, it is content to remain a “free-rider” (as aptly described by President Obama in 2014) on US security commitments in the region.
But the trend of Arab leaders to progressively hedge their security needs with different partners, like China, has invited concern in Washington. In turn, China has welcomed opportunities to diversify its economic cooperation by making cautious inroads into the security market.
A key area of conflict surrounds Beijing’s efforts to win port access and development projects in the Middle East. Ports appear to be coveted by Beijing for strictly commercial purposes, but Washington is nervous that they could be used for other purposes: namely, for surveillance on US military and commercial shipping, and expanding Chinese military might in the future.
For instance, US officials have expressed concern about Chinese investment in Haifa Port, Israel, because of its use by the US Navy 6th Fleet. In July, Israel acquiesced to US pressure when it granted the tender for the privatization of the original Haifa Port (located next to the new, Chinese-operated terminal) to an Indian firm, defeating bids from Chinese companies.
Likewise, reports emerged in November 2021 that the Biden administration had pressured the UAE to cease construction of a Chinese port project near Abu Dhabi over suspicions of its military purposes.
However, this example of deference to US pressure in the Arab world has proved to be the exception rather than the rule.
Another chief sphere of Sino-US tension is arms. China has readily made use of the US’s reluctance to sell specific weapons to Middle Eastern governments; this usually stems from uncertainty about how the weapons might be used, or an unwillingness to share sensitive technology. Meanwhile, Beijing’s indifference to such considerations has accelerated its position as a growing supplier in the regional arms market, generating disquiet in Washington.
In December 2021, a US intelligence assessment confirmed that China is helping Saudi Arabia manufacture its own ballistic missiles. Though China has no desire to displace US security, it is willing to provide Riyadh with sophisticated weaponry which the US is not. The focus on economic reward at the expense of political risk – in this instance, inflaming tensions between Riyadh and Tehran which Washington sought to avoid – is characteristic of Chinese foreign policy.
As previously mentioned, the UAE made a similar decision in February to purchase a dozen Chinese L15 aircrafts; facing stringent conditions on a $23 billion arms deal with the US, the UAE suspended negotiations and turned to Beijing instead.
These examples reveal the wisdom of Arab governments diversifying their security partners: when Washington withholds, Beijing obliges.
Gulf states are unwilling to sever their security relationships with the US. However, Biden’s failure to persuade them to boost oil production in July exhibited their increasingly autonomous behaviour. The intransigence of Gulf leaders in the face of US pressure defines Sino-US competition over technology.
US demands to halt agreements with China for 5G investments have been ignored by Gulf states, loath to permit geopolitical competition to disrupt their strides towards post-carbon economies. Huawei has consolidated its position in GCC markets and become a fully integrated tech partner for Gulf states and other Arab countries, focused on rolling out 5G and cloud services.
US intelligence circles are ripe with concern that if Huawei equipment underpins global networks, they will be vulnerable to Chinese cyber espionage and intellectual property theft. Consequently, Washington believes this regional embrace of Huawei endangers sensitive information and technology in US military and naval bases scattered across the Middle East.
And yet only Israel has bowed to US pressure by excluding Huawei from its 5G network, signifying Beijing’s decisive victory in this critical area of Sino-US regional competition.
Moreover, ideology may not be the determinant factor in this new cold war, but neither is it irrelevant. On a range of ideological issues in East Asia, from human rights in Xinjiang to political freedoms in Hong Kong, Beijing and Washington are at odds.
Arab governments, however, have readily adopted the One China policy to remove needless complications from their relations with Beijing. In the event of China launching efforts to realise reunification with Taiwan, it should be expected that the responses of Middle Eastern governments, except for Israel, will be supportive or aloof.
And while the Biden administration’s ambition to renew democracy worldwide may resonate with regional populations, it will not endear the US with governments in the region – its autocratic politics more in tune with Beijing.
Given further weight by Biden’s failed trip to the Middle East in July, Sino-US competition will likely place into sharper relief the limitations of America’s ability to convert policy aspirations into concrete regional realities.
Returning great power competition will not reshuffle Middle Eastern politics, but it promises to generate more and more headaches for regional leaders, who regard it as an unwelcome disruption.
As the UAE’s presidential diplomatic adviser remarked last year, “the idea of choosing is problematic in the international system and I think this is not going to be an easy ride.”
A widely publicised image of President Biden and MBS trading wintry half-smiles while bumping fists /AFP
China’s Campaign for Public Opinion
Amid intensifying Sino-US great power competition, China is decisively leading the war for popular opinion in the Middle East. Mass opinion polls in Arab states highlight China’s popularity while favourable coverage of China in Arab media is constant, demonstrated by recent responses in regional newspapers to Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
A columnist in the Saudi Al-Jazirah, for instance, challenges America’s “provocation of China” by violating its sovereignty of Taiwan. The author describes China’s borders as “time bombs planted by Western colonialism” to lull China into future and inevitable wars. Similarly, a columnist in Egypt’s Al-Ahram mocks American “arrogance” for believing that it is capable of simultaneously dealing with crises it has “purposefully ignited” with Russia and China. And a column in Jordan’s Al-Dustour ascribes responsibility to the US for driving escalation in East Asia, warning of the US’s inability to manage it once the “wonderful Chinese genie” is provoked.
On the popular level, China’s favourability appears the consequence of circumstance. There is widespread desire in the Middle East for an alternative to American hegemony, underpinned by the fraught legacies of US foreign policies and the diminishment of its credibility. In many regional quarters, China offers a corrective to US dominance. Indeed, it seems reasonable to speculate that there might be a compelling relationship between anti-Americanism and China’s popularity.
The other pertinent consideration is China unrivalled regional trade dominance, its volume amounting to $330 billion in 2021; while US cultural and military dominance remains overwhelming, this trade imbalance has seen a surge of Chinese products enter the Middle East in recent years. Consequently, regional populations have been growing accustomed to Chinese products and developing their familiarity with the far East.
Meanwhile, sympathetic coverage in Arab media is shaped by broad support for the One China policy amongst Arab governments won through Beijing’s economic incentives, reaffirmed by the Arab league in early August.
But Beijing seeks to strengthen this popularity through a rising tide of propaganda; it has heightened efforts to spin positive narratives of China in the Middle East in support of its growing presence, as shown by recent months.
At the forefront of Beijing’s discursive campaign are Chinese officials. While Twitter is regarded as an important instrument for public diplomacy, it is doubtful that many ordinary people whittle away their time reading the tweets of diplomats. A more impactful platform drawn on by Chinese officials for engaging local audiences is regional media.
In July, China’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, HE Chen Weiqing, published a piece in al-Sharq al-Awsat contrasting the amicable history of Sino-Arab ties with the “brutal aggression” inflicted by the West on Chinese and Arabs alike in modern times. In this vein, he draws on Edward Said’s orientalism to emphasise Western prejudices towards the East, before expressing how the principles of Chinese foreign policy, based on mutual respect and non-interference, will ensure cooperation and reward.
Antipathy in Chinese propaganda towards the West reflects the rising tension in Sino-Western ties at present, but also a conscious strategy to exploit the staying power of anti-Western in the Middle East to find resonance with Arab audiences.
Indeed, readers of al-Okaz have seen the Chinese Consul of Jeddah become an almost monthly feature in the Saudi daily newspaper, tirelessly promoting state-narratives. True to form in April, he indirectly counters the controversy of repressed Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. In addition to offering elaborately detailed descriptions about its peace and prosperity, the Consul confirms the protection of freedom of religious belief in China while justifying Xinjiang’s security measures to address the “violence and terrorism” of past years.
Chinese officials have artfully connected policy in Xinjiang with regional concerns about extremism and counter-terrorism policies to discourage international outrage from gaining traction in the Middle East.
Since 2009, Beijing has spent around $6.6 billion to strengthen its global media presence and check the dominance of Western media. Arabic-language Chinese media, CGTN, has consequently become a key instrument of Chinese propaganda in the Middle East.
CGTN’s coverage in recent months reveals two notable features. The first is its compulsive criticism of the US foreign policy which represents a considerable proportion of content; be it allegations about America’s unscrupulous attempts to distort policy in Xinjiang or aggression surrounding Taiwan.
The welcome decline of US hegemony is a frequent topic. Indeed, this is often accompanied by references to JK Rowling’s infamous villain, Voldemort. One article proposes that, like Voldemort, misperceptions thrive about the “invincible power” of the US. Another explicitly alleges a likeness between the US and Harry Potter’s nemesis: “When people see Voldemort's faith in power, his gathering of followers, the arbitrary use of violence and the repeated attempt to kill his rivals for dominance, it seems possible to find comparisons in U.S. practices.”
CGTN is not subtle signalling which country might be fit to reproduce Harry Potter’s example in challenging American hegemony.
The second feature of note is CGTN’s willingness to appropriate internal criticisms about the US commonly made by the American Left. For example, an article selectively draws on statistics to argue that “racial discrimination is embedded in every aspect of American society.” Elsewhere, the decision to extradite Julian Assange is used by CGTN to expose the “hypocrisy of American freedom.” Such examples highlight the vulnerability of open, democratic discourse to Beijing’s exploitation, especially amid the feverish polarisation of Western politics.
However, it is doubtful whether such attitudes claim the attention of Arab audiences. On YouTube, CGTN Arabic has around 360,000 subscribers but most videos struggle to yield more than a few hundred views. Equally, CGTN’s twitter page has almost 700,000 followers but this sizable figure more likely reflects the dark social media arts of Beijing than enthusiasm in the Middle East for Chinese state-media. Indeed, CGTN’s subscribers on both Twitter and YouTube are dwarfed by BBC Arabic.
Beijing has also been expanding its cultural initiatives in the Middle East, ranging from showcasing Terra-Cotta Warriors in Riyadh to festooning Chefchaouen, Morocco, with Chinese red lanterns. Accordingly, July witnessed the opening of a photo exhibition in Tel Aviv juxtaposing ancient city walls found in China and Israel as part of celebrations to mark the 30th anniversary of Sino-Israeli diplomatic ties.
China’s ability to compete with the robust appeal of Western culture in the Middle East is often questioned. However, 2019 polling in Arab countries reveals a positive view of Japanese culture, indicating that East Asian (non-Western) culture has a greater potential to capture the imagination of regional audiences than is acknowledged.
It is unlikely that Beijing’s intensifying efforts to nurture favourable opinions of China – and hostile ones towards America – in the Middle East are primarily motivated by concerns of policy: economic incentives, not personal feelings nor public opinion, drive the policy calculations of Arab political elites with China.
Rather, they more convincingly speak to China’s search for wide recognition as a responsible superpower worthy of global leadership.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at right bumps elbows with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud in Wuxi, east China's Jiangsu Province, January 10, 2022 | AFP
China: A New Regional Power?
By enriching its economic presence, challenging US foreign policy interests, and telegraphing propaganda to Arab audiences, China’s position in the Middle East has become more proactive and assertive. A key question for regional actors and observers alike, therefore, is whether China will seek to translate this amassing clout and presence into raw political power?
In an essay in Foreign Affairs, Charles Krauthammer argues that “the notion that economic power inevitably translates into geopolitical influence is a materialist illusion.” Writing in 1990, he observed that despite the economic power of Germany and Japan, both have “generally hidden under the table since the first shots rang out in Kuwait” at the onset of the First Gulf War.
This argument is keenly relevant to China’s present relationship with the Middle East. Despite its economic might, Chinese military power is still absent; without the latter, China will not determine, nor meaningfully influence, politics of the Middle East (like a lesser power, Russia, succeeded in doing in Syria).
Indeed, the decline of American power in the Middle East is difficult to discern given its unrivalled military spending and keeping of numerous military bases in the region. But Washington’s rising reluctance over the years to involve itself in crises, be it Syria’s war or Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabian/UAE oil facilities, shows that political power in the region cannot rest on material means alone; there also must be sufficient appetite for it.
To this end, Beijing has yet to reveal any meaningful desire to exercise clout over the political affairs of the Middle East.
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