China’s New Approach to the Middle East

Recent media coverage has highlighted that China, with its $ 400 billion investment in Iran, has sounded the alarm for American politicians. In this way, China is going to become a global threat and the Middle East an arena for global confrontations. In addition to China’s willingness to cooperate with US enemies, the development of a multi-purpose port in Djibouti is another threat, as China could deploy military ships there.

In fact, China’s regional goals and implications are unclear. China has extensive relations with Iran and a strong presence in the Horn of Africa. On the other hand, China’s relations with Iran’s enemies, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, are not hidden from anyone. China supports the Assad regime in Syria, but in Yemen it takes the side of Saudi Arabia. China has so far tried to manage the balance of relations by not directly interfering in regional confrontations. This neutral observation in many of region’s incidents, represents a country that often runs away rather than an image of a supporter.

Comparing China’s first interactions with the Middle East countries in 1950’s shows that this country’s response to war and competition has changed. Beijing initially opted for a more belligerent approach, but suddenly backed down. Throughout the Cold War, China’s involvement was less affected by regional confrontations and it was mostly influenced by rivalry with the Soviet Union and American hegemony.

Early whispers of Chinese communism in the Middle East were not promising, and many conservative regimes in the region were reluctant to establish diplomatic relations with China. Beijing’s first relations can be seen with Arab nationalist communities in Egypt, Eritrea and Algeria. The mid-1960s was the culmination of China’s involvement, which included funding, equipment, and training for insurgents. China competed with the Soviets in support of these movements, and this competition itself encouraged Chinese intervention.

After the end of the Cultural Revolution at home after Mao Zedong in the late 1970s, a shift in Chinese politics accelerated the reversal of confrontation and revolution with the acceptance of international systems by the United Nations. During the 1980s and 1990s, China prioritized trade relations. These relations ranged from secret arms sales to Israel to overt relations with Iran and Iraq. By the early 1990s, China had become a net importer of oil. In this way, relations with the Persian Gulf countries expanded and deepened, which included investing in the energy sector and beyond.

China’s economic growth coincided with the growth of US regional hegemony. China criticized US intervention but still had no direct confrontation on the agenda. In 1997, China withdrew its aid to Iran’s nuclear program to improve relations with Washington, and even remained silent on the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, unlike France and Russia. Despite the criticism, China took active steps to support and manage regional confrontations. Mediation on the Iran nuclear deal between the Sudanese government and Western countries during the Darfur crisis is an example of this. In both cases, China’s intervention was achieved through its economic power. China, on the other hand, feared that non-intervention might marginalize Beijing. Even though China entered the field as a mediator, it failed to achieve its goals. China has mainly focused on resolving the main focus of the conflict and avoiding more participation or accepting a more active role.

Looking to the future, China may continue its current strategy. However, there are reasons for this. First, Xi Jinping has pursued a tougher foreign policy than its predecessors. Second, the period of American hegemony and US tacit acceptance of China’s presence in the region may be over.

Finally, the design of Belt and Road Initiative could be the beginning of a confrontation in the region. As the project emerges in the Middle East as an infrastructure and financing project, it could lead to more competition from countries for Chinese satisfaction. The result may be that China will no longer stand aside and become an active participant.

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Freelance Middle East Analyst and Researcher

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Ahmad Al Jabbouri

Ahmad Al Jabbouri

Freelance Middle East Analyst and Researcher

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