This essay is part of the series “All About China”—a journey into the history and diverse culture of China through essays that shed light on the lasting imprint of China’s past encounters with the Islamic world as well as an exploration of the increasingly vibrant and complex dynamics of contemporary Sino-Middle Eastern relations. Read more ...
Beginning with Beijing’s 2016 Arab Policy white paper and continuing with Xi’s 2018 $20 billion “oil and gas, plus” economic package to the region, China has outlined an ambitious framework to develop industry, economic, security, political, and social ties with key actors in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
A great deal of the literature on China’s relations with the Middle East engages the subject through geopolitical analyses that are based mainly, if not exclusively on Western sources and perspectives. This article draws on the work of scholars and thinkers in China’s leading government and party-linked think tanks and foreign policy institutions to shed light on China’s interests and approach to the region — a “competition without confrontation” approach centered on the development of relationships with a select number of key Middle Eastern states that can serve as “strategic fulcrums” (战略支点) for building Chinese influence.
Competition without Confrontation
China’s foreign policy approach in the Middle East is framed by President Xi’s greater power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics (中国特色大国外交本着) model. This view is based on the principle: “big powers are key, neighbors [peripheral states] are first, developing countries are the foundation, and multilateralism is the stage” (大国是关键、周边是首要、发展中国家是基础、多边是重要舞台). This view conceptualizes Chinese foreign policy in the developing world as a means of shifting the international balance of power. Within this framework, the Middle East — an area where, for decades, the US has been the predominant external actor — occupies a space in which China has sought to forge close ties with emerging regional powers in an effort to secure access to vital energy resources, expand its commercial reach, and enhance its political influence.
While Beijing sees US hegemony in the region in decline, its approach to expanding regional influence has been cautious and hesitant. Fomenting instability does not effectively benefit China, which has neither the will nor the capacity to fill the role held by the United States in the region.
At the same time, Beijing has already determined that the trendline is global competition. The Chinese government has been carefully calibrating its policy so as to put China in the most advantageous position to compete with the US in the region and globally. Regionally, Beijing is taking incremental steps to position itself for the emergence of regional bipolarity, predicated on Sino-American strategic competition in the Middle East.
Their approach departs from the Cold War era strategy of “spheres of influence” to foster productive relationships with a greater variety of partners in the Middle East that aim to transcend regional conflicts as well as geopolitical and ethno-sectarian splits which have entrenched previous great powers engaging in the region. More specifically, China is prioritizing bilateral relationships with US partners in the region — particularly Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE. China’s ‘cautiousness’ stems mainly from the desire to avoid doing anything that might result in a direct confrontation with the United States.
The “competition without confrontation” approach entails the development of relationships with a select number of key Middle Eastern states that can serve as “strategic fulcrums” (战略支点) for building Chinese influence.  In Chinese foreign policy terms, a “strategic fulcrum” is a foreign country that functions as a conduit for Chinese influence and interests in four fields: military, ideology, economy, and international politics. This paper utilizes the term to define not only states, but also the means and mechanisms of engagement China uses to develop strategic relationships with key countries whose support can both bolster China’s regional and global status and project China’s influence into new geographic areas. It also defines the levers by which China can, not only create influence, but also leverage it.
Military fulcrums are those strategic relationships that enable China to project military power through security cooperation, military deployments, and the establishment of a permanent military presence. Liu Lin, researcher at the China Academy for Military Sciences argues that Chinese military diplomacy aims to consolidate diplomatic relations with strategic partners by using military-to-military relations to facilitate China’s strategic pivot into new regions, assuage states’ concerns of China’s strategic ambitions, and eventually deepen military cooperation. The latter concerns not only interstate relations, but also the expansion of an international protection system for China to protect its strategic interest along the BRI. Military diplomacy, which includes security cooperation in the Middle East, is thus both bilateral and multilateral.
China has expanded its military presence in the Middle East through cooperation agreements with states on military, anti-terrorism, policing, and non-traditional security (e.g. anti-piracy efforts) along the BRI. This includes a range of more technical activities including intelligence-sharing agreements, joint-security trainings, and counter-terrorism exchanges. It also includes an increased Chinese military presence in the region via the deployment of Chinese warships to police the Gulf of Aden and the completion of China’s foreign naval base along the Red Sea corridor in Djibouti.
While these agreements are still relatively limited when compared with US military, defense, and security cooperation in the region, China is building its regional ability to project military power. In a paper from the China Institute of International Studies, a government-run think tank, Liu Chang emphasized the significance of China’s use of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) — a Beijing-led Eurasian political, economic, and security alliance — to amplify its voice in solving regional challenges to security. Certainly, the SCO’s official role in mitigating regional conflicts is modest. Yet, all respective members of the Russian-led Astana peace process were either SCO observer states or full members. Another analyst argues that China likely utilized its first international forum on the Syria conflict, held in May 2018, as a “legitimizing force” for the SCO, through Xi sought a bigger role for itself in Middle East conflict resolution. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, a month before China’s 2018 Syria forum, called on all SCO member states to support the restoration of Syria as a “united, indivisible state.”
China’s leadership of the SCO — and, by extension, its security cooperation mechanisms — creates a potentially powerful instrument for building strategic influence. More specifically, China’s military and security influence could be further realized through the SCO. The organization has quietly expanded westward with the inclusion of Pakistan and India as full members in 2017 and pending debate over Iran’s ascension from observer to full membership. Turkey also enjoys observer status. Furthermore, seven MENA countries — Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq — applied for varying levels of membership. SCO Secretary General Vladimir Norov met with an Arab League delegation of Arab ambassadors to China and dignitaries from over 15 MENA countries to jumpstart SCO-Arab League security and trade cooperation. This relationship could be attractive to Arab states, which might be enticed by the SCO’s emphasis on combatting what China terms the “three evils” — separatism, extremism, and terrorism. The challenge, however, is that China and the SCO’s efforts to curb all three have been wrought with human rights violations and harsh policies.
Ideological fulcrums are those which project the prevailing ideology or political view of a respective power. China’s ideological outreach is twofold: protect national sovereignty and export its domestic development and political experience. On the former, Xi has emphasized the mutual respect for national sovereignty and non-interference into domestic affairs, a cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy, in his diplomatic forays to the Middle East. Through these two principles, Beijing reinforces its own national sovereignty and right to exercise domestic authority without external intervention to gain Middle East solidarity for the national reunification of Taiwan and curb potential criticism of Beijing’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. Beijing also promotes its own development and political experience as an alternative to neoliberalism. A critical component of this is the ideological premise of national-led development and strong-state governance. President Xi Jinping enshrined this ideology in the tapestry of China’s bilateral relations with MENA countries under the BRI umbrella.
Transferring ideology from paper into practice, Beijing has focused its efforts on converting political elites in partner countries. China actively promotes own ideology and development model through direct political party-to-party trainings with developing countries. This approach, which emerged in the 2000s as an important strategy for enhancing Chinese influence with political leaders in Africa, is underway in the Middle East.
The China-Arab Political Parties Dialogue platform is becoming a substantive mechanism of ideological exchange in the MENA region. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) launched the platform last year to build partner Arab political leaders across the MENA region, who receive first-hand CCP leadership training and education in “Xi Jinping thought.” The platform’s second event, which convened representatives of 68 political parties from the MENA region in June 2020, featured speeches from Arab leaders including Syria’s Bashar al Assad and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In a Joint Declaration from the outset of the three-day event, Arab party leaders expressed support for China’s policies toward Xinjiang, Taiwan, Tibet, and more recently the new Hong Kong national security law, according to Chinese media. Under this platform, the CCP plans to invite 200 leaders from Arab countries to China annually in the next three years. The CCP’s “mask diplomacy” could play a salient role in fostering new party-to-party relations and regional sympathies to China’s political ideology.
Economic fulcrums are the levers which China utilizes to incentivize economic relations with critical partners for Beijing’s economic expansion and projection into new regions (e.g., primary economic partners for China’s Belt and Road Initiative and 21st Maritime Silk Road projects). Economic relations consist of investment agreements, trade agreements (bilateral free trade), currency exchanges (e.g., settling trade deals in renminbi rather than dollars), and a variety of cooperative agreements ranging from cultural exchange to security. These hinge on bilateral partnerships as the foundation for a broader effort to scale regional influence through multilateral mechanisms with Chinese characteristics. The best example of Beijing’s strategy here lies on its economic engagement with its bordering countries. Li Wei argued that China utilizes bilateralism to foster state partners more acquiescent to its interests in combating US influence is Asia. China’s neighbors are divided into different categories depending on the strength of their US ties, dependence on the Chinese market, and their strategic importance to China. Then, Beijing can “decide what kind of strategy or strategic combination [of strategies] should be adopted to deal with them [neighboring countries] flexibly, including economic pull in or pressure, political and military deterrence or cooperation.” The BRI is a primary vehicle of this approach whereby Beijing incentivizes bilateral ties through economic incentives.
In the Middle East, China has signed strategic partnership agreements detailing significant economic investment, trade, and cooperation agreements with five primary actors: the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, and Iran. In hard terms, China pursues energy deals, investments, and expanded trade opportunities with MENA partners — which has been widely discussed by western observers. One key area that, however, which requires greater attention is China’s pursuit of a Middle East off-shore RMB market as part of a broader renminbi (RMB) internationalization project. Enter the UAE. Since 2014, China is grooming Dubai as a major clearing house for RMB. As the leading financial center of the Middle East, Beijing has aligned its interests with the emirate to hasten the internationalization of the RMB through its use as a commodity for settling oil trades. China also pursues similar partnerships with other GCC countries, including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
It is also worth noting that China’s prioritized partnerships are with resource-rich, middle income countries in the Arab Gulf, overlooking the war-torn Levant. It is unlikely that Beijing will pay a significant time or attention on conflict-affected regions, except what is necessary to prevent regime change in conflict-ridden countries, restrict western intervention, and contain the terrorism.
International fulcrums are mechanisms that shape or bolster China’s international position within the United Nations, international institutions, and multilateral organizations. In this way, China’s pursuit of great power recognition is realized by partner states who elevate Beijing’s global political position. Both bilateral relations and multilateral influence function as twin pillars of institutional legitimization and greater structural influence within the international rules-based order.
In the Middle East, China ‘s global position is strengthened through both its bilateral relations with Arab states as well as multilateral relations with the Arab League. These relations augment China’s global image and position as a great power. Beijing links its interest in regional security and development in the Middle East to its global development agenda under the BRI as a positive public good to the region and the world. China’s strategic use of humanitarian and peacebuilding propaganda into long-standing conflicts have aided this view, particularly Syria. China’s relationship with Syria enables Beijing to assert a secondary role in shaping the Syrian peace process through its P5 position in the UN Security Council and through an auxiliary role in the Astana process. Post-conflict reconstruction needs have been a primary sticking point for Chinese diplomacy with Syria’s neighbors. Since 2017, Chinese officials, particularly the Envoy to Syria, Xie Xiaoyan, promised Jordan and Lebanon that both economies would be critical for standing up Beijing’s Syria reconstruction efforts. To date, these statements have not amounted to much, but the narrative serves to paint China in a positive light. How this is received by local communities remains a critical gap in Middle East studies.
China As a US Partner In the Middle East?
China could emerge as an attractive partner in the long-term, albeit one with distinct consequences. Economic engagement paves the way toward the broader bilateral exchange of development and governance experiences with other countries. China’s promise of national development through a government-owned and led process is certainly an attractive offer for Middle East states who have struggled to define their own future over decades of intervention, but it ultimately comes with a price. Arab states who are dependent on international aid from Bretton Wood’s institutions — the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank — would be eager to throw off these dependencies for the promise of national development. However, the question remains if they understand the costs of exchanging a multilateral dept portfolio for a long-term debt burden with China.
China currently lacks a fully-developed “strategic fulcrum” country to act as a conduit for extending influence in the region. Its continued pursuit of US allies is likely to create friction with the United States who will respond to maintain a favorable balance of power in the region. As China expands its involvement in military, economic, ideological and international partnerships in the region, it might shed its non-alignment position to more actively pursue its interests in the region by leveraging relationships and partnerships with existing US allies to chip away at American influence in the region. Beijing could take advantage of changing dynamics in the region to insert itself as a more prominent regional player. As observed in Africa, this will, at first, likely be gradual and experimental but ramp up over the next decade.
In the end, China’s present role is small, but the complexity of its engagement demands greater attention to better understand how its approach will shape future relations with Middle Eastern countries. While China’s influence in the Middle East should not be overstated, Beijing is more aggressively pursuing a regional strategy. China’s promise of national development, while turning heads of many leaders, has not reoriented diplomatic alignments away the United States and European partners. China’s economic participation, in most cases, has not ventured beyond promises, agreements, and a few large-scale projects — which, in some cases, have created greater debt for MENA countries (e.g. Oman and Egypt) than sustainable possibilities. Nevertheless, it is important to note that China’s Middle East approach hinges on the use of bilateral diplomacy and bilateral partnerships with existing US allies in the region to increase regional competition over influence and resources, while simultaneously avoiding direct confrontation with the United States.
Disclaimer: The views herein are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense or the US Government.
 Li Minjie, “习近平总书记外交思想领航中国特色大国外交” [“General Secretary Xi Jinping’s Thoughts on Diplomacy lead China's great power diplomacy”], China Institute of International Studies, Current Affairs Review, September 28, 2017, http://www.ciis.org.cn/chinese/2017-09/28/content_40031024.htm.
 Liu Shengxiang and Law Huxiao Fen, “中东让美国很焦躁，中国该如何抓住机遇赢得时间 ”[“United States anxiety in the Middle East: How China can seize the opportunity to gain time”], The Observer Network, January 12, 2018. https://www.guancha.cn/liushengxiang/2018_01_12_442829.shtml.
 Ibid. The emergence of US-China bipolarity is based on the assumption that China will likely overtake Russia’s regional influence in the long-run, one made by both both Chinese and American scholars. See Liu Shengxiang and Law Huxiao Fen, “中东让美国很焦躁，中国该如何抓住机遇赢得时间” [“United States anxiety in the Middle East: How China can seize the opportunity to gain time”], The Observer Network, January 12, 2018. https://www.guancha.cn/liushengxiang/2018_01_12_442829.shtml. See also Becca Wasser, “The Limits of Russian Strategy in the Middle East,” Rand Corporation, November 2019. https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/perspectives/PE300/PE340/RAND_PE340.pdf.
 Ashley J. Tellis, “The Return of U.S.-China Strategic Competition,” in Ashley J. Tellis, Alison Szalwinski, and Michael Wills (eds.), Strategic Asia 2020: US-China Competition for Global Influence (Washington, DC: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2020), https://carnegieendowment.org/files/SA_20_Tellis.pdf.
 Xu Jin and Li Wei, “打造中国周边安全的“战略支点”国家: 战略支点国家的内涵与功能分类” [“Building a ‘Strategic Fulcrum’ Country China’s Peripheral Security: Connotation and Functional Classification of Strategic Fulcrum Countries”], Chinese Academic of Social Sciences, August 15, 2014, http://www.cssn.cn/zzx/201408/t20140814_1291698.shtml?COLLCC=3565723431&.
 Liu Lin, “‘一带一路'沿线战略支点与军事外交建设” [“‘Strategic Fulcrum’ and Military Diplomacy Construction along the Belt and Road”], The Statecraft Institution, July 31, 2017, http://www.daguoce.org/article/9/39.html.
 Liu Chang, “中国与中东安全合作迎来新历史机遇” [“China and Middle East security cooperation usher in new historic opportunities”], China Institute of International Studies, December 12, 2019.
 Logan Pauley, “China is using Syria’s Peace Process for its own Ends,” National Interest, May 31, 2018, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/china-using-syrias-peace-process-its-own-ends-26062.
 See Miwa Hirono, Yang Jiang, and Marc Lanteigne, “China’s New Roles and Behavior in Conflict-Affected Regions: Reconsidering Non-Interference and Non-Intervention,” China Quarterly 238 (2019): 573-593, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0305741018001741.
 Andrew Scobell and Alireza Nader, “China in the Middle East: The Wary Dragon,” Rand Corporation (2016): 31, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR1200/RR1229/RAND_RR1229.pdf. Jinghao Zhou, “China’s Core Interests and Dilemma in Foreign Policy Practice,” Pacific Focus 34, no. 1 (2020): 1-20, https://doi.org/10.1111/pafo.12131.
 People’s Republic of China, State Council Information Office, “China and the World in the New Area” (September 2019): 26.
 Xu Jin and Li Wei, “打造中国周边安全的“战略支点”国家: 战略支点国家的内涵与功能分类” [“Building a ‘Strategic Fulcrum’ Country China’s Peripheral Security: Connotation and Functional Classification of Strategic Fulcrum Countries”].
 Yun Sun, “Political party training: China’s ideological push in Africa,” Brookings Institution, Africa in Focus, July 5, 2016. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2016/07/05/political-party-training-chinas-ideological-push-in-africa/.
 “The Opening Ceremony of the First China-Arab Political Party Seminar,” Shanghai International Studies University, June 26, 2019, http://carc.shisu.edu.cn/english1/d8/ab/c8942a121003/page.psp.
 Xinhuanet, “Xi sends congratulatory letter to extraordinary meeting of China-Arab states political parties dialogue,” June 22, 2020. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-06/22/c_139158974.htm.
 Xu Jin and Li Wei, “打造中国周边安全的“战略支点”国家: 战略支点国家的内涵与功能分类” [Building a ‘Strategic Fulcrum’ Country China’s Peripheral Security: Connotation and Functional Classification of Strategic Fulcrum Countries”].
 Jon Alterman, “China’s Middle East Model,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 23, 2019, https://www.csis.org/analysis/middle-east-notes-and-comment-chinas-middle-east-model.
 Michael Greenwald, “The silk road and the Gulf: A new frontier for the RMB,” Atlantic Council, March 18, 2019, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/the-silk-road-and-the-gulf-a-new-frontier-for-the-rmb/.