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 ...


China’s inroads into the Gulf and wider Middle East are occurring against the backdrop of intensifying global strategic competition with the United States. It is now widely acknowledged within the American academic and policy communities that the convergence of interests and the scope for cooperation between the United States and China are limited.[1]

Over the past two years, the rhetoric and conduct of US China policy have toughened. The 2018 US National Security Strategy (NSS) depicts China as a “revisionist power” that is “attempting to erode American security and prosperity” and “shape a world antithetical to US values and interests.”[2] The US National Defense Strategy (NDS) portrays China as aiming to displace the United States “to achieve global preeminence in the future.”[3] The Trump Administration has taken various steps aimed at countering China, ranging from initiating a trade war to increasing the tempo of reconnaissance flights and freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) to test China’s maritime claims.

The United States has long been the external guarantor of Gulf security — a role from which China has benefited, even while disapproving of US military intervention and seeking to constrain American influence.[4] China, whose engagement with all the Gulf countries is multifaceted and continues to evolve, does not share “the impulse to activism of the United States in the Middle East” and has clung to the principles of non-interference in the regional states’ domestic affairs and interstate conflicts.[5] Does China’s expanding footprint in the Gulf constitute an additional source of contention in an increasingly rivalrous relationship with the United States? This article, published in biweekly installments, looks briefly at three instances where Chinese activities in the Gulf intersect and potentially clash with US interests and policies.   


  1. China as Iran’s “Limited Partner” in a Constrained Environment

  2. China as Saudi Arabia’s Next Best Friend

  3. China as Niche Player in the Middle East Arms Market

1. China as Iran’s “Limited Partner” in a Constrained Environment

President Xi Jinping’s visit to Iran on January 22-23, 2016 culminated in a joint statement outlining broad goals for deepening bilateral ties and called for the formulation of a 25-year “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement.”[6] However, in conducting relations with Iran over the years, China has had to balance multiple regional and global economic and strategic interests.[7] To be sure, China has established itself as Iran’s largest trading partner and export destination. But the relationship between China and the Islamic Republic has long been a limited and lopsided partnership[8] — operating within a constrained environment and prone to setbacks and disappointments.

From the mid-2000s onwards, China shielded Iran from the effects of economic sanctions and in the course of doing so became “a privileged player in the flourishing-but-isolated Iranian market.”[9] China helped keep the Iranian economy afloat by continuing to buy crude oil but was nonetheless “instrumental in reducing Iran’s total oil exports.”[10] [italics added] China’s increased purchases of fuel oil in 2013 — thanks to a gap in the sanctions law it exploited — offset some of Iran’s lost income from lower crude oil sales but were reportedly procured at discounted rates.[11] The subsequent resurgence of Chinese crude oil imports from Iran did not breach US sanctions but instead came during a temporary pause in their vigorous enforcement — that is, during the so-called JCPOA Relief Period (January 2014-June 2015).[12]

It is unclear how much of the oil export earnings deposited into escrow accounts in Chinese banks during the pre-JCPOA sanctions period were repatriated to Iran, as opposed to being used to purchase consumer products made in China or to finance Chinese infrastructure projects in Iran.[13] However, one thing is certain:  the sanctions regime rendered Iran even more dependent on China.[14] Furthermore, as Iran’s almost exclusive economic partner until sanctions were lifted in 2016, China enjoyed advantageous trade benefits,[15] settling much of its trade with Iran in goods rather than in hard currency.[16] The leverage that China had over Iran — and used — kindled resentment and frustration in Iran. Merchants complained about Chinese products flooding the domestic market.[17] Iranian officials expressed dissatisfaction with project financing options.[18] Cooperation in the energy and transportation sectors was hampered by delays, cancellations and disagreements over project implementation.[19] Viewed against this backdrop and the rise of Chinese power and influence in countries neighboring Iran, it is not surprising that Iranian elites appear divided over whether expanding cooperation with China within the framework of the BRI constitutes an opportunity or a threat.[20]

In the UN Security Council and other fora, China tended to align itself with Iranian interests and to serve, along with Russia, as Tehran’s chief advocate. The conventional wisdom is that China worked assiduously behind the scenes to dilute sanctions resolutions.[21] At the same time, however, and as Wuthnow has noted, “China’s advocacy for Iran on the international stage has been limited, as evidenced by its approval of several rounds of sanctions on Tehran in the 2000s.”[22] Beijing eventually came to accept that the Iranian nuclear issue placed its own interests at risk.[23] China’s behavior on the nuclear issue can be viewed not simply as balancing its interests and relationships, but also as reflecting Beijing’s concerns about and exasperation with Tehran’s international provocations, animosity toward the West, and inflexibility; and as revealing the limits of Beijing’s own ability, whether through blandishments or demarches, to alter Tehran’s stances and policies.[24]

Nevertheless, with the signing of the nuclear deal, China and Iran seized the opportunity to reenergize the bilateral relationship. Within days of the coming into force of the JCPOA, Beijing and Tehran moved quickly to restore their economic ties and elevated the bilateral relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.”[25] A week after the lifting of sanctions, President Xi Jinping and his counterpart Hasan Rouhani agreed on a wide-ranging 25-year plan to broaden relations that included the goal of boosting bilateral trade to $600 billion within ten years.[26] In 2017, trade between China and Iran surpassed $37 billion, rising year-on-year by 19%[27] despite the uncertainty over US sanctions that caused European firms to move cautiously — though a far cry from the target the partners hope to reach within a decade.

The nuclear deal proved highly profitable — and promising — for Chinese companies.[28] While European firms wavered about the possible reinstatement of US sanctions, CITIC Group established a $10 billion credit line for Iran.[29] China provided two credit facilities totaling $4.2 billion to fund high-speed railway lines linking Iranian cities as well.[30] China-Iran ties also expanded to new sectors. In April 2017, for example, China and Iran signed the first commercial contract for the reconstruction of Iran’s Arak heavy water reactor.[31] Importantly, the stage seemed set for China to advance its aim of integrating Iran — a land bridge between landlocked Central Asia and the Gulf — into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).[32]

On May 9, 2018, however, these bright prospects darkened when President Trump issued an executive order withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. Chinese officials expressed “regret” at the US decision and reiterated Beijing’s commitment to “upholding and implementing the agreement with an objective, fair, and responsible attitude.”[33] Their reaction was perhaps more restrained than might have been expected. After all, the US decision threatened to increase the risk for Chinese companies doing business in Iran, to stall progress in the expansion of bilateral economic relations, and to impede efforts to expand cooperation with within the BRI framework. Beijing’s reaction to the American decision might have been tempered by the fact that two major Chinese telecommunication companies, ZTE and Huawei Technologies, were at that very time facing the possibility of severe penalties from the US over their trade ties with Iran.[34]  

Since then, Chinese officials have repeatedly expressed their opposition to “unilateral sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction.”[35] Hosting an Iranian delegation in February 2019, Foreign Minister Wang Yi was quoted as telling his counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, that Beijing seeks to “deepen the strategic trust” with Tehran.[36] Meeting with visiting Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing the same month, President Xi pledged that, “No matter how the international and regional situations change, China’s resolve to develop comprehensive strategic partnership with Iran will remain unchanged.”[37]

Statements by Chinese officials professing continued political support for Tehran[38] have been accompanied by tactical changes in Chinese energy and investment activities regarding Iran, reflecting the competing pressures Beijing has faced. Chinese buyers initially adjusted to the possibility of snap back sanctions by shifting cargoes to tankers operated by National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC).[39] Last December, China’s Bank of Kunlun — majority owned by CNPC and the key conduit for transactions with Iran — announced that it would process payments but “only for humanitarian and non-sanctioned goods and services,” effectively cutting the financial conduit for Iran’s shipping, steel, and automobile sectors.[40] Also in December, China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) suspended the 80% stake in the development of the phase 11 South Pars gas field project it had acquired as a result of Total’s withdrawal.[41] The next month, reports surfaced claiming that China had slowed its work on the Arak reactor, allegedly in response to US sanctions pressure.[42]

China nonetheless remained the largest buyer of Iran’s crude oil through the end of 2018, accounting for one-third of the latter’s oil exports.[43] After having obtained a Significant Reduction Exception (SRE or sanctions waiver) in November, Chinese buyers’ intake of Iranian oil began to rise — averaging about 446,000 b/d  from December through February[44] and surging to 726,050 b/d In March (including volumes from the MIS and Azadegan fields, which did not count against the 360,000 b/d allowed under the waiver).[45] Much of the increase in Iranian barrels reportedly fed into NIOC’s leased strategic petroleum reserve tanks and bonded storage in north-eastern Dalian.[46] The stockpiling of Iranian crude oil continued through the end of April, ahead of the expiry of exemptions.[47]

Nearly a year after the Trump Administration’s withdrew from the JCPOA, the pace of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran quickened: first, with the designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a “terrorist organization”;[48] next in the form of the unexpected announcement that, as of May 2, the US would no longer grant waivers to the eight countries (including China) importing Iranian crude oil or condensate; [49] and then with the dispatch of an American aircraft carrier strike group and other military assets to the Persian Gulf[50] — actions to which Iran responded by declaring a partial withdrawal from the nuclear deal, thereby raising the stakes.[51] 

Barring a full-scale trade war, for China openly to defy the United States seems improbable. In 2018, China’s trade with the United States reached $737 billion,[52] dwarfing the $42 billion in trade with Iran.[53] Private Chinese companies, many of which need access to US markets, are difficult to insulate from secondary sanctions. Although Chinese officials stated they would not comply with US sanctions, state-owned CNPC and Sinopec thus far have proceeded cautiously, suspending bookings for new cargoes of Iranian oil — at least officially.[54] The difficulty China faces in replacing the loss of heavier grades of crude oil exported by Iran (and Venezuela),[55] coupled with the likely offers of steep discounts, make sanctions evasion a tempting option that Beijing could choose selectively to exercise — and reportedly already has.[56]

On May 17, the very day that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif traveled to Beijing seeking “concrete action” from “friends” (including China and Russia) to salvage the nuclear deal, a Chinese tanker carrying a cargo of Iranian oil began its voyage eastward.[57] What to make of this development? In interpreting its “shared responsibility” to uphold the deal, China is not prepared to choke off all purchases from Iran. Deserting Tehran might inadvertently accelerate the drift toward hostilities in the Gulf that China wishes to avoid. At the same time, China does not appear eager to blatantly flout sanctions, lest doing so further inflame relations with Washington. China's best play under the current circumstances might be “opposing” sanctions while more or less continuing to observe them. 


Iran is but one of several foreign policy tests facing the Xi and Trump administrations in which both China and the United States have important equities. In the South China Sea, North Korea, and the Persian Gulf — all flashpoints of conflict — as in Venezuela, on the verge of state collapse — tensions have been rising[58] and China and the United States find themselves sharply at odds. This confluence of developments has come at the very time when contentious bilateral negotiations have led China and the United States to the brink of an all-out trade war.[59] Thus the issue of how to deal with Iran has become more complicated and more deeply enmeshed with the evolving China-US strategic rivalry.

2. China as Saudi Arabia’s Next Best Friend

China’s relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is evolving within a context marked by global and regional geopolitical power transitions and realignments, as well as major changes in international energy markets — circumstances to which both President Xi Jinping and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have adjusted and sought to exploit through more assertive and expansive foreign policies.

Energy continues to be the centerpiece of the Sino-Saudi relationship. China’s crude oil imports from Saudi Arabia have surged from January to April — an increase of 60% over last year — reflecting rising Chinese demand, Saudi efforts to expand market share, and more specifically, Saudi Aramco’s signing of supply contracts with  new Chinese refiners Hengli Petrochemical and Zhejiang Rongsheng.[60] In February, Aramco signed a deal to develop a petrochemical refinery complex in Panjin, in northeast China.[61]

In recent years, China-Saudi cooperation has expanded to non-energy sectors, as well as to the political and security spheres. President Xi’s state visit to Riyadh in January 2016 resulted in the elevation of the relationship to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” and to the establishment of the China-Saudi Arabia High-Level Joint Committee.[62]

Trips to China by King Salman (in March 2017) and MbS (in February 2019) yielded a slew of investment and trade agreements,[63] as well as pledges to develop synergies between the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Saudi Vision 2030.[64] In May 2018, in the midst of the Sino-US tariff war, Chinese solar panel manufacturer LONGi signed an agreement with the El Seif Group to establish a large-scale solar manufacturing infrastructure in the Kingdom.[65] Huawei, which opened its first flagship store in Riyadh in January and signed five MoUs during the Saudi-Chinese Investment Forum in March,[66] later announced it will support the development of ICT and deployment of fifth-generation (5G) wireless technology in Saudi Arabia[67] — despite Washington’s international lobbying effort to persuade allies to shun Huawei hardware.[68]

The recent headway made in the development of the bilateral relationship is partly attributable to the domestic economic and diplomatic headwinds that the Kingdom has been facing. For well over a decade, Saudi Arabia has been seeking to diversify not just its revenue streams but also its international relationships. Although successive US administrations have referred to Saudi Arabia as a critical strategic partner in the region, during the challenging and tumultuous period since 9/11, the relationship between Washington and Riyadh has been a rocky one, marked by sharp policy disagreements and angry recriminations over the Iraq War, the Arab Spring, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen.

In addition, the oil-for-security bargain underpinning relations between the KSA and the United States has changed, if not frayed. The US shale oil boom is driving production to record levels and turning the United States into a major player in the global oil trade. The Norwegian research firm Rystad Energy forecasts that the US will soon export more oil and liquids than Saudi Arabia.[69] According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), by 2024 US gross oil exports will overtake Russia and close in on Saudi Arabia.[70] Meanwhile, the shale oil boom has sharply reduced US dependence on Saudi supplies and has left China as the world’s largest buyer of crude in global markets and Saudi Arabia’s top customer.[71] Not only have these developments driven Saudi Arabia closer to Russia to manage oil markets, they also have reinforced the Kingdom’s efforts to boost exports to China and to Asia as a whole.

Add to these circumstances the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul in October 2018, which produced a strong Western backlash, placed new strains on the US-Saudi relationship, and sparked demands for accountability and soul-searching in Washington about the strategic value of the partnership. Mounting bipartisan congressional dissatisfaction led to the unprecedented invocation of the War Powers Resolution and passage of legislation calling for an end to US military assistance for the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen[72] — a measure that exposed sharp divergences between the executive and legislative branches and culminated in a presidential veto.[73] In fact, in the first two months of 2019 alone, 21 bills were introduced in the House and Senate seeking to push back against the White House’s approach to Saudi Arabia.[74]  

Yet, President Trump and members of his administration have made a determined effort not only to preserve the US-Saudi strategic partnership[75] but also to expand its commercial aspects. Reportedly seeking to bypass Congress, the Energy Department issued seven export permits for American companies to sell nuclear technology to the Kingdom.[76] Against the background of fading public outrage over the Khashoggi murder, major firms such as Google, JP Morgan Chase, Blackstone and others have continued or resumed doing business in the Kingdom.[77]

Furthermore, it is important to note that while recent controversies have complicated the Saudi-US defense relationship, they have not derailed it. Letters of offer and acceptance were exchanged between the US and Saudi Arabia formalizing the terms of sale of Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile defense package last November, even as political pressure in Washington to reduce sales to the Kingdom was heating up.[78] US bases in the region remain vital for the Kingdom’s security. Saudi and US as well as European defense industries are increasingly intertwined.[79] Saudi Arabia’s long-term reliance on Western weapons systems means that new purchases from either China or Russia will not easily integrate with pre-existing systems.

On the economic front, Saudi Arabia is still heavily invested in the West, and specifically in the United States. The Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF)[80] has poured large sums into Silicon Valley.[81] In fact, Saudi Arabia is the biggest source of capital in US tech start-ups.[82] In addition, as of July 2018, Saudi Arabia still held $166.8 bn in US Treasury securities.[83] Saudi Aramco recently reached preliminary agreement on a 20-year deal with Sempra Energy to purchase liquified natural gas as well as buy a 25% stake in the export terminal to be constructed in Port Arthur, Texas.[84] Interestingly, this trade-and-investment deal comes on the heels of retaliation against US tariffs by China, which raised the duties on American LNG to 25%. In April, the Crown Prince hosted four of Silicon Valley’s senior tech investors to discuss potential partnerships in the Kingdom’s Vision 2030.[85] The Kingdom’s strategy of forging multiple investment partnerships[86] clearly includes welcoming Chinese partners but gives no indication of excluding American ones. According to Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) Managing Director Yasir Othman Al-Rumayyan, the US remains the fund’s “No. 1 target of investments,” even as it seeks to expand its presence in Asia, with a focus on China.[87]


For all these reasons, the Kingdom seems much more likely to remain in the Western orbit than to fundamentally change its strategic orientation, at least in the near term. Yet, whether the recent appointment of former four-star general John Abizaid as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia — filling a post that had been vacant for 27 months — can set the bilateral relationship on an even keel remains to be seen for two reasons. First, it is unclear whether Abizaid, an individual with extensive knowledge and experience of the region, will emerge as a central figure in crafting policy or merely serve to communicate it.[88] Second, President Trump’s predilection for transactional relationships has made it more difficult to dispel Saudi perceptions of American retrenchment, has fostered an impression of unpredictability in US policies, and has created an incentive for Saudi Arabia to expand its collaboration with other extra-regional powers, notably China.

3. China as Niche Player in the Middle East Arms Market

China, eager to carve out a larger role in the lucrative Middle East arms market,[89] is seeking to cash in on its willingness to sell to any customer, on its advancing technological capability in niche areas, and on its cost competitiveness.[90] Indeed, arms sales are a part of China’s growing, albeit “soft” military footprint in the region. These transactions are concentrated in areas where Chinese economic stakes are high.[91] It is therefore no coincidence that China’s leading arms sales customers in the region are Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).[92]

In February 2019, China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) and China North Industries Corporation (NORINCO) showcased some of their advanced weapons platforms at the 14th International Defense Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi.[93] The same month, CSIC set up a representative office in Dubai — anchoring its effort to pursue military and civilian business opportunities.[94] However, headline-grabbing accounts of Chinese companies setting up shop and displaying their military wares in the region can be misleading. Currently, China lags far behind other major weapons producer-exporters to the Middle East.[95]

Nevertheless, there is one area where China has made significant progress in capturing the market, namely ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) and strike-capable unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs/drones). As early as 2012, the US Defense Science Board had described China’s ramped up spending and research on UAVs as a “worrisome trend” and its military significance as “alarming.”[96] Six years later, in a report to Congress on China’s expanding global access, the Pentagon stated that “… China’s ability to remain among the top five global arms suppliers hinges on continued strong sales to Pakistan and demand for its armed UAVs.”[97] [italics added] In the intervening time, China has become the world leader in armed drone sales,[98] with Middle Eastern countries its main customers.[99] China reportedly has transferred drones to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, as well as to Egypt and Jordan.[100] On a state visit to Beijing in March 2017, King Salman and President Xi Jinping signed a series of agreements said to have included a deal to construct a Chinese factory in the Kingdom that will manufacture military UAVs for Saudi Arabia’s expanding drone fleet.[101]

Self-limiting restrictions on drone exports by the United States has had the perverse effect of allowing China to step in and fill the gap in the Middle East.[102] US drone exports have long been governed by domestic export controls and obligations stipulated by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and have been guided by the belief that the United States could control the spread of armed drones by exercising restraint. However, as China’s drone sales in the region indicate, stringent standards for the sale, transfer and subsequent use of US-origin military and commercial UAVs have not curbed drone proliferation. Over two dozen countries now have armed drones,[103] and global sales of military drones are increasing.[104] According to a 2018/2019 market analysis by The Teal Group, soaring worldwide demand for unmanned aerial vehicles is responsible for making UAVs “the most dynamic growth sector of the world aerospace industry”[105] — a sector in which China’s state-owned defense contractors and private firms are vigorously engaged and expected to power.[106]

Over the past year, the Trump Administration has taken steps to reclaim the drone market. In early 2018, the National Security Council (NSC) shaped a plan, known as the Arms Transfer Initiative (ATI), to cut bureaucratic red tape and speed arms sales.[107] A National Security Presidential Memorandum issued on April 19, 2018 approved a new Conventional Arms Control Transfer (CAT) Policy and updated the processes for exporting American-manufactured UAVs, including permitting direct commercial sales.[108] Commenting on this initiative, Peter Navarro, Director of the White House National Trade Council, argued that increased sales “will be an important catalyst for strengthening American industry; the stewardship of our national security; and the strengthening of our international partnerships.”[109]

The new CAT Policy prioritizes weapons transfers as an important foreign policy instrument and treats them as an integral element of the “America First” agenda. The Administration has cast its new policy as a response to “strategic competition.”[110] (read: China) Besides instituting a new CAT Policy, the US has been pushing to change how unmanned systems are categorized under the MTCR in an effort to support American industry against competition from China and others.[111] Meanwhile, President Trump revoked by executive order a requirement instituted in 2016[112] that US intelligence officials publicly report the number of civilians killed in drone strikes on terrorist targets outside of war zones.[113]

The Trump Administration’s deregulation and commodification of US-made UAVs might, as envisaged, enhance American defense industries’ competitiveness and augment Washington’s ability with the political leverage to shape perceptions of what is legitimate and lawful use of drones for counterterrorism purposes. However, critics think otherwise, countering that the relaxation of restrictions is likely to contribute to the diffusion of sophisticated technologies and capabilities, lower the threshold of conflict, and reduce US leverage over end use. For them, the fact that there have been no new major US drone sales since the roll out of the new rules governing their sale must surely be cold comfort.[114] Looking ahead, easing the regulatory and procedural barriers might not be enough for American defense contractors to reclaim their dominance in what has become a buyers’ market wherein partners diversify their arms importers.


China is playing a major role in the supply of military drones to the Middle East — a role that the United States is poised to contest. Although this development does not signify that China is angling for or capable of displacing the US and its Western allies as the Middle East’s top weapons suppliers, much less as its leading extra-regional power, it is another indication of the migration of the US-China global strategic rivalry to the region.  



[1] See foreign affairs experts’ responses to the question, “Are U.S. and Chinese National Interests Incompatible?” Foreign Affairs, August 14, 2018,

[2] The White House, National Security Strategy of the United States (December 2017): 25,

[3] US Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, “Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge,” 2,

[4] Michael Singh, “Chinese Policy in the Middle East,” in Niv Horesh (ed.), Well-Oiled Relations?: China’s Presence in the Middle East (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 9.

[5] Chas W. Freeman, Jr, “The United States, the Middle East, and China.” Remarks to the Far East Luncheon Group.” Washington, DC: DACOR. June 5, 2013,

[6] For the full text of the China-Iran Joint Statement on Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, see:

[7] See John Calabrese, “Sino-Iranian Relations: a multidimensional partnership,” Asia Dialogue, June 14, 2018, See also Yitzhak Shichor, “Hobson’s Choice: China’s Second Worst Option on Iran,” China Brief 10, 6 (March 18, 2010),; Chris Zambelis, “China’s Persian Gulf Diplomacy Reflects Delicate Balancing Act,” China Brief 12, 4 (February 21, 2012),; Chu Zhaogen, “Sanctions on Iran, Dilemma for China,” China Daily Online, October 26, 2010,; Brandon Fite, “U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Impact of China and Russia,” CSIS Report for Congress (March 2012): 16-19,; Zhao Hong, “China’s Dilemma on Iran: Between Energy Security and a Responsible Rising Power,” Journal of Contemporary China 23, 87 (2014): 408-424; and Zha Daojing, “China and Iran: Energy and/or Geopolitics,” in Philip Andrews-Speed et al., eds., Oil and Gas for Asia: Geopolitical Implications of Asia’s Rising Demand, NBR Reports, September 2012.

[8] Scott W. Harold and Alireza Nader, China and Iran: Economic, Political, and Military Relations (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2012) 1, 13; Marybeth Davis et al., China-Iran: A Limited Partnership (Washington, DC: U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2012); and Scott W. Harold, “Opportunistic Cooperation Under Constraints: Non-Proliferation, Energy Trade, and the Evolution of Chinese Policy towards Iran,” Chinese Journal of International Politics 8, 1 (November 2014): 59-88.

[9] Jacopo Scita, “China-Iran” A Complex, Seesaw Relationship,” IPSI Commentary (February 8, 2019) 2,

[10] Kenneth Katzman, “Iran Sanctions,” CRS Report for Congress (updated April 22, 2019), 52,

[11] Wayne Ma and Tenille Tracy, “Sanctions Gap Allows China to Purchase Iranian Oil,” Wall Street Journal, August 21, 2013; and I. Lakshmanan, G. Ratnam, “China gets cheaper Iran oil as U.S. pays tab for Hormuz patrols,” Bloomberg, January 12, 2012,

[12] For the official US Government text on the JPOA Relief Period, see US Department of the Treasury, November 15, 2014,

[13] Reese Erlich, “As U.S. sanctions keep Western businesses out of Iran, China seizes the opportunity,” PRI, December 28, 2017,

[14] Joris Teer and Sulao Wang, “Sino-Iranian Asymmetrical Interdependence in Light of the Iran Nuclear Issue,” Asian Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies 12, 2 (2018): 167-192,

[15] Harold and Nader, China and Iran: Economic, Political, and Military Relations, 2.

[16] Katzman, “Iran Sanctions,” 52.

[17] “China floods Iran with cheap consumer goods in exchange for oil,” Guardian, February 20, 2013,; “Iran Looks Warily to China for Help as U.S. Sanctions Resume,” Associated Press, appearing in VOA News, September 12, 2018,; and Indira A.R. Lakshmanan and Pratish Narayanan, “India and China Skirt Iran Sanctions With ‘Junk for Oil,’” Bloomberg, March 30, 2012,

[18] Sui-Lee Wee et al., “Iran cancels $2 billion dam deal with China: report,” Reuters, May 31, 2012,

[19] In January 2009 CNPC took a majority stake in South and North Azadegan fields. However, five years later, Iran cancelled the contracts for nonperformance. Similarly, Sinopec signed a deal in 2007 to develop the Yadavaran (oil) field but in 2014, Iran claimed Sinopec had “experienced problems with regards to progress.” See “Iran terminates Chinese oil contract,” Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), May 8, 2014, See also Emma Scott, “Defying Expectations: China’s Iran Trade and Investments,” Middle East Institute, April 16, 2016,; Marybeth Davis et. al., China-Iran: A Limited Partnership, Prepared for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 18; Harold and Nader, China and Iran: Economic, Political, and Military Relations, 12; Erica Downs and Suzanne Maloney, “Getting China to Sanction Iran,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2011),;  and Dina Esfandiari, “Renewed U.S. Sanctions Unlikely to Isolate Iran,” Century Foundation, November 7, 2018,

[20] Mohsen Shariatinia and Hamidreza Azizi, “Iran and the Belt and Road Initiative: Amid Hope and Fear,” Journal of Contemporary China, March 21, 2019,

[21] Colum Lynch, “UN Imposes New Sanctions on Iran; Administration Must Settle for Watered-Down Resolution,” Washington Post, March 4, 2008.

[22] Joel Wuthnow, “Posing Problems Without an Alliance: China-Iran Relations after the Nuclear Deal,” INSS Strategic Forum No. 290 (February 2016): 2,

[23] Shen Dingli, “Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions Test China’s Wisdom,” Washington Quarterly 29 (2006): 60.

[24] Louis Charbonneau, “Russia, China push Iran to change nuclear stance,” Reuters, March 23, 2010, See also China’s Representative to the United Nations Wang Guangwa’s remarks during the Security Council debate on Resolution 1737(2006), quoted in Yaël Ronen, The Iran Nuclear Issue (Oxford and Portland: Hart Publishing, 2010) 141; and Dara Conduit and Shahram Akbarzadeh, “Great Power-Middle Power Dynamics: The Case of China and Iran,” Journal of Contemporary China 28, 117 (2019): 468-481,

[25] “China, Iran Lift Ties to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,” Xinhua, January 23, 2016,; and “China-Iran Agree on Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,” NSNBC International, January 24, 2016,

[26] Golnar Motevalli, “China, Iran Agree to Expand Trade to $600 Billion in a Decade,” Bloomberg, January 23, 2016,

[27] Reported by China’s Ambassador to Iran Pang Sen, “Belt and Road Initiative and China-Iran cooperation,” Modern Diplomacy, March 20, 2018,

[28] Thomas Erdbrink, “China Deepens Its Footprint in Iran After Lifting of Sanctions,” New York Times, January 24, 2016,

[29] “China pumps billions into Iranian economy as Western firms hold off,” Reuters, December 1, 2017,

[31] “China, Iran sign first contract for Arak redesign,” World Nuclear News, April 24, 2017,,-Iran-sign-first-contract-for-Arak-redesign; and Ben Blanchard, “Chinese, Iranian firms to sign first nuclear plant redesign contracts,” Reuters, April 20, 2017,

[32] John Calabrese,” China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) Initiative: Envisioning Iran’s Role,” in A. Ehteshami and N. Horesh (eds.), China’s Presence in the Middle East: The Implications of the One Belt, One Road Initiative (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018), 174-175.

[33] Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang, quoted in Zafar HU.S.sain, “China regrets U.S. decision to withdraw from Iran nuclear deal, GeoTV, May 9, 2018, 2019, See also People’s Republic of China Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Wang Yi Holds Talks with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran,” May 13, 2018,

[34] Sheridan Prasso, “Huawei Said to Be Probed by FBI for Possible Iran Violations,” Bloomberg, April 26, 2018,; and Raymond Zhong, “Chinese Tech Giant on Brink of Collapse in New U.S. Cold War,” New York Times, May 9, 2018,

[35] See for example, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on November 5, 2018,”; and Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, quoted in Christopher Bodeen, “China, Iran meet amid efforts to preserve nuclear deal,” AP News, February 19, 2019,

[36] Zhenhua Lu, “China wants to ‘deepen strategic trust’ with Iran, Foreign Minister Wang Yi says, as both sides meet for nuclear deal,” South China Morning Post, February 19, 2019,

[37] Quoted in “China’s desire for close Iran ties unchanged, Xi says ahead of Saudi prince’s visit,” Reuters, February 20, 2019,

[38] See statement of support by President Xi Jinping, “China’s desire for close Iran ties unchanged, Xi says ahead of Saudi prince’s visit,” Reuters, February 20, 2019,; and Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on November 5, 2018,” November 5, 2018,

[39] Chen Aizhu and Florence Tan, “Exclusive: China shifts to Iranian tankers to keep oil flowing amid U.S. sanctions – sources,” Reuters, August 20, 2018,

[40] “China’s Bank of Kunlun Restores Iran Ties But U.S. Restrictions Hang On,” Financial Tribune, December 23, 2018,

[41] Following the French firm Total’s failure to obtain a U.S. sanctions waiver and subsequent withdrawal from project, its 50.1% interest had automatically transferred to CNPC, as stipulated in the contract. See Chen Aizhu, “CNPC suspends investment in Iran’s South Pars after U.S. pressure: sources,” Reuters, December 12, 2018,

[42] See Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI), quoted in Lee Jeong-ho, “China scales back Iran nuclear cooperation ‘due to fear of U.S. sanctions,’” South China Morning Post, January 31, 2019, See also Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, “Forget oil sanctions, end of nuclear cooperation waivers could quietly kill Iran deal,” Al-Monitor, April 24, 2019,

[43] Cathleen D. Cimino-Isaacs et al., “Iran: Efforts to Preserve Economic Benefits of the Nuclear Deal,” U.S. Congressional Research Service, February 26, 2019,

[44] “Oil Sanctioned by U.S. and Shunned by World Finds Haven in China,” Bloomberg News, March 25, 2019,

[45] Aaron Sheldrick, “Asia’s March Iran oil imports hit five-month high,” Reuters, April 27, 2018, and Edward Wong and Clifford Krauss, “U.S. Risks Roiling Oil Markets in Trying to Tighten Sanctions,” New York Times, April 15, 2019,

[46] James Gavin, “Tehran left in the cold as old allies cut crude imports,” Petroleum Economist, March 8, 2019,; and Florence Tan and Chen Aizhu, “With few buyers, Iranian oil armada heads to China ahead of U.S. sanctions,” Reuters, October 18, 2018,  

[47] “Chinese Oil Imports Surge to Record as Iranian Crude Stockpiled,” Bloomberg News, May 8, 2019,; Chen Aizhu and Meng Meng, “China April crude oil imports hit monthly record, refiners stocked up ahead of sanctions,” Reuters, May 8, 2019, and “Chinese Oil Imports Surge to Record as Iranian Crude Stockpiled,” Bloomberg, May 8, 2019,

[48] US Department of State, “Designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” Fact Sheet, April 8, 2019,

[49] US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, Remarks to the Press, April 22, 2019,

[50] Robert Burns and Catherine Lucey, “US dispatches aircraft carrier over unspecified threats,” Associated Press, May 6, 2019,

[51] Patrick Wintour, “Iran announces partial withdrawal from nuclear deal,” Guardian, May 8, 2019, and Amir Vahdat and John Gambrell, “Iran threatens more uranium enrichment if no nuke deal,” AP, May 8, 2019,

[53] Sadeq Dehqan and Farzan Vanaki, “Official: Iran-China Trade to Reach $42b by End of 2018,” Iran Daily, September 11, 2018,

[54] Chen Aizhu and Florence Tan, “Sinopec, CNPC skip Iran oil purchases for May to avoid U.S. sanctions,” Reuters, May 10, 2019,

[55] Daisy Xu and Eric Yep, “China refiners await government orders on Iranian crude but pushback likely: analysts,” Platts, April 23, 2019,

[56] Roslan Khasawneh and Muyu Xu, “Exclusive: Tanker unloads Iranian fuel oil at China port after near five-month trek – data,” Reuters, May 16, 2019,

[57] Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, “China Restarts Purchases of Iranian Oil, Bucking Trump’s Sanctions,” Bourse & Bazaar, May 17, 2019,; “Iran’s Zarif: ‘Concrete action’ needed to save nuclear deal,” Aljazeera, May 17, 2019,; and Sune Engel Rasmussen and Aresu Eqbali, “Iran Foreign Minister Asks China to Help Save Nuclear Deal Amid Rising Tensions,” Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2019.

[58] “U.S. seizes North Korean coal ship for violating sanctions,” BBC News, May 9, 2019,

[59] Ana Swanson and Keith Bradsher, “Trump Threatens More China Tariffs, and Beijing Prepares to Retaliate,” New York Times, May 8,

[60] Tsvetana Paraskova, “What Explains China’s Thirst For Saudi Oil,”, May 6, 2019,; and Chen Aizhu, “China’s March Iran oil imports fall from year ago, Saudi supplies surge,” Reuters, April 25, 2019,

[61] Yang Ge, Luo Guoping, and Ceng Lingke, “Saudi Aramco Inks $10 Billion Refining Joint Venture in Liaoning,” Caixing Global, February 23, 2019,

[62] Jane Perlez, “President Xi Jinping of China Is All Business in Middle East Visit,” New York Times, January 30, 2017,

[63] Zhenhua Lu, “China and Saudi Arabia seal U.S.$28 billion in deals,” South China Morning Post, February 22, 2019,; and Ben Blanchard, “Saudi Arabia strikes $10 billion China deal, talks de-radicalisation with Xi,” Reuters, February 22, 2019,

[64] “China to Boost Belt and Road Links with Saudi Arabia,” The Maritime Executive, February 26, 2019,

[65] Mark Osborne, “LONGi set for agreement to develop major solar manufacturing hub in Saudi Arabia,” PV Tech, May 25, 2019, Several months later, Hong Kong-listed Hanergy announced it would invest in a thin-film PV plant in the KSA. See Jason Deign, “Saudi Arabia Looks to China for Solar as Power Politics Shift,” Green Tech Media, February 5, 2019,; and Karen Graham, “China and Saudi Arabia solar investments reshaping geopolitics,” Digital Journal, February 5, 2019,

[66] “Saudi Arabia and Huawei sign five MoUs to boost investment,” Gulf Today, March 18, 2019,

[67] Remarks by Huawei senior executive Mark Xue, reported in Chu Daye, "Huawei to help Saudi Arabia to become world’s top 5G country,” Global Times, February 22, 2019,

[68] David E. Sanger, Julian E. Barnes, Raymond Zhong, and Marc Santora, “In 5G Race with China, U.S. Pushes Allies,” New York Times, January 26, 2019,; and Nicholas Burkett, “Huawei vs the US: the battle for the future of 5G,” Foreign Brief, March 31, 2019,

[69] “Rystad Energy: U.S. to export more oil, liquids than Saudis by yearend,” Oil & Gas Journal, March 18, 2019,

[70] International Energy Agency (IEA), Oil 2019: Analysis and forecasts to 2024,

[71] Tom DiChristopher, “U.S. crude oil exports hit a record last week at 3.6 million barrels a day,” CNBC News, February 21, 2019,; and Matt Egan, “America is set to surpass Saudi Arabia in a ‘remarkable’ oil milestone,” CNN, March 8, 2019,; and Matt Egan, “America is set to surpass Saudi Arabia in a ‘remarkable’ oil milestone,” CNN, March 8, 2019,….

[72] For the text of J.S. Res. 7, see See also Lauren Gambino and Julian Borger, “Yemen war: Congress votes to end U.S. military assistance to Saudi Arabia,” Guardian, April 4, 2019,

[73] The White House, “Presidential Veto Message to the Senate to Accompany S.J. Res. 7,” April 16, 2019, See also Mark Landler and Peter Baker, “Trump Vetoes Measure to Force End to U.S. Involvement in Yemen War,” New York Times, April 16, 2019,

[74] For bills in the U.S. Congress related to the subject Saudi Arabia, see https://www.govtrack.U.S./congress/bills/subjects/saudi_arabia/6742.

[75] See, for example, The White House, “Statement from President Donald J. Trump on Standing with Saudi Arabia,” November 20, 2018,; and “Trump administration defends close Saudi ties as Senate moves to end U.S. support for Yemen war,” CNBC, November 28, 2018,

[76] Julian Borger, “Saudi Arabia’s first nuclear reactor nearly finished, sparking fears over safeguards,” Guardian, April 4, 2019, See also Interim Staff Report Committee on Oversight and Reform U.S. House of Representatives, “Whistleblowers Raise Grave Concerns with Trump Administration’s Efforts to Transfer Sensitive Nuclear Technology to Saudi Arabia,” February 2019,

[77] Michael J. de la Merced, Stanley Reed, and Daisuke Wakabayashi, “Business Quietly returns to Saudi Arabia after Khashoggi Murder,” New York Times, April 17, 2019,

[78] Mike Stone, “Lockheed clinches $2.4 billion deal for sale of THAAD missiles,” Reuters, April 1, 2019,; and Allen Cone, “Lockheed awarded $2.5B to start work on THAAD systems for Saudis,” UPI, April 2, 2019,

[79] See, for example, Stanley Carvalho, “Saudi’s military company eyes $10 billion revenue in next five years,” Reuters, February 18, 2019,; and “Saudi Arabian Military IndU.S.tries and Boeing Form Joint Venture Partnership Targeting 55% Localization,” Boeing, March 30, 2018,


[81] Ivana Kottasová, “Here’s where Saudi Arabia has invested around the world,” CNN, October 17, 2018,

[82] Eliot Brown and Greg Bensinger, “Saudi Money Flows Into Silicon Valley—and With It Qualms,” Wall Street Journal, October 16, 2018. For an extended analysis of Saudi investment in Silicon Valley, see Theodore Schleifer, “Silicon Valley is awash in Chinese and Saudi cash — and no one is paying attention (except Trump),” Vox, May 1, 2019,

[83] Paul R. LaMonica, “Saudi Arabia owns $166.8 billion in U.S. debt,”

[84] Clifford Krauss, “Saudi Arabia Negotiating to Buy U.S. Natural Gas From Sempra Energy,” New York Times, May 22, 2019,

[85] See KSA Embassy in Washington, April 6, 2019,

[86] Samuel Ramani, “The Risks of the China-Saudi Arabia Partnership,” The Diplomat, February 17, 2017,

[87] Quoted in Natasha Turak, “Massive Saudi wealth fund zeros in on China, plans to open new Asia office,” CNBC, May 1, 2019,

[88] “Statement by John P. Abizaid Nominee to be U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Senate Committee on Foreign Relations,” March 6, 2019,

[89] According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the Middle East accounted for 35% of global weapons imports in the period 2014-2018. See Peter D. Wezeman et al., “Trends in International Arms Transfers,” SIPRI Fact Sheet (March 2019),

[90] Natasha Turak, “Pentagon is scrambling as China ‘sells the hell out of’ armed drones to US allies,” CNBC, February 21, 2019,….

[91] Sun Degang, “China’s Soft Military Presence in the Middle East,” Dirasat 30 (January 2018),

[92] Latifa A. Al Saud, China’s Arms Sales Philosophy in the Middle East,” Journal of International Affairs, December 3, 2018,….

[93] These systems included NORINCO’s new VT4 heavy infantry fighting vehicle, MRTV 3000 frigate and C-602 medium-range cruise missiles and CSIC’s unmanned 20-tonne Aegis-class destroyer (JARI USV). Teddy Ng and Liu Zhen, “China eyes bigger role in growing Middle East arms trade,” South China Morning Post, February 24, 2019,….

[94] “China’s CSIC expands presence in UAE,” Janes Defence Weekly, February 21, 2019,

[95] Lily Hindy, “A Rising China Eyes the Middle East,” Century Foundation, April 6, 2017,

[96] US Department of Defense, Defense Science Board, The Role of Autonomy in DoD Systems (July 2012), 70,

[97] US Department of Defense, Assessment on US Defense Implications of China’s Expanding Global Access (December 2018) 5, See also US Defense Intelligence Agency, China Military Power: Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win (January 2019) 87, 107,

[98] Michael C. Horowitz and Joshua A. Schwartz, “A New US policy makes it (somewhat) easier to export drones,” Washington Post, April 20, 2018,

[99] See Peter D. Wezeman et al., “Trends in International Arms Transfers,” 5.

[100] Jeremy Page and Paul Sonne, “Unable to Buy US Military Drones, Allies Place Orders With China,” Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2017,; Sharon Weinberger, “China Has Already Won the Drone Wars,” Foreign Policy, May 10, 2018; Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi and Justin Bronk, “Armed Drones in the Middle East: Proliferation and Norms in the Region,” RUSI Occasional Paper, December 2018, 1, 39-40,; John Gambrell and Gerry Shih, “Chinese Armed Drones Now Flying Across Mideast Battlefields,” Bloomberg, October 2, 2018,; Christopher Biggers, “UAE revealed as Wing Loong II launch customer,” Janes Defence, January 26, 2018,

[101] “China’s Saudi drone factory compensates for U.S. ban,” Middle East Eye, March 29, 2017; Ian Armstrong, “What’s Behind China’s Big New Drone Deal?” The Diplomat, April 20, 2017; and Natasha Turak, “Pentagon is scrambling as China ‘sells the hell out of’ armed drones to US allies,” CNBC, February 21, 2019,

[102] Jeremy Page and Paul Sonne, “Unable to Buy U.S. Military Drones, Allies Place Orders With China,” Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2017; Dominic Dudley, “How China Is Fueling The Arms Race In Drones In The Middle East,” Forbes, December 17, 2018,; Valerie Insinna, “General Atomics: Export restrictions help China grow its drone tech,” Defense News, August 18, 2017; George Nacouzi et al., Assessment of the Proliferation of Certain Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2019), xv, 34-39,; Elisa Catalano Ewers et al., “Drone Proliferation: Policy Choices for the Trump Administration,” Center for New American Security (CNAS), June 2017,; and Erik Lin-Greenberg, “Why Washington’s New Drone Export Policy is God for National Security,” War on the Rocks, April 24, 2018,

[103] New America Foundation, “World of Drones,”; Munich Security Foundation, Munich Security Report 2019, 52,

[104] Dee Ann Divis, “Military UAV Market To Top $83B,”, April 24, 2018,

[105] “Teal Group Predicts Worldwide Military UAV Production of $90 Billion Over the Next Decade,” World Military Unmanned Aerial Systems Market Profile & Forecast, Press Release, November 19, 2018,

[106] Kathrin Hille, “China’s drone makers zero in on armed forces” Financial Times, November 8, 2018,

[107] Paul Mcleary, “NSC Readies Major Overhaul in US Arms Exports,” Breaking Defense, March 26, 2018,….

[108] White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Statement by the Press Secretary on Arms Transfer and Unmanned Aerial Systems Export Reforms,” Press Release, April 19, 2018,; and US Department of State Office of the Spokesperson, “US Policy on the Export of Unmanned Aerial Systems,” Fact Sheet, April 18, 2019,

[109] Peter Navarro, “A Win for America and Its Allies,” The White House, April 20, 2018,

[110] See remarks by The Hon. Tina Kaidanow, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, US Department of State, “US Arms Transfer Policy: Shaping the Way Ahead,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) (August 8, 2018) 8,

[111] Aaron Mehta, “Do new Trump arms export rules live up to the hype?” Defense News, April 23, 2018,; and Mehta, “US to push new rules for drone agreement in November,” Defense News, September 11, 2018,

[113] Margaret Talev, “Trump Cancels US Report on Civilian Deaths in Drone Strikes,” Bloomberg, March 6, 2019,

[114] US Department of State, Office of the Spokesperson, “US Policy on the Export of Unmanned Aerial Systems,” Fact Sheet, April 19, 2018,

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