Background – China and Russia relations

In his speech at the first MEI - CENTCOM conference, General Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of CENTCOM, argued that “we’re beginning to see a resurgence…of great power competition in the Central Command AOR [area of responsibility] as China and Russia begin to find weaknesses and begin to move into it. In Central Command, the Central Asian states and the central Gulf region, in fact, all of Central Command is becoming a newly active area of engagement between us and other great powers as we compete on the global stage.”

This statement is another indicator that, in light of China’s growing interests in the Middle East, and Russia’s already vast interests in this region, the Middle East region might soon become a part of the great power rivalry. While the U.S. and Russia entered this competition over Middle East domination a long time ago, China is a relatively new player. While in the past Beijing was focused only on economic issues related to the Middle East, today it looks at this region differently and is aiming to increase its political and military involvement. While it is clear that Russia and China would like to minimize U.S. influence in this region, it is quite unclear how the pattern of involvement of these two great powers will influence their bilateral relations.

Despite the rapprochement between Beijing and Moscow in the past decade, it appears that if the two nations cannot reach agreements that will set the boundaries of intervention, there is a high probability that Beijing and Moscow could find themselves in a power struggle that leads to a real conflict, given their mutual interests in the region. It is important to note that while Russia “got used” to the U.S. presence in the region, the new Chinese policy towards the Middle East is new to the Russians, who are used to dealing with the Chinese in another region of the world. China, an emerging superpower, will probably be more influential, in the economic and other spheres, particularly if the US adopts a less interventionist stance.

This fact is highlighted because Russia has recently been enhancing its presence and seeks to maintain its influence in the Middle East for economic as well as political and military reasons. Given the possibility that a “Pivot to Asia” policy of the new administration in Washington will enlarge the vacuum in the Middle East, this move will open the door for China to increase its involvement in the Middle East.  Given the importance of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the two great powers could find themselves in a struggle for domination in the Middle East, a struggle that has the potential of harming their strong relations.

Following the collapse of the USSR, China and Russia sought a more “constructive partnership,” which later became a“strategic partnership.” During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2013 visit to Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin remarked that the two nations were forging a special relationship.

The two countries were able to develop close military, economic, and political relationships while supporting each other on various global issues. Despite sharing the same ideology, both countries have a suspicion of Western interference and a strong desire to impose tighter controls over their own societies. In a display of goodwill, Russia and China flew a joint bomber patrol over the Pacific in July 2019 and again in December 2020. The deteriorating relations of both countries with the U.S. under President Donald Trump, especially in the last two years of his term, also strengthened the ties between Moscow and Beijing.

Although China and Russia have strengthened their relationship, there remain obstacles for close cooperation. For example, Russian commentators have increasingly raised concerns about China’s ambitions and influence in Central Asia, an area historically within the Russian sphere of influence. Russian leaders have expressed growing concerns regarding China’s investments in the energy-rich but sparsely-populated Russian Far East. The Middle East is a new theater for potential friction between the two powers. It becomes necessary to examine past policies of each to locate the potential for collaboration – or conflict – in this zone.

 

China’s main policy towards the Middle East

Historically, the Middle East (or Western Asia as the Chinese foreign minister terms it), has been of low to middling importance to Chinese foreign policy. However, China’s meteoric ascent to the world stage as a global power has altered its strategic stance, and its ambitions have stretched westward.

China has meaningful and strategic interests in the Middle East, especially since the region is home to six of China’s top ten sources of oil, a crucial resource for its economic growth. With its large appetite for oil unsatisfied by domestic production, China now imports more oil than the U.S.; to give a relevant illustration, the U.S. imports $1.03B from Saudi Arabia in comparison to China’s $9.34B. As such, in the past ten to fifteen years, Beijing’s main interest in the region has been ensuring the reliable and free flow of oil. China’s lack of power projection capabilities in the region has limited China’s options in terms of direct interference when faced with global rivals such as the U.S. and Russia in the Middle East. As such, China has limited itself to promoting economic cooperation and infrastructure projects and using soft power such as the 16 Confucius Institutes with a great impact over the Arab population; popular culture like movies, tv shows and books with highly pro-Chinese messages. China has avoided interfering in countries’ domestic policies, while attempting to build friendly relations with even conflicting nations, such as Israel and Iran.

When China set the BRI goals to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in linking infrastructure and trade with Central Asia, South Asia, Africa, and Europe by developing overland transport infrastructure, the Middle East was a crucial component of the plan. In the past, the Middle East has served as an important trade area and transit stop for global trade, and this still holds true today. As such, China’s interests in the region include not only ensuring the safe and reliable flow of oil from the region but also ensuring geopolitical stability so that China can further its development projects both on land and at sea.

 

Russia’s main policy towards the Middle East

Since his return to the presidency in 2012, Vladimir Putin has adopted a more aggressive approach toward positioning his country in the international arena. Putin sees the Middle East as critical to Russia because security challenges originating in the region influence the Russian sphere of influence. Russia began its campaign in Syria in September 2015 with the deployment of troops to the Khmeimim military base to fight against Syrian opposition militant groups such as the Syrian National Coalition, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), al-Nusra Front (al-Qaeda in Syria), and the Army of Conquest. Russia carried out air strikes against these targets, and Russian special operations forces and military advisors were deployed to Syria as well.

Prior to the intervention, Russian involvement in the Syrian Civil War had primarily consisted of supplying the Syrian Army with arms and equipment. This intervention has allowed Russia to re-emerge as a leading actor in the Middle East, mostly thanks to the use of hard power and coercive diplomacy. Moscow looks to solidify its presence in the region and to capitalize on the military foothold in Syria through its naval base and air power presence in order to project more political influence in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

Now, Moscow is engaged across the entire Middle East in various mutually reinforcing ways. Russian involvement is not confined to its military intervention in Syria. Russia has made energy pacts with Saudi Arabia; brokered arms deals with Egypt, Iran, Turkey, and Qatar; and developed a robust partnership with the UAE. Russia also now patrols the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. At the same time, Russia is seeking to establish naval and air bases in Cyprus, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen.  Furthermore, Russia, like China, uses soft power in the Middle East, through the Russian Centers for Science and Culture (RCSC) in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and the West Bank.

Russian presence in the Middle East, therefore, is multi-dimensional and includes military, diplomatic, informational, and economic facets.

 

Possible Confrontations

The following are potential areas of conflict between these two powers in the Middle East:

Maritime presence – China’s establishment of its first overseas military base, in Djibouti, as well as the probable militarization of the Pakistani port of Gwadar, contributes to the growth of the country’s military presence near crucial maritime chokepoints such as the Strait of Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb. China also has formalized partnerships with fifteen Middle Eastern countries, and many of these agreements involve maritime cooperation. It participates in anti-piracy and maritime security missions in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden and has conducted large-scale operations to rescue its nationals from Libya in 2011 and Yemen in 2015. Russia, meanwhile, already has an established presence in the Mediterranean sea at the Tartus naval base, and recently finalized an agreement with Sudan to set up a naval base in Port Sudan, giving Russian forces a small but significant toehold in the Red Sea. The close geographic proximity between the naval bases of both countries and their overlapping interests in the Red Sea area could either lead to cooperation (like the joint maritime maneuvers with Iran in 2019 and the one that is currently being planned ) or to confrontation.

Arms sales – Ongoing conflicts (such as those in Syria, Yemen, and Libya), the fragile security situation, and the threat of military confrontation between state and non-state actors has increased the demand for arms in the Middle EastChina’s arms sales policy is predicated on economic gain, often complemented by development assistance. China’s military spending and arms production have increased, and this may spark Chinese exports to the region. The Chinese government’s philosophy around arms exports stems from its interest in maintaining a strategic relationship with the Middle Eastern countries in order to secure business and energy prospects.

In general, China focuses on small-scale weapons like drones for the purposes of attack and espionage, while Russia uses arms sales to the Middle East to boost the Russian economy and enhance its military and political influence in the Middle East. Moscow sees its arm sales as another means to increase "buyer" dependence on Russia and to strengthen the diplomatic and other relations with the countries who buy Russian military supply. Russia has almost no boundaries and is willing to sell sophisticated military capabilities (from aircrafts to missiles and tactical weapons) to almost any country in the Middle East, including Syria, Egypt, Iran and the UAE.

During the last few years, as part of President Xi Jinping's policy, China is gradually changing its aspirations. It has forged a military partnership with the UAE to develop advanced weapons capabilities together. Furthermore, as China invests in the region, many states turn to it when there are blockages in arms sales from the US or Europe. The increased proliferation of Chinese arms may bring Beijing into a confrontation with Moscow over the intensifying Middle Eastern weapons market.

Nuclear capabilities  — Nuclear exports are an extension of the foreign policy of both countries as the two nations seek to secure long-term geopolitical influence. Russia has become the nuclear Walmart for the Middle East. Rosatom, the nuclear energy company founded by Vladimir Putin, in particular, has increased its activity in the Middle East in recent years, constructing reactors in Iran, Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey. In addition, the company opened a regional office in Dubai to take advantage of UAE and Saudi plans to increase nuclear energy capacity. The only Middle Eastern country where Russia is not a leading exporter is the UAE, where South Korea, in its first major nuclear export deal in 2009, won a contract to build four nuclear reactors.

Russian nuclear technology is ideal for many Middle Eastern countries, because it is inexpensive and rapidly delivered. Unlike with the U.S. and other Western partners, Russia does not include certain conditions of non-proliferation. On September 21, 2018, China’s Ministry of Justice published its draft of Atomic Energy Law, which calls upon its vast nuclear industry to secure a portion of the world’s nuclear export market — including in the Middle East. China and Saudi Arabia collaborated on the construction of a facility for extracting uranium yellowcake from uranium ore; this indicates that Riyadh is considering the use of its civilian nuclear program for military purposes given the fact that yellowcake, a semi-processed form of uranium, is the crucial ingredient for both nuclear power reactors and nuclear weapons. According to this account, the facility is being built with the assistance of two Chinese companies in a remote desert location near the northwest Saudi city of Ula, roughly midway between Medina and Tabuk, at a safe distance from Iran. Competition in the nuclear market could bring the two superpowers into conflict.

 

Conclusion

China and Russia are on a collision course in the Middle East. While Moscow has been involved in the Middle East for a relatively long time, Beijing’s forays into the Middle East are comparatively recent, but are likely to become more expansive. Given the BRI and other mega-projects, China’s position on the world stage and its presence in the Middle East are expanding, which will likely lead to conflicts, given Russia’s historical presence in the region.

 

Danny Citrinowicz is a senior research fellow at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy in Israel. He has served for 25 years in a variety of command positions units in Israel Defense Intelligence (IDI), reaching the rank of major. Roie Yellinek earned his Ph.D. from Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, Israel. He is a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, and an adjunct researcher at the IDF Dado Center.  The views expressed in this piece are their own.

Photo by Resul Rehimov/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images