Main Image Credit Courtesy of official website of Ali Khamenei
Reports of a pending China–Iran alliance are premature, and ignore a more hesitant Chinese approach to the Middle East.
Recent media coverage has suggested that China may be about to plough $400 billion worth of investments into Iran. American policymakers have responded with alarm, owing to a growing perception of China as a global threat, and the Middle East as one theatre of a worldwide confrontation. Alongside China’s willingness to cooperate with US adversaries, others have pointed to China’s development of a multipurpose port in Djibouti, from which it is able to base warships.
In truth, China’s regional objectives and their outcomes are somewhat uncertain. Although China has important ties with Iran and has a growing naval presence in the Horn of Africa, they exist alongside other regional ties and relations, including strong commercial interests with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel – all prominent rivals to Iran.
So far, China has managed to balance those relations. It has done so by largely avoiding any direct involvement in regional confrontations. In the Gulf dispute between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it has stood apart. In Libya, where the conflict is finely balanced, it has similarly avoided choosing sides. But in Syria it has effectively backed the government in Damascus, while in Yemen its support for the UN-recognised government implies tacit acceptance of its Saudi patron.
Behaving in this fashion casts China more as a ‘shirker’ than a ‘supporter’ or ‘spoiler’ when it comes to its current behaviour as an emerging power. But as I point out in my new book, China and Middle East Conflicts, it has also occupied the other roles in the region as well.
My work is a counterweight to much of the literature on China in the Middle East, which has dealt with China’s economic activities and especially the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Since its launch in 2013, the Chinese leadership has been keen to stress the mutual benefits the BRI will bring to the region in the form of capital and new infrastructure projects.
In contrast, I wanted to explore China’s engagement in the region in more contested settings. Furthermore, I wanted to do this from a broader, historical perspective, to challenge the idea that China is a recent regional actor.
The Antecedents of China’s Middle East Involvement
By analysing China’s first contacts in the region from the mid-1950s, we can see that China’s response to war and rivalry has shifted. Initially it adopted a more confrontational style from which it retreated in later decades. Throughout the period, both during and after the Cold War, Chinese engagement was affected less by conflicts and regional actors themselves, and more by outside influences, including its own rivalry with the Soviet Union, détente with the US and subsequent American hegemony after the Cold War.
Communist China’s first forays into the Middle East were not promising. Most of the region’s conservative regimes were distrustful and unwilling to extend diplomatic recognition. Beijing’s initial relations were with socialist Arab regimes like Gamal Nasser’s in Egypt as well as nationalist insurgency movements in Algeria, Palestine, Eritrea and the Gulf.
China was an enthusiastic supporter of these regimes’ and movements’ anti-colonial and anti-imperial struggles. The mid-1960s marked the high point of Chinese engagement, which also involved the provision of money, equipment and training for insurgents. The Sino-Soviet split was an important contributing factor, as China competed to outmanoeuvre the Soviets in winning the movements over, while the movements themselves played the two communist powers off against each other in an effort to extract more resources.
China’s support for groups determined to challenge the established regimes cast it as a disruptive force, as a ‘spoiler’. But the end of the Cultural Revolution at home and China’s acceptance into the international system at the UN coincided with a move away from revolution and confrontation. The change accelerated after Mao Zedong’s death and by the end of the 1970s a more business-oriented and pragmatic approach was emerging under Deng Xiaoping.
The Commercial Turn
Through the 1980s and 1990s China prioritised commercial relationships, including a clandestine arms trade with Israel and an overt one with both sides of the Iran–Iraq war. By the early 1990s, China had become a net oil importer, which meant that it became increasingly concerned with cultivating the Arab Gulf states. Since then, those relations have expanded and deepened, to include investments in and beyond the energy sector.
China’s embrace of a more commercial outlook and its global rise coincided with the growth of the US as the regional hegemon. China has criticised US interventions in the region while avoiding any direct challenge. In 1997, it abandoned assistance on Iran’s nuclear programme in order to improve relations with Washington. It also abstained on the vote to authorise military force to remove Iraq from Kuwait in 1990 and remained silent when France and Russia both threatened to use their veto to block the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Despite Beijing’s reservations towards the 2003 war, Chinese firms benefited after the war. Many won major energy contracts, while the US bore the brunt of costs of the occupation, leading to American accusations of Chinese ‘free riding’.
A More Substantive Role
Notwithstanding the criticism, China has also taken more proactive steps to ‘support’ and manage regional conflict. The most notable instances of this involve its mediation over the nuclear deal with Iran and between Sudan’s government and Western powers during the Darfur crisis after 2003.
In both cases, China’s involvement was helped by its strong commercial presence. That meant it had the ear of governments. At the same time, its involvement was partly induced by a fear of being sidelined if it did not take part. Yet even though China has acted as a mediator, its objectives have been limited. They have largely focused on resolving the main points of conflict and avoided taking on a more active, peacemaking role.
Looking ahead, China may well try to sustain its current strategy which has served it well so far. But there may be reasons to doubt that this can last. For one, President Xi Jinping has adopted a more assertive foreign policy compared to his most recent predecessors. For another, the period of American hegemony and tacit US acceptance of the Chinese presence in the region may be coming to an end.
Finally, the BRI may become a cause of conflict in the region. As the BRI takes shape in the Middle East in the form of finance and infrastructure projects, it may result in greater competition by countries to attract Chinese interest and investment. The outcome may be that China ceases to be an outside observer of conflict and becomes an active – albeit reluctant – participant.
Guy Burton is Adjunct Professor of International Affairs at Vesalius College, Brussels, and a Fellow on the Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianisation project at Lancaster University. He is the author of China and Middle East Conflicts (Routledge, 2020) and Rising Powers and the Arab–Israeli Conflict since 1947 (Lexington, 2018).
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.