The Chinese Dragon in the Middle East: more strategic partnerships and cooperation

Xi Jinping

China has become a strategic partner for many countries in the Middle East. China's role has expanded greatly with Chinese President Xi Jinping's announcement in 2013 of the Belt and Road Initiative, which is the cornerstone of the modern Chinese strategy. 

Egypt became the first Arab country to recognize the People’s Republic of China, after establishing diplomatic ties with it in 1956. In 1958, Iraq established diplomatic relations with China. In 1971, China established diplomatic connections with Turkey and Iran. Between 1990 and 1992, China established diplomatic ties with a number of Arab and Middle Eastern countries. 

The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China convened on October 18, 2017, with President Xi Jinping delivering his report. International relations need to be rethought in his view in order to foster an environment of mutual respect, fairness and justice that benefits both parties, as well as the creation of a global community dedicated to building an open and prosperous world for all its members. These ideas should be taken into consideration while discussing Chinese policy in the Middle East. 

In 2004, the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum conducted a ministerial meeting. Sino-Arab collaborative expansion of the strategic relationship was agreed to during Tianjin's Fourth Ministerial Meeting in 2010 between China and Arab nations. There were three breakthroughs during the Sixth Ministerial Meeting: nuclear energy, space satellites and alternative energy sources were all mentioned by the Chinese President Xi Jinping as the three pillars of a '1 + 2 + 3' cooperation pattern. 

Sino-Arab future-oriented strategic partnership of comprehensive cooperation and mutual development was agreed upon by the two sides in July 2018. The most crucial document in China's Middle East policy was President Xi's address to the Arab League's headquarters on January 22nd. 

Arab-Chinese relationship has long been seen strategically by China. China's diplomatic principle has traditionally been to strengthen and promote the longstanding friendship between China and the Arab world. Rather than forming an alliance, China wants to create a network of connections across the region. A “strategic partnership” between China and Turkey was established in October 2010; a “strategic partnership” between China and Israel was founded in March 2017. 

After visiting Kazakhstan and Indonesia in 2013, President Xi launched the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. China urged Arab countries to join the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road during the 2014 CASCF meeting. For this reason, the Arab Policy Paper states, “China is ready to coordinate development plans with Arab governments, establish international production capacity, and boost cooperation in various industries”. 

Economic growth has taken place in the Suez Canal Economic Zone in Egypt, the Khalifa Industrial Zone in Abu Dhabi as well as Duqm and Jizan. Solar energy collaboration is on the table. In May 2017, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was invited to attend the first Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF). Second BRF in Beijing in April 2019 brought together Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and UAE Vice President Muhammed bin Rashid. 

The Belt and Road Initiative is more than simply a series of land and maritime linkages; it is a network of partnerships and projects. The Middle East is the China's principal source of crude oil. Among the top ten oil suppliers to China are Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Oman and Kuwait. CNPC and CNOOC signed 25-year contracts with Qatar in April 2008 to buy 3 million tons of LNG per year each. Qatar signed a new 22-year contract with CNPC to provide 3.4 million tons of LNG in September 2018. Besides nuclear and solar energy, China is also looking to cooperate in these fields with the Middle East.  

Chinese involvement in the Middle East is also motivated by economics because the region is now a major export market for Chinese commodities and a profitable building industry for the country. The amount of Chinese construction contracts in the Arab world has increased by eight times from 2004 to a total of USD 3.28 billion. Tehran and Turkey are the two countries' most important commercial partners and importers from China. 

To protect Chinese interests and combat terrorism, China has stepped up its engagement with Middle Eastern countries. It provides UN peacekeeping forces; in 2006, China dispatched an engineering battalion to South Lebanon for the first time in the Middle East. 

China has always been drawn to the Middle East because of the region's long history and diverse cultural heritage. China is a staunch advocate of cultural exchange and respect for one another. China and Arab countries have formed a platform for civilizational dialogue under the CASCF. 

Due to geopolitical competitions, the Middle East is regarded to be challenging and chaotic. So, China is very cautious in the Middle East, especially in dealing with unstable countries. In January 2016, Chinese President Xi visited both Saudi Arabia and Iran. President Xi visited the United Arab Emirates in July 2018, while Vice President Wang Qishan returned to the country in October 2018. Foreign Minister Wang Yi of China and Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the UAE met in Beijing on May 2 and resolved to form a bilateral intergovernmental committee for cooperation. 

The Chinese government also set up a high-level committee in January 2016 to direct and coordinate bilateral cooperation with Saudi Arabia. Wang Yi and Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani met for the first time on December 12th, 2018, for the first round of strategic consultations between the two countries. During this summit, China and Qatar established an intergovernmental strategic dialogue framework. 

China's foreign policy in the Middle East appears to be firmly founded in an “all-friend” or “zero-enemy” approach. China is looking to work with major global powers in the Middle East. China deals with the Middle East according to Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence include respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, non-intervention, and diplomatic and peaceful settlement of disputes and conflicts. 

China's reaction to the Syrian crisis was shaped by these principles. China believes that a political solution is the only one that will last. There is no other way out of this situation than through political action. When it comes to finding a solution acceptable to all Syrian parties, the international community must assist the Syrian parties in quickly restarting engagement and negotiations under UN mediation. China hosted Syrian opposition groups four times in Beijing between 2012 and 2017, donating 680 million RMB in humanitarian aid to Syria and Syrian refugees abroad. According to China, in order to stabilize Syria, it is necessary to put an end to the bloodshed, counter terrorism, engage in an inclusive political process, provide humanitarian assistance, and rebuild. 

China's Middle Eastern strategy is guided by an emphasis on economic cooperation. President Xi Jinping believes that boosting economic growth is the best approach to overcome obstacles. Growth is vital for everyone's well-being and dignity in order to end the conflict in the Middle East. It's a race against the clock and a battle of hope over despair. In order for young people to have hope in their hearts, they must be able to live their lives with dignity and fulfilment.' In China's view, the BRI is a critical framework for economic cooperation between China and the Middle East. Collaboration is conceivable in the fields of infrastructure development, industrialization and industrial parks, energy, and facilitation of investment. 

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization counts China as a major member. The Shanghai Five Group was established on April 26, 1996, and the SCO was established on June 15, 2001. Following the SCO summit in July 2005, Iran sought for full membership in March 2008, becoming an observer member. The SCO welcomed Turkey in 2012. Several countries, including Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Qatar, and Israel, have shown an interest in participating in the SCO as observers or dialogue partners. China might use the SCO as a new platform to cooperate with Middle Eastern countries. The cooperation would reduce competition between Belt and Road Initiative and the Eurasian Economic Union and increase SCO's strategic influence if the SCO was expanded to South and West Asia. 

Dr. Mohamad Zreik has PhD of International Relations, he is independent researcher, his area of research interest is related to Chinese Foreign Policy, Belt and Road Initiative, Middle Eastern Studies, China-Arab relations. Author has numerous studies published in high ranked journals and international newspapers. IFIMES – International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has Special Consultative status at ECOSOC/UN, New York, since 2018.