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[Research Reports] Can China Practice Major Power Diplomacy in the Middle East?

Masaaki Yatsuzuka (Research Fellow, National Institute for Defense Studies)
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Research Group on 'the Middle East and Africa' FY2021-#1

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.

China's Wavering Involvement in the Middle East

There is no question that China's presence in the Middle East is growing significantly. Will China continue to deepen its involvement in the region and play a role in shaping the regional order, taking the place of the United States? In other words, will China practice major power diplomacy in the Middle East? The view among researchers in China and elsewhere1 over this question is divided. To categorize their arguments into two camps, there is a cautious engagement theory that warns against the risk of getting caught up in the turmoil in the Middle East and recommends (or predicts) that China protect its economic interests while maintaining political neutrality vis-à-vis the Middle East as it has done so far. On the other hand, there is an active engagement theory advocating (or foreseeing) that China deepen its engagement, proactively participate based on the responsibility of a major world power in solving problems in the Middle East, and actively propose its own ideas in order to protect Chinese interests in the Middle East.

The rationale behind the former is China's Five Principles for Peaceful Coexistence: (1) respect for territory and sovereignty; (2) mutual inviolability; (3) non-interference in internal affairs; (4) mutual benefit; and (5) peaceful coexistence. In particular, the principles of respect for territory and sovereignty, as well as noninterference in domestic affairs, restrains its active involvement in the Middle East, which remains at risk of strife among countries and regime crises due to sectarian and ethnic conflicts. In China's view, the turmoil of the 2011 Arab Spring was caused by the interventionism of Western countries, and China should not interfere in the region in the way that Western countries do. On the other hand, it is looking to open the way for win-win joint development by expanding cooperation in possible areas of partnership based on moderate mutual support and linking the Belt and Road Initiative to the economic development concept of the region.

The latter argument is supported not only by China's confidence as a major power, but also by the need to boost Middle Eastern support for China on issues related to "core interests" in the midst of deepening conflicts with developed countries trying to maintain the existing international order. This is the case regarding Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other areas that China considers its own internal affairs. Chinese leaders have called for support on these issues every time they meet with Middle Eastern leaders. In other words, in order to protect its core interests, "China should increase its influence on the Middle East issues and strengthen its discourse power"2.

Expanding Chinese Involvement Through Vested Interests

For China, which has increasing interests in the Middle East that are necessary for its economic development, Middle Eastern turmoil is no longer just someone else's concern. China depends on imports for about 70% of its oil consumption and around half of that comes from the Middle East. In addition, the number of Chinese companies and businessmen in the Middle East engaged in oil- or infrastructure-related business ventures and other economic activities has increased rapidly in the past 20 years, and they now constitute a part of China's overseas interests. The Libyan civil war in 2011 and the Yemeni civil war in 2015 both put China's overseas interests in the Middle East at risk. The rapid deployment of the People's Liberation Army by the Chinese leadership to carry out a large-scale evacuation of Chinese citizens overseas served as a warning to the Chinese leadership that turmoil in the Middle East would seriously affect their interests.

Thus, in order to protect its 'overseas interests', China is recognizing the necessity of expanding its involvement not only economically but also politically and militarily. In addition to promoting security cooperation with Middle Eastern countries linked to the Belt and Road Initiative, China opened its first overseas naval base in Djibouti in 2017. Since the end of 2008, the Chinese navy, officially known as the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), has been engaged in escorting vessels through sea-lanes in the Gulf of Aden and the waters off Somalia. With the construction of this base, the scope of these activities has been further expanded. In recent years, China has also conducted military exchanges and joint military exercises with major regional powers such as Egypt and Iran.

The profit motive is not the only driving force behind China's engagement in the Middle East. The government of Xi Jinping has noted that the international order is in a period of change, with the world entering a time of great development, transformation and adjustment, and that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the evolution of this once-in-a-century transformation. Based on this recognition, the Chinese leadership has pledged to develop "major power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics in the new era" in order to promote new international relations and to build a community of common destiny. The Xi administration's ideology of "major power diplomacy" will serve to deepen China's engagement in the Middle East in a different context from protecting its interests.

Difficulties in Pursuing Major Power Diplomacy in the Middle East

Over the past year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, China has been active in its Middle East diplomacy. In November 2020, a foreign ministerial-level teleconference was held between China and the GCC countries to discuss a free trade agreement that had been stalled by the conflicts among GCC members in 2016. In late March 2021, Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited six countries, namely Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, the UAE, Bahrain and Oman, and presented China's overall views on the Middle East in a press interview during his visit.

In the Middle East, China is also actively engaged in "vaccine diplomacy". For example, China agreed to establish a joint venture with the UAE to produce a vaccine developed by Sinofarm Co., a Chinese pharmaceutical company, and to promote production of the vaccine in the UAE. This, according to Chinese media, will be the first overseas production of a Chinese-made vaccine and will also become "a vaccination center in the Middle East". In addition, it is reported that China had agreed on local production with Egypt in May 2021. China, which has deepened confidence in its own governance capabilities through its success in preventing the spread of the coronavirus, also needs to improve its international image that has deteriorated as a result of the spread of the virus. One way to improve its international image is "vaccine diplomacy," an approach that Chinese leaders think can only be played by a major power. There is no doubt that China will continue to increase its presence in such economic and civil sectors where a backlash is unlikely to occur.

On the other hand, if the major power diplomacy sought by the Chinese leadership aims to propose "Chinese wisdom" and "Chinese ideas" for addressing the political and security issues that underlie circumstances in the Middle East and actively take on the task of shaping the regional order, then it will not be easy to put into practice.

In such a case, the question will be how to advance political cooperation with the United States. The United States and China have room to cooperate in stabilizing the order in the Middle East, strengthening the region's security capabilities and providing counter-terrorism assistance. There is also an optimistic view among Chinese researchers that China's involvement in the Middle East can coexist with a Middle Eastern order shaped by the presence of the United States3.

On the other hand, it is also true that there is a perception gap between the United States and China over what kind of order the Middle East should have. If China seeks to exercise leadership in the Middle East's complex international relations under the pretext of 'major power diplomacy', it will increasingly face strong opposition from the United States, which hates China's growing influence in the region. One example is the escalating conflict between the United States and China over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Gaza Strip in early May 2021. China, as the chair of the Security Council, has been busy holding emergency meetings aimed at issuing statements urging a ceasefire. However, China was unable to push through a statement in the face of opposition from the United States, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi criticized the United States saying "the position taken by the United States is contrary to international justice." Although a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip was in the end achieved through the mediation of Egypt on May 21, China was unable to exercise its international leadership.

There are other issues in the region on which the United States and China have more or less different opinions, such as the Iranian nuclear issue, the Syrian issue, the Afghanistan issue, and the sectarian conflicts between the major powers in the region. Naturally, the possibility cannot be ruled out that China will play a role as a mediator in such complicated political issues and exert international leadership. In addition, the United States' retreat from the Middle East will make China's presence relatively prominent. However, China's leadership in dealing with a complex mix of interests in the Middle East is itself a challenge to the neutrality that China has maintained in the Middle East, and it will have to spend a considerable amount of political capital. Moreover, in light of China's diplomatic priorities, opinions within China are divided on whether China should exercise leadership in the Middle East which would entail investing its political resources that should be devoted to core interests related to China's national integration and territorial issues.

At the very least, it is certain that China will continue to increase its economic presence in the Middle East, but it will not be easy to carry out a major power diplomacy that will shape the regional order in the Middle East.

(This is a revised paper that was originally written in Japanese as of June 16, 2021.)

1 Masaaki Yatsuzuka, "China's Military Engagement in the Middle East", Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 2019, Vol.III, pp.20-33 (in Japanese).

2 Liu Shengxing & Gao Han, "Analysis of China's Major Power Diplomacy in the Middle East in the Context of Drastic Changes in the Middle East, West Asia and Africa", March 2020, Vol. 5 (in Chinese).

3 Sun Degang, "Analysis of China's Soft Military Presence in the Middle East in the New Era", World Economics and Politics, 2014, Vol.8, pp.4-29 (in Chinese).