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[Research Reports] Current Status of China-Middle East Relations: What Xi Jinping's Visit to Saudi Arabia Means

Masaaki Yatsuzuka (Senior Research Fellow, The National Institute for Defense Studies)
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Middle East and Africa Study Group FY2022-3

"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.

Chinese President Xi Jinping paid an official visit to Saudi Arabia from 7 to 10 December 2022 and participated in a series of important summit meetings: a China-Saudi Arabia Summit, a China-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit and an inaugural China-Arab States Summit. This is Xi Jinping's third official visit to the Middle East region as head of state, following visits in 2016 (Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran) and 2018 (UAE). Many observers have commented on Xi's visit to Saudi Arabia, emphasizing China's growing influence in the Middle East in contrast to that of the US, which is reducing its presence in the region.

Indeed, it is true that the China-US confrontation is one of the important background factors to Xi's visit. However, this interpretation alone may misrepresent the overall picture of China's involvement in the Middle East because China's relations with the Middle East have their own dynamics that in some respects interact with developments in the China-US confrontation. With that perspective in mind, this article will examine the significance of Xi Jinping's visit to Saudi Arabia in three contexts: China-Middle East relations, China's major power diplomacy and the impact of China-US strategic competition.

1. China-Middle East relations seeing steady progress

One of the outstanding aspects of Xi's visit is the fact that China has established not only bilateral relations but also multiple multilateral frameworks with the Middle East region. Since the Hu Jintao administration, China has established several dialogue frameworks with countries in the Middle East region and developed exchanges in various fields. The China-Arab States Summit and the China-GCC Summit held during this visit are based on the dialogue frameworks of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum and the China-GCC Strategic Dialogue started in 2004 and 2010, respectively. More than two years had passed since the former (the China-Arab States Summit) had been agreed upon at the 9th Ministerial Conference of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in 2020. The Chinese government also clarified its stance on comprehensive engagement with the Middle East region in its Arab States Policy Statement released in 2016, and has conducted exchanges across a wide range of fields in connection with the Belt and Road Initiative.

Because of such exchanges, cooperation between China and the Middle East countries already covers a broad spectrum. During Xi's visit, China and the Arab League agreed on a joint plan covering eight areas ((1) development support, (2) food security, (3) public health, (4) green innovation, (5) energy security, (6) inter-civilizational dialogue, (7) youth exchange, (8) security and public security. China has also agreed to economic cooperation with the GCC in eight areas: (1) energy, (2) trade, (3) investment, (4) finance, (5) industry, (6) high-tech, (7) space, and (8) public health, indicating that China's influence in the Middle East is already spreading to a wide range of areas. Furthermore, a high-level sectoral joint committee headed by China's Vice Premier was also established with Saudi Arabia in 2016 to promote the development of relations in the broad areas of (1) political diplomacy, (2) the Belt and Road Initiative, (3) key investment items and energy, (4) trade and investment, (5) culture, and (6) science, technology and tourism. The Comprehensive Strategic Agreement signed by the leaders of the two countries this time can be said to be the result of these ongoing talks.

China's motivation for deepening dialogue with Middle Eastern countries so far has mainly been economic. As China depends on the Middle East region for about half of its oil imports, which are essential for economic growth, it has sought to ensure a stable supply of oil by strengthening trade and investment ties linked to the Belt and Road Initiative. There is also an understanding on the Chinese side that increase of its economic presence will not only provide Middle Eastern countries with opportunities for development but also lead to regional stability, which is clearly demonstrated by Xi Jinping's statement to the Arab League in 2016 that "the root of the turmoil in the Middle East is development and the final way out is also development". In recent years, security cooperation using digital technology has also been strengthened, linked to economic cooperation.

On the other hand, China has avoided getting involved in Middle Eastern conflicts by maintaining a certain distance on various issues concerning ethnic, religious, territorial and inter-state conflicts in the region. In the process, China and Middle Eastern countries have formed relationships that could be described as 'moderate mutual support', in which they do not interfere in each other's internal affairs and acknowledge issues of national integration and development relevant to each other's core interests. In the three joint documents published during Xi's visit - the China-Saudi Arabia Joint Statement, the China-GCC Summit Joint Statement and the Joint Declaration of the China-Arab League Summit (Riyadh Declaration) - the two principles of non-interference in internal affairs and mutual respect for core interests are clearly stated and confirmed.

2. China's attempts at major power diplomacy in the Middle East

The official visit to Saudi Arabia was also an opportunity for the Xi Jinping administration to demonstrate its policy of 'major power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics'. It has been the keynote of Chinese diplomacy since Xi Jinping presented the concept at the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs in November 2014. One of the characteristics of this policy is to offer its own initiatives on global issues to enhance its voice as a major power. The Riyadh Declaration clearly states in this regard that the Arab League welcomes various Chinese proposals, including the Xi Jinping government's Global Development Initiative (GDI) and Global Security Initiative (GSI).

The Xi Jinping administration has also shown its posture to strive for resolving 'hotspot issues' in the Middle East region as a practice of major power diplomacy. These are sensitive issues that could affect the Middle Eastern regional order and global security, such as the Palestinian issue, the Iranian nuclear issue and the Afghanistan issue. On these issues, the Chinese government has carefully avoided getting deeply involved in the past, but in recent years it has presented its own proposals and held multilateral consultations inviting government officials and researchers from Middle Eastern countries to discuss regional security issues.

On the other hand, China's foray into sensitive issues in the Middle East under the banner of major power diplomacy runs the risk of undermining the political neutrality that it has maintained so far. The Riyadh Declaration issued this time devotes a lot of space to the Palestinian issue as 'the Palestinian issue is the core problem of the Middle East region' and clearly states that 'the settlements built by Israel in Palestinian and Arab-occupied territories are illegal and that Israel's unilateral actions aimed at changing the status quo in Jerusalem are invalid', which can be seen as criticism of Israel. This represents a clearer stance taken by China, which has attached great importance to its relations with Israel as well. In addition, the China-GCC Joint Statement clearly affirmed that China supports the UAE's stance of pursuing a peaceful settlement of the dispute over the three islands of Greater Tunbs, Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa, which are effectively controlled by Iran. This reference is reported to have caused Iran, which ignores the UAE's claims to the three islands, to feel disappointed in China.

Of course, the inclusion of these references reflect the result of efforts on the part of the Arab states and the GCC states towards China, so as to take the upper hand in their problems in the region. Although China still aims to maintain its neutrality in the Middle East and develop relations in all directions, it has been forced to pay more attention to the claims of Middle Eastern countries in the course of implementing its own major power diplomacy.

3. The global China-US confrontation and China's Middle East diplomacy

The sharpening of the Sino-American conflict is changing the implications of Middle East diplomacy for China. China is becoming increasingly confident in its own development and emphasizes its own development model, which is different from Western-style liberal democracy. In the Riyadh Declaration, the leaders stressed that they respect "the right of the peoples of the world to choose ways to develop democracy and social and political systems that are commensurate with their national conditions with their independent will", and that they refuse to "interfere in the internal affairs of states under the pretext of preserving democracy", criticizing Western intervention in the political systems of developing countries.

In addition to this, the Middle East region has been a good source of votes for China to demonstrate that its position has won broad support in the international community, especially as the US has intensified its criticism on the Uyghur, Hong Kong, Taiwan and maritime issues. For example, 22 of the 31 states that supported China's position regarding the arbitral award by the Permanent International Court of Arbitration in July 2016 were members of the Arab League. This may have been the result of active lobbying by Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Ministerial Conference of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum held shortly before in May of that same year. In addition, in the recent almost annually-repeated presentations of statements defending/criticizing China at the UN Human Rights Committee on the Uyghur human rights issue, of the states signing statements defending China (45 to 69 states), about 10 Middle Eastern states have consistently signed statements supporting China's position.

On the Taiwan issue, the Riyadh Declaration emphasizes "the firm commitment of the Arab countries to the principle of one China, their support for the People's Republic of China's efforts to preserve its sovereignty and territorial integrity, reaffirming that Taiwan is an integral part of Chinese territory, rejecting Taiwan's 'independence' in all its forms". Prior to this, the Arab League's Council of Foreign Ministers had also expressed its support for the "One China Principle" in a September 2022 resolution on China-Arab relations, suggesting that China was making diplomatic overtures to the Arab League following Pelosi's visit.

From China's perspective, gaining the support of Middle Eastern countries for its core interests is not only expected to create more favorable international public opinion in the current global China-US confrontation, but also to keep Middle Eastern countries from joining Western-led economic sanctions and criticism at the UN in the event of an emergency. This may be one of the lessons learned after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. While maintaining a certain distance from Russia, China has actively approached developing countries so as to prevent the moves led by Western countries on economic sanctions against Russia, supply of arms to Ukraine and exclusion of Russia at the UN from becoming the consensus of the international community.

On the other hand, adopting a pro-China stance on issues that have been made more acute by the China-US confrontation means that Middle Eastern countries will be caught up in this conflict and face opposition from the US and the West. In turn, Middle Eastern countries may seek more active involvement and support from China in order to gain an advantage in the conflicts they face within the region. Should this become the case, the 'moderate mutual support' that China and the Middle East countries have maintained in the past may change to a relationship that requires stronger commitment in response to both circumstances in the Middle East and the Sino-American confrontation.

4. Conclusion

As seen above, Xi Jinping's visit to Saudi Arabia demonstrates the achievements of steadily developing China-Middle East regional relations but also suggests some of the risks that they entail. Such risks are the by-products of China's deepening of relations with the Middle East, a region of both development and chaos, as China has become a major power. China has shown its willingness to participate in the sectarian, ethnic, sovereignty and inter-state conflicts of the Middle East region under the banner of major power diplomacy. However, as the countries of the Middle East become more autonomous with the decline of US influence in the region, China increasingly finds it must pay attention to the claims of individual countries in the region. Under these circumstances, there is a risk that China's mishandling of 'hotspot issues' could rather contribute to instability in the Middle East region.

In addition, developments in China-Middle East relations, coupled with the intensification of the Sino-American confrontation, are gaining global significance. China will continue expanding its outreach to developing countries, including those in the Middle East, in order to secure their support on issues such as Taiwan, human rights and maritime interests, bearing in mind the criticisms raised by the West. Of course, the spread of Chinese discourse in the Middle East is not irrelevant to Japan, which has differences of opinion with China on the Taiwan issue and maritime interests. This being the case, it will be necessary to keep a close watch on developments in China-Middle East relations as an issue for Japanese diplomacy.

(The original Japanese version of this paper is dated December 23, 2022.)