At the current and somewhat critical juncture, the ongoing crises in the weakened states of Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Yemen and Syria, the unsettled nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the expansion of a host of new non-state actors that threaten both regional and international stability, the Middle East and North Africa continue to draw the attention of the world community. With the disintegration of the region’s traditionally strong states of Iraq and Syria, the constriction of Iran, and the loss of Egypt’s capacity to assert any real influence or project power, there appears to be little capacity within the Middle East and North Africa to address regional conflagrations. As many scholars have suggested, the MENA region historically has been one of the most penetrated parts of the world, where extra-regional powers have long been involved in regional affairs. While the current power vacuum in the Middle East has to some extent provided an opening for the more economically and politically stable states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and allowed Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates to adopt a more proactive role in regional affairs, none of these countries have the capacity to take on the role of regional security provision. At least in parts of Europe and in the United States there continues to be a sense that regional stability can only be secured through the active presence of outside, global powers.
While more than three decades ago the Carter Doctrine cemented the United States’ hegemonic interests in the Persian Gulf, it did not prevent other extra-regional powers from developing and maintaining an active interest in the region. The unique political economy of the hydrocarbon rich states of the Persian Gulf has ensured that the sub-region retains its geo-strategic relevance for numerous global actors. And while the smaller states of the Persian Gulf may have secured for themselves a far more significant place within the region in the current global climate, they are still heavily dependent on external collaborators and allies for the provision of their security needs.
China’s engagements and intentions in the Middle East have increasingly become the focus of a range of academic and policy studies. Much of the existing scholarship has viewed Chinese engagements in the Middle East through the lens of security, with particular attention being paid to the implications of China’s interactions for the United States and its allies. However, China’s evolving relationship in the region ought to be principally viewed as an outcome of its own interests in securing its energy needs and developing export markets, as well as the fact that it has become a significant global power and cannot afford to divorce itself from events in the Arab world.
While China has more recently been attempting to diversify the supply of its energy needs and reduce its dependency on the Gulf states by sourcing oil from Central Asia and Russia, currently more than fifty per cent of China’s oil is imported from the Persian Gulf, with the six GCC states alone providing over a third of Chinese oil imports. Not only is the Gulf considered critical for the oil it delivers to China, but also for the access it provides to other Middle Eastern markets, and the strategic positioning of global transport routes and trade hubs located in Dubai and other Gulf littoral cities. But China’s involvement in the Middle East is certainly not limited to the Gulf and there are major Chinese investments across the region. For example, Chinese construction companies have been actively involved in mega infrastructure developments in many Arab states. Additionally, China also has developed a niche market for itself in the sale of small arms to numerous countries across the Middle East. China’s annual trade with the Middle East is currently close to US $2.5 billion and the volume of this trade is expected to double in the next five years.
Given the magnitude and breadth of its interests in the Middle East, it is hardly surprisingly that China has stepped up its regional engagements over recent years. However, what remains unclear is whether or not China is broadening its involvement in the Middle East and moving beyond the traditional parameters of energy, trade, and investment. Middle Eastern states have long regarded China as a global power in primarily economic terms and have developed their bilateral relations on this basis. China has seldom been considered as a significant security partner or provider, particularly given that Chinese foreign policy in the region has consistently operated along pragmatic lines and within the established status quo of the regional security architecture. China has sought to engage with different Middle Eastern countries without demonstrating any political or ideological biases. Despite substantial international pressure to isolate Iran over the past years, China has maintained a healthy relationship with the Islamic Republic. Simultaneously, China has maintained strong bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey, and done so without getting drawn into the various tensions or conflicts they have with each other. Given the heightened instability across the Middle East some analyses suggest that this neutral, balancing act may not be sustainable for China in the long term. If regional turmoil deepens and spreads, and the United States and its partners are unable to manage regional security arrangements, China may well find itself being dragged reluctantly into considering an expanded political and security role. With some Middle Eastern states increasingly feeling the vulnerability of a detached United States, there may well be an added incentive to augment China’s role in the region.
In the 2014-2015 academic year CIRS has launched a new research initiative on “China and the Middle East.” The purpose of this project is to examine the unfolding relationship between China and the Middle East using a multi-disciplinary lens. The intention of this project is to provide an analytical study of the relationship between China and the countries of the Middle East, not only through the lenses of international security, energy, economics and investments, but also taking into account China’s broader engagements with the region in the social and cultural spheres as well. The focus of this project is on the evolution of contemporary relations between China and the countries of the Persian Gulf, the Levant, and the Maghreb. Scholars from China, the Middle East, the United States, and Europe have been brought together to address original research questions on a number of relevant topics, including but not limited to: the nature of China’s bilateral relationships with different Middle Eastern states; the drivers and implementation of Chinese foreign policy in the Middle East; the role of energy; the impact of emerging of security dynamics; the changes and continuities in China’s role in the international system and in the Middle East; the emergence of China as a soft power in the Middle East; and religious, educational, and cultural connections between China and the Middle East. This project will culminate in an edited volume tentatively titled China and the Middle East, which will be edited by James Reardon-Anderson, Professor and Acting Dean of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
Article by Zahra Babar, Associate Director at CIRS