China’s new security role in the Middle East under President Xi Jinping

With Chinese President Xi Jinping assuming power in 2012, increased Chinese political activity was observed in the Middle East, as high-level Chinese delegations began to flock to the countries of the region, including the president himself, who toured (Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran). In general, Sino-Arab cooperation focuses on increasing Chinese cooperation and coordination with the three concerned Arab organizations in the region, namely: the Gulf Cooperation Council, the League of Arab States, and the Arab Maghreb Union. There are indications of the readiness of the countries of the region, especially the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia, to explore alternative future security arrangements represented in a “collective security structure” that brings together all the main regional players in the region with international players and superpowers from outside the region, led by China and Russia.

  The deteriorating security situation in the Middle East and the collapse of some of its countries such as (Libya – Syria – Iraq – Yemen) was a serious challenge to China and its regional policies, and a direct threat to Chinese investments and the flow of imports of oil and raw materials from the region and exports from the Chinese market to it, and to the safety of Chinese citizens working in  countries of the region.  Hence, China is looking for the best ways to secure its interests and projects within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative in the Middle East region.  This is what a report issued by the US Congress warned about, on Chinese military power, especially in the Middle East, that Beijing might use the ports of Iran, the Persian Gulf and the entire Middle East, to establish military bases for China in all countries of the region.  This same may be consistent with the Chinese military doctrine issued in 2019, which adopts a broad Chinese vision of national security that includes broad Chinese military involvement in cases of threatening China’s territorial integrity and to preserve Chinese interests overseas. Therefore, China should participate more in regional and international security cooperation to protect the rights and interests of the Chinese people.          

We note that the deepening of China’s relations with the countries of the Middle East, especially the Arab world and the Arabian Gulf, which is referred to in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs as (the West Asia and North Africa region), outside the scope of trade, is of concern to the United States of America, especially since the administration of US President “Joe Biden”. Recently, steps have been taken to reduce interest in the region, thus opening the door to Chinese hegemony from the American point of view. Since US President Joe Biden’s administration came to the White House, talk has increased about China’s role and the importance of limiting it, and it began to hesitate in many statements within the corridors of the White House and among American politicians, which represents a continuation of the policy of the previous US administration that opened an explicit front for the economic war with Beijing, which some considered as a bone-breaking battle between the two superpowers in the world.  In the same context, the work of building Chinese soft power has intensified under Chinese President “Xi Jinping”, especially after the Twentieth National Congress of the ruling Communist Party in Beijing on October 16, 2022, through his explicit declaration that “we must increase China’s soft power simultaneously with the introduction of a number of Chinese development projects around the world and in the Middle East region after the Chinese announcement of the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013”, the most prominent of which are:     

(The Chinese dream, the belt and the dream of Asia and the Pacific, the economic belt of the Silk Road, the navigation of the Silk Road for the twenty-first century, and a new type of relations with major countries), and others

 In light of this intense competition, each of the two forces is pressing to impose its influence on several fronts to obtain the largest number of points. This is evident in the Middle East region in particular, especially after the success of Chinese mediation efforts in achieving Saudi-Iranian rapprochement and reconciliation. This became evident in the context of China’s endeavor to expand its influence in the region, not only economically but also militarily, diplomatically and politically, strongly challenging the long-term role of the United States of America as a dominant power in the region for a long time. Especially with the agreement and participation of all countries in the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf region with China on its views on the importance of preserving the sovereignty of states and respecting the principle of non-interference in the affairs of other countries, especially with regard to the human rights file.            

 And after China’s sponsorship of the Saudi-Iranian agreement, coinciding with the signing of the “Saudi Aramco Company” agreement with Beijing to build a refinery and a Saudi petrochemical complex in China, an increase in China’s political and diplomatic involvement as well as its security in the Middle East region is expected. Some important indicators have emerged for this, just two weeks after Saudi Arabia and Iran decided to resume relations between them with Chinese mediation, the resumption of consular relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Syria was also announced with Russian mediation, and this is considered a blatant Saudi challenge to the United States of America for its strong opposition to any moves by the countries of the region to normalize relations with the regime of Syrian President “Bashar Al-Assad”. Therefore, immediate statements came out from the spokesperson of the US State Department, stressing that:        

“The position of the United States of America regarding normalization with the Syrian regime has not and will not change, and it will not encourage other countries to normalize relations with Assad”

 China is keen to participate actively in anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, and Egypt. It also conducted rescue operations for its citizens in Libya in 2011 and Yemen in 2015, after the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions. It had an effective role in persuading Tehran to sign the Iranian nuclear agreement in 2015, before unilaterally revoking it by the administration of former US President Donald Trump.  China is trying to be present effectively in the Middle East region by appointing special envoys to Middle Eastern countries on disputed issues.  In addition to the establishment of China’s first military base abroad in Djibouti in 2017, as well as the potential militarization of the “Pakistani Gwadar” port.  China was also keen to conduct joint naval exercises with Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia.       

 Here comes the Saudi-Iranian reconciliation step, mediated by China, as the largest security and political involvement of Beijing in the Middle East region, in a Chinese attempt to calm down after a series of tensions in the maritime straits region between Iran and the countries of the Arab Gulf and Saudi Arabia in the Strait of Hormuz, Gulf of Aden and Bab Al-Mandab, which increased tension between Iran and its geopolitical opponents in the region. Therefore, the Chinese intervention was successful in stopping these tensions in the region. There is now a larger discussion in Beijing about China’s necessity to face a greater security role to protect its interests in the region and to expand the circle of its allies, friends and regional partners to confront the US influence on it and disperse it on several international fronts. A growing number of Chinese experts argue that the country should shed its image as a free rider in the region and increase its military presence. Here, it becomes clear to us, with evidence, that the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative not only promotes global trade, but also creates an economic system outside Washington’s control, which will generate, at some stage, a challenge to American hegemony in the Middle East region.  

Through the previous presentation and analysis, we  understand the reasons for this growing American concern about the increase of Chinese and Russian influence, for fear of displacing American influence from the region after its decline.  For this, Washington is trying to prevent the drawing up of a new world order with Chinese soft power, by stopping this Chinese expansion into the depth of Middle East issues, especially in the Arab Gulf states. As well as the fear of the growing volume of Chinese investments in sensitive infrastructure in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East, such as ports. Hence the questions revolve around: What can Washington do about it? What led to the decline of the American role in the Middle East? Then finally, can the Gulf countries dispense with America and replace it with China

Dr.Nadia Helmy
Dr.Nadia Helmy
Associate Professor of Political Science, Faculty of Politics and Economics / Beni Suef University- Egypt. An Expert in Chinese Politics, Sino-Israeli relationships, and Asian affairs- Visiting Senior Researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES)/ Lund University, Sweden- Director of the South and East Asia Studies Unit