Ask any analyst to share his opinion on matters which pertain to the Middle East and you will most likely be asked how much time you have at your disposal, in light of the fact that the regional equation tends to be so complex that a significant investment of time is required to wrap your head around most of the important nuances. Usually, discussions pertaining to the Middle East and its various political issues revolve around all sorts of interests related to either the United States or Russia. In recent years, however, like in many other dimensions (from strictly economic to primarily political ones), China entered the spotlight and it is vital to understand how that came about.
We will begin by noting that as of 1978, China’s interest in the Middle East became more consistent and ties started being formed, even if not exactly impressive ones. From supplying arms to enabling Middle Eastern nations to tap into its significant workforce, it was most definitely a beginning. However, China itself was not ready economically to do much more (being in the very first reform implementation phases) on the one hand and on the other hand, due to the Cold War being in full swing and the United States as well as USSR representing the dominant Middle Eastern forces by far, let’s just say there wasn’t all that much room for a third player.
As the Cold War ended, however, China had established relationships with all Middle Eastern countries by 1992. In the early 90s, not only was there starting to be room for China as a geopolitical force, China itself became not just ready economically but downright thirsty for resources. In light of the fact that China became a net petrochemicals importer as of 1993 and hasn’t looked back since, establishing closer and closer Middle Eastern ties became not just desirable but actually a necessity. Simply put, the exploding economy of China desperately needed the resources this region had to offer and its post-1992 relationship with the Middle East was defined by just that.
However, as of 2008 when it dispatched military vessels so as to provide anti-piracy aid in the Gulf of Aden, China became a more hands-on player. At the declarative level, however, nothing changed. It’s important to acknowledge that even back in 1955, Mao Zedong made it clear that one of the so-called Five Pillars of Peaceful Coexistence that governed China’s geopolitical framework revolved around non-intervention. As of 1978, many things changed but this principle did not, with Deng Xiaoping’s China categorizing itself as a “free rider” or in other words, an entity which is only there to cater to its economic needs rather than be actively involved in the Middle East’s (many) problems.
To put it differently, China has been and still is trying to brand itself as a non-dominant superpower, a country which is growing economically by facilitating win-win situations rather than through the use or even display of force. But as time passed, the gap between the official position of China and what happened in the real world began to widen and the best example to that effect was represented by the beginning of China’s Belt and Road Initiative as of 2013.
With the Middle East being considered a vital variable in the BRI equation to a degree that even led to China giving it the special status of “neighbor” at the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, it became clear that China was interested in dramatically increasing its political influence over the region. Not only that, it was also willing to foot the proverbial bill it takes to ensure this happens, with the expected final price tag of the BRI being in the $4 to $8 trillion zone by 2049 (the year in which the People’s Republic of China would celebrate its 100th anniversary). Furthermore, the BRI may very well be the most eloquent example of China’s willingness to spend its way toward increased geopolitical influence but it is hardly the only one, with other China-dominated projects such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank following suit.
What about the future? To be blunt, as Chinese leaders are currently more than willing to admit themselves, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which China stops being an active player in the Middle East. Whether its interests involve energy-related needs or more complex long-term equations such as the Belt and Road Initiative, there is far too much on the line for China to afford neglecting its ties to the Middle East. Suffice it to say that more likely than not, China’s influence in the Middle East is not just here to stay but rather continue its upward trajectory.