China’s Middle East Tightrope

Beijing is walking a fine line between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But, in this region, even a big checkbook can't buy friends in both places.

Chinese President Xi Jinping looks on before meeting with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz after a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 13, 2014. Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz will pay an official visit to China from March 13 to 16. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Lintao Zhang (Photo credit should read LINTAO ZHANG/AFP/Getty Images)

To understand China’s role in the Middle East, consider one recent event, and one recent non-event. In late March, Beijing made headlines by sending warships to rescue hundreds of Chinese and foreign nationals from conflict-torn Yemen. Yet in early April, Chinese President Xi Jinping canceled what was supposed to be his first official trip to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, reportedly as a result of the fighting in Yemen — underscoring that Beijing would rather get out of the kitchen than stand the heat of Middle Eastern politics. Indeed, it is China’s considerable absence, rather than burgeoning influence, that continues to define its role in this turbulent region.

China has good reasons to care about events in the Middle East: Roughly half of its oil imports come from the Persian Gulf. Moreover, Beijing worries about extremist elements in the region providing training and inspiration to Muslim separatists in western China.

However, in stark contrast to Xi’s ambitious domestic agenda — reforming key sectors of the economy, including banking and agriculture; easing restrictions on China’s outmoded household registration system; and relaxing its infamous one-child policy — he has done little in foreign policy that would merit a memoir like Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices. In fact, despite Xi’s call for a more “proactive” Chinese foreign policy, Beijing has still only contributed to the safe and soft domains of international politics, such as economic development, anti-piracy, global public health, and U.N. peacekeeping. China doesn’t expend significant blood or treasure abroad combating violent extremism, settling bloody civil wars, or mediating major regional conflicts. Beijing has instead remained allergic to confronting tough political and security issues overseas, acutely limiting its geopolitical influence. As a result, China’s persistent appeals for “win-win” cooperation, which may make sense in economic affairs and other dispassionate realms, hold little water where political battles are zero-sum and fought over indivisible and deeply contested stakes.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East, where China’s influence on regional issues is surprisingly marginal, even as its growing energy dependency is compelling deeper partnerships with the likes of Saudi Arabia.

Unwilling to put teeth behind its positions, China has made tentative forays into the Middle East morass that have largely fallen flat. In October 2012, China’s then foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, rolled out a “Four-Point Plan” for Syria that called on all sides to stop fighting, end the crisis, and initiate a political transition. The Associated Press noted that the plan generated little international interest: Most observers found it “vague, and likely aimed at bolstering China’s reputation following criticism of its moves to join Russia in blocking U.N. resolutions aimed at ending Syria’s bloodshed.” Needless to say, this was a failure.

The problem is that Beijing does not want to choose sides in a region that regularly demands it. By contrast, Washington has made considerable commitments in the region: The United States remains the de facto guarantor of external security for Saudi Arabia and the rest of the states in the Gulf Cooperation Council. The dominant American naval presence safeguards the free flow of oil resources out of the Middle East, underwriting the economic prosperity of many of the region’s actors, and Washington remains deeply engaged in the thankless task of trying to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians. And yet, despite America’s significant investment, its partners in the Middle East have criticized the Obama administration for refusing to take even more decisive actions across a range of regional conflicts. The region is very demanding of a superpower: If China wants to play at that level, it’s going to have to take sides.

It is hard to see how a deeply risk-averse China could step into a leadership role in any of the region’s fiery disputes. Beijing’s most difficult balancing act will be trying to maintain good relations with both Riyadh and Tehran amid escalating regional and sectarian competition. Saudi Arabia’s greatest concern about the Iranian nuclear agreement, which may be completed by the end of June, is that the removal of banking and oil sanctions will give Tehran the resources to wreak even more havoc through its proxies in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. The majority of new money pouring into Iran would come from China — Iran’s largest trading partner. Indeed, only days after the Iranian nuclear agreement was reached in early April, Iran’s oil minister, Bijan Zanganeh, was on his way to Beijing. Can China really supplant the United States as the guarantor of the Gulf states’ security when it is bankrolling their most significant threat?

When it comes to another critically important arena in Middle East diplomacy — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the Chinese are similarly absent. The other four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council play important roles in the peace process. While the United States is the primary mediator, key European states including France and Britain have led the charge in the European Union to offer both significant economic incentives and disincentives to both sides, while the Russians regularly advocate for the Palestinians. China is the only member of the Security Council failing to step up to the plate.

Meanwhile, in Syria and Iraq — where state failure, civil war, and the rise of the Islamic State (IS) have combined to create the region’s most severe crisis — few good options remain. The Arab states have concluded that the most meaningful way for foreign powers to contribute in Syria and Iraq is through a military intervention that targets IS and overthrows President Bashar al-Assad. They argue that only an intervention including a combination of airstrikes, training and arming of opposition forces, and potentially even more direct military options, could at this point save Syria. But China won’t go there either. Instead, Beijing has sided with Moscow at the Security Council, blocking resolutions that would have increased pressure on Assad. At the same time, hedging its bets, China has repeatedly hosted Syrian opposition groups in Beijing, and in March 2012 it sent a special envoy to meet them in Damascus.

Notably, China has embarked on more proactive diplomacy in the region. This includes increased high-level visits, including the first by a Chinese foreign minister to Iraq in 23 years, in February 2014; enhanced engagement with regional organizations like the Arab League; and the successful recruitment of nine countries in the Middle East, including Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, to sign up as founding members of the new China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. But this doesn’t overcome the fundamental issue that it is nearly impossible to please all sides and still be a major player in the Middle East.

Of course, few would disagree with President Barack Obama’s characterization that the Chinese “have been free riders for the past 30 years and it’s worked really well for them” in the Middle East. In that sense, Beijing may be prudent not to get involved in the region’s seemingly intractable conflicts. Nevertheless, China cannot continue pursuing a risk-averse foreign policy and simultaneously emerge as a leader in the rough-and-tumble arena of Middle East politics. For Xi, it will be an either-or decision.


Ilan Goldenberg is the director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Previously, he served as chief of staff to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, supporting Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative to conduct peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Twitter: @ilangoldenberg

Ely Ratner is the Maurice R. Greenberg senior fellow in China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2015 to 2017 and previously served in the Office of Chinese and Mongolian Affairs at the State Department and as a professional staff member on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His current work focuses on U.S.-China relations, regional security in East Asia, and U.S. national security policy in Asia. Twitter: @elyratner

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