CHINA’S LEADERS are trying to reinvent how great powers operate in the Middle East. They have busied themselves in recent years signing trade deals and co-operation agreements with regional powers that are, most of the time, rivals or foes of each other. China talks of its warm ties with Israel and Palestine, and has invited both to send envoys to Beijing for peace talks. In the Middle East, a region where trust is hard to find, China is hailed as a reliable supplier of covid-19 vaccines and surveillance technology to Arabs and non-Arabs alike. The world’s largest oil importer, China is an irreplaceable trade partner both for Iran, the would-be leader of the Shia world, and for Saudi Arabia, its Sunni nemesis. More than once, Chinese warships have conducted separate exercises with the Iranian and Saudi navies, a few weeks apart.
Chinese leaders sound sure that their country’s distinctive approach to geopolitics—one that stresses interests over values, and assumes that most foreigners can be bought for a price—will help them avoid the quagmires into which other outsiders in the Middle East have so often stumbled, from America to the colonial powers of old Europe. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, while visiting six Middle Eastern countries in late March, deplored “the bad consequences inflicted on the region by external interference”. In Iran Mr Wang signed a 25-year co-operation agreement. Its details remain murky, but the deal is thought to involve the exchange of cheap Iranian oil for help building telecommunications networks, hospitals, underground railways and, it is rumoured, ports on some of the world’s most strategic waterways.
Chinese leaders make a virtue of their commercial focus. Addressing the Arab League in 2016, President Xi Jinping said that China sought no spheres of influence or geopolitical proxies in the region. Instead, he described a vision of progress built around economic growth, declaring that: “Turmoil in the Middle East stems from the lack of development.” Even the hardest problems, such as Iran’s loathing for America and Israel, are presented as puzzles that prosperity may solve. Notably, China insists that its promised investments in Iran will help rather than hinder efforts to prod the Iranian regime back into compliance with the nuclear accord (known as the JCPOA) that was brokered by the Obama administration and other powers in 2015. It was abandoned three years later by America’s then-president, Donald Trump, who scorned the Obama-era approach of rewarding Iran for suspending nuclear-weapons research, and put his faith in harsh economic sanctions.
Yin Gang is a veteran scholar of the Middle East at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think-tank. He sets out why the administration of President Joe Biden should believe that China opposes Iran’s nuclear ambitions, even as it seeks to expand Sino-Iranian trade. China has selfish reasons for fearing an Iranian bomb, starting with the dangers of a regional arms race, says Mr Yin, a candid sort. “If there’s a Persian bomb, there must be an Arab bomb and a Turkish bomb,” he says. Though that may not directly threaten China, “If a nuclear war breaks out in the region, how would China do business with it?”
China’s belief is that even the harshest economic sanctions do not stop countries from developing nuclear warheads, Mr Yin declares over tea in Beijing. He cites North Korea as a prime example. China’s logic is that Iran will have more reasons to behave if America lifts sanctions and allows Chinese, European and other companies to resume legal trade with Iranian partners. That is why China calls on America to do so, and on Iran to resume compliance with the JCPOA’s nuclear curbs. The unblushing self-interest behind those Chinese arguments is actually reason to think them sincere. And the Biden administration appears inclined to heed them, for now. After a high-level meeting in March in Alaska between American and Chinese diplomatic chiefs, Iran’s nuclear programme appeared on a shortlist of areas for potential co-operation. Asked about Chinese plans to expand trade with Iran, a State Department spokesman called opposition to Iranian nukes one of a few “narrow areas of tactical alignment” between his country and China.
Foreign diplomats in Beijing note that China does, in fact, pursue political goals in the Middle East, such as by pressing Iran and Arab nations to endorse repression of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, a region of western China. Mr Yin offers a cynical riposte. Uyghurs are a Turkic people, and Arabs and Iranians distrust Turks, he says, so “Xinjiang is not a political issue for them.” Still, he admits, many Chinese scholars worry about the balancing act that their country is trying to pull off. The Middle East is a place of opportunity but also “a trap, a swamp”, he says.
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Some Chinese experts talk of America leaving a vacuum in the Middle East. Danny Russel, America’s assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in 2013-17, agrees that China senses a demand for a Chinese presence in the Middle East, amid talk of American unreliability. Chinese companies have been told to go out and sell advanced technologies that will carry their country’s values and technical standards around the world, notably via the Belt and Road Initiative. But ambitious deals come with political risks. “The larger your footprint, the more valuable your investments, the more vulnerable you are,” suggests Mr Russel, who is now at the Asia Society Policy Institute, a research outfit.
Even as America pulls back from the Middle East, its presence hovers over Chinese calculations there. China’s most lucrative trade partners are Gulf Arab countries that cannot simply ignore America, their traditional security provider. America may yet ask old allies to take sides, for instance if China wants to build ports in the Middle East with dual commercial and military uses, or co-operate there over sensitive technologies. Amoral commercialism has helped China avoid many pitfalls in the region. Even so, its ambitions may yet run into the sands. ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “The Middle East quagmire”