This essay is part of the series “All About China,” which aims to shed light on the lasting imprint of China’s past encounters with the Islamic world and increasingly vibrant and complex dynamics of contemporary Sino-Middle Eastern relations. Read more ...
A little more than four years have passed since President Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Within the framework of the BRI, the Middle East and the entire Mediterranean region — the geopolitical construct composed of South Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East — have become central to China's foreign policy. Some have even stated that it is the Middle East and Africa's natural resources, rather than the rich European markets at the end of the new Silk Road that are the real targets of the BRI.
While such an argument is disputable, there is no doubt that the Middle East has indeed received significant attention from the Chinese government in the form of the first White Paper dedicated to the region (2016) and the dispatch of special envoys to put forward the “China solution” (中国方案 zhongguo fangan) to regional crises. At the same time, China has become an important trade partner for many of the countries in the region, mainly as a supplier of goods. Depending on the country taken into consideration, China also absorbs between 11 and 89 percent of the crude oil and natural gas exported from the Gulf (see Figure 1). More generally, the region as a whole has slowly increased its exports to the Chinese market in exchange for a strong flow of capital for the construction of industrial parks, pipelines, harbors, and highways (see Figure 2 and Figure 3).
Figure 1. Dependence on Chinese Market for Export of Crude Oil & Natural Gas
Source: ITC Trade Map. Elaborated by the author.
Figure 2. Average Dependence of MENA Countries on China as Export Market
Source: ITC Trade Map. Elaborated by the author
Figure 3. Chinese Investments in the Middle East
Source: PRC MOFCOM Statistical Bulletin of China's Outward Foreign Direct Investment (various years).
This essay looks back at 2017, an eventful year, to see how China’s engagement with the Middle East has evolved. In particular, the essay draws upon the work done by the ChinaMed research team on the media and academic articles published over the year by Chinese and Middle Eastern commentators and experts.
China Looks at the Middle East: Systemic Opportunities and Regional Challenges
In general, Chinese attitudes towards the region vary, depending on the level of analysis used; while events in the Middle East confirm that the end of the US global hegemony is happening, they are also seen negatively when Chinese analysts relate them to China's own regional interests.
Such mixed attitudes are well described by Liu Shengxiang and Hu Xiaofen in an article appearing in Global Review, a journal published by the Shanghai Institute for International Studies (SIIS). There, the authors looked at the Middle East in the context of the current rising power-hegemon relationship between China and the United States. As China’s rise in Asia and Russia's pushback in Eastern Europe exert pressure on American hegemony, the continuing chaos in the Middle East is inflicting deep wounds on the US both in terms of material resources spent and influence, thereby accelerating the power transition that Liu and Hu, along with many Chinese IR specialists, see on the horizon.
Nonetheless, China’s interests in the region are significant, and regional dynamics pose a severe threat to them. Islamic terrorism and its long reach affect China’s western regions in particular. On the contrary, while Russia is helping China by weakening the US at the systemic level, Liu and Hu's analysis confirms the negative assessment of Moscow’s actions in the region in previous years. Moscow’s actions are contributing to the chaos and, despite what many external observers sustain, marginalize China, which is already much less capable of defending its regional interests. Hence, they argue, China cannot stand and watch. Paradoxically, they even call for a stronger contribution to the common fight against terrorism, regardless of the fact that it might also mean supporting the US effort. Similarly, but from a purely regional level of analysis, Niu Xinchun, the Director of Research on the Middle East for the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations, wrote that the ineluctable return of many countries of the region to an age of fragmentation, both in terms of domestic institutions and regional cohesion, forces China to look at the Middle East with special attention despite not being related to any of its core interests. This means that as other Chinese commentators are well aware of, even Iran, Turkey, and Egypt are unlikely to be reliable partners, because their domestic problems are still overly influential shapers of their foreign policy.
The hesitation to provide an answer to the many difficult questions (to intervene or not? to have allies or not? to use only economic tools or the military ones too?) reverberates beyond the media and academic debate. As sharply pointed out by Li Weijian, a scholar at the SIIS who is widely published in Chinese academic and media outlets, there is a growing gap between China’s narrative in the region and its actions that is frustrating its attempt to be seen by regional actors as a credible alternative to the United States and Russia. Chinese diplomats, both when they travel to the region and when they welcome their Middle Eastern counterparts and government officials, usually prefer talking about the positive elements of the relationship between China and those countries and the potential development that China’s BRI could bring them. Security issues, which according to Liu are those that matter the most to regional leaders, are rarely addressed directly by Chinese diplomats, scholars or journalists. The reporting by Chinese media on Israel is a case point. From the Palestinian issue to Syria and Iran, Israel is at the center of all the regional hotspots. One could say that Israel is rarely among the supporters of China’s preferred solution. Yet Niu Xinchun found that the official discourse in China on Israel tends to emphasize trade and technological exchange at the bilateral level with little interest in touching upon thornier issues. While in the Israeli case this approach might be useful in creating a favorable context for bilateral cooperation, Li maintains that the low participation of the Arab heads of states in the BRI forum in Beijing is symptomatic of the low attractiveness of China’s regional strategy as it is framed now.
The Middle East Looks Back: Regional Fractures in the Chinese Mirror
While in China, there is a growing community of experts of Middle Eastern affairs concentrated in a few key educational and research institutions, the Middle Eastern debate on China is, with a small number of exceptions, led by journalists. This fact is reflected in the non-existence of a proper regional debate, but many, fragmented ones focused on the specific relations between China and individual Middle Eastern countries. Regional commentators are aware that the lack of a regional debate is a problem both for the region and China. Reportedly, the long-debated China-GCC free trade agreement is a victim of such different approaches.
The analysis of Middle Eastern media largely confirms Liu Weijian’s thesis that China is still largely seen as a source of capital or aid that every country compete for against the neighbors, rather than a player in regional politics. The conviction that China is ready to invest billion in the Syrian reconstruction, for example, is deeply engrained in the Middle Eastern debate. The fact that Syria is not an energy-rich country like Iraq, which received and continues to receive significant Chinese investments, or that, as outlined above, China is well aware of the risks of terrorism and of being involved in regional politics seems, tellingly, to be ignored.
In general, while a limited number of academic, mostly policy-oriented, publications exist, the Middle Eastern debate on China is largely conducted in the media through two kinds of articles. The first type, constituting the majority, are simple reports of meetings between government officials and of the status of projects launched in cooperation with China. These reports usually have a very positive tone and not much, if any, depth of analysis. The second type, the minority, are a little more elaborated analyses that provide some context to how a particular event involving a Middle Eastern country and China affects third-party relationships. China’s image in the region therefore seems to be largely shaped by how Middle Eastern countries see themselves or each other, rather than by China’s own diplomatic action.
In the Arab world, it is possible to see this clearly in how Algeria and Moroccan media and officials talk about the competition between the two countries for Chinese capital. Similarly, China is drawn into the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia with Iranian officials, from the Ambassador in Beijing to the Deputy Minister of Economic Affairs and Finance Mohammed Khazaee accusing Saudi Arabia of refusing China’s mediation in their complex relationship or, more subtly, stating that the relationship between Iran and China must be protected from interference by other countries.
Turkey and Israel countries often look at China’s role a little beyond the pure economic cooperation, albeit with different perspectives. Turkish media from time to time publish analyses where they connect China’s BRI and Turkey’s own eastward ambitions. China is therefore a potential strategic partner. In contrast, Israeli media have a more ambivalent attitude towards China’s role in the region and the evolution of the Sino-Israeli relations. Although, as emphasized by Yoram Evron, Chinese diplomatic initiatives in the region are more rhetoric than substance, Israeli commentators were quick to dismiss China's attempt to present itself as an honest broker. While Arab (and Iranian) media virtually make no question about the meaning of strengthening the diplomatic relationship with China-although some of them, like Egypt or Turkey, are very close to the USA-Israeli media are more inquisitive in that regard.
The brief analysis of journalistic and academic publications presented above shows a clear mismatch between how China and the Middle East look at each other. While the Chinese debate on the Middle East has both a short-term (journalistic reports on single projects or government meetings) and a long-term (articles written by a community of experts) perspective, the Middle Eastern one seems focused heavily on the short term. Both Chinese and regional analysts are aware of the potential risks caused by such differences in perspective. Given China’s increasingly important role as an investor and trade partner, such risks are likely to grow larger.
As China’s presence the Middle East expands, every Chinese decision about where to invest or with whom to trade is going to be increasingly politicized. Apparently, this is something that both China, as an aspiring heavy-weight in regional politics, and Middle Eastern countries, which are looking for alternatives to the United States and Russia, should welcome. However, while the region does not show much interest in China’s diplomatic initiatives, China is increasingly capable of influencing the course of events there in ways that might be unpredictable, unwanted by either side and without significant military presence.
Figure 4. China's Dependence on Middle Eastern Oil & Natural Gas Imports
Source: ITC Trade Map. Elaborated by the author.
For example, while Figure 1 shows that the big energy producers of the region are increasingly reliant on China, Figure 4 demonstrates that China’s dependency on the region, though significant, is slowly decreasing. This is a trend that gives China significant leverage to impose its preference in oil contracts and improve its own energy security. It also means that China has the capability to greatly determine the economic future of countries currently engaged in all the regional hotspots, a costly endeavor that cannot be sustained without matching capital inflows. Thus far, China has bought oil and gas from both Sunni and Shia countries without showing evident preferences. However, were China to do otherwise, its actions might bring produce deep changes in the region in ways not different from those of a military intervention in favor of one of competing parties.
In sum, China is increasingly aware of the problems associated with investing in a dangerous region and of the difficulties related to communicating with countries that mostly speak the language of hard military power, either their own or that of their American or Russian partners. At the same time, the lack of a real long-term debate on China in Middle Eastern countries is symptomatic of their unpreparedness to deal with a partner that does not need and (for the moment) does want to be militarily present in a significant way, but that can already, and increasingly will be able to exert direct influence on their fortunes. How long will such a divergence be sustainable?
 Wang Jian 王建, “Wang jian: guanyu ‘yi dai yi lu’ changyi de mubiao dingwei wenti” 王建：关于“一带一路”倡议的目标定位问题 [Wang Jian: On the problem of setting the target for the “One Belt One Road” Initiative], Aisixiang, July 24, 2017, accessed January 27, 2018, http://www.aisixiang.com/data/105220.html.
 Liu Shengxiang刘胜湘 and Hu Xiaofen 胡小芬, “guoji geju de liangji taishi yu zhongguo zhongdong zhanlve de xuanze” 国际格局的两极态势与中国中东战略的选择 [Bipolarity in the international system and China’s Middle East policy], Global Review 5 (2017): 104-125.
 Daniel C. Lynch, China’s Futures, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015) 155-198.
 For example, see Lin Xiumin 林秀敏, “‘qizi’ xuliya: you yi xiang lanei gongcheng?” 弃子"叙利亚:又一项烂尾工程? [“Abandoned” Syria: another unfinished project?], People’s Daily, March 18, 2016, accessed March 3, 2018, http://intl.ce.cn/qqss/201603/18/t20160318_9594041.shtml.
 NiuXinchun, “‘Yi dai yi lu’ xia de zhongguo zhongdong zhanlve” 一带一路"下的中国中东战略 [China’s Middle East strategy within the “One Belt One Road” framework], Foreign Affairs Review 4 (2017): 1-25.
 For example, see Chen Jing 陈婧, “zhuanjia: baokong ‘changtaihua’ tuerqi jianzhu ‘zhongdonghua’” 专家:暴恐"常态化" 土耳其逐渐"中东化" [Expert: terrorism is “normalizing” and Turkey is gradually “becoming a Middle Eastern country”], China Youth Daily, January 4, 2017, accessed March 3, 2018, http://mil.youth.cn/djbd/201701/t20170104_9010320.htm; and Shen Yi沈逸, “shen yi: yilang saoluan, shejiao meiti gai bei duoda de ‘guo’” 沈逸: 伊朗骚乱,社交媒体该背多大的'锅' [Shen Yi: Chaos in Iran, how much should social media be blamed?], Global Times, January 5, 2018, accessed March 3, 2018, http://opinion.huanqiu.com/hqpl/2018-01/11498911.html.
 Li Weijian 李伟建, “zhongguo zai zhongdong: huayu yu shixian” 中国在中东:话语与现实 [China in the Middle East: Narrative and Practice], West Asia and Africa 5 (2017): 3-19.
 Niu Xinchun 牛新春, “yiselie zai zhongmei meiti zhong de xingxiang: chayi yu genyuan” 以色列在中美媒体中的形象: 差异与根源 [Israel in Chinese and American media: difference and causes], Contemporary International Relations 9 (2017): 27-35.
 The BESA Center in Israel, the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, and the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies’ Asian Studies Unit in Saudi Arabia are among the few institutions that are trying to, or have established a China/Asia-specific research agenda through publications and conferences.
 Shafiq Choucair شفيق شقير, “Tariq alharir aljadeed fi siaq alalaqat alarabiya alsiniya” طريق الحرير الجديد في سياق العلاقات العربية الصينية [The new Silk Road in the context of Arab-China relations], Aljazeera Center for Studies, May 11, 2017, accessed March 3, 2018, http://studies.aljazeera.net/ar/reports/2017/05/170511090237591.html.
 Ahmad Ali احمد علي, “Mofavidat altijara alhora bin alsin va doval majlis altaavon” الصين تدعو إلى تسريع مفاوضات التجارة الحرة مع مجلس التعاون الخليجي [Free trade negotiation between China and the GCC], Al-Hayat, May 17, 2017, accessed March 4, 2018, http://www.alhayat.com/Articles/21905738/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B5%D9%8A%D9%86-... (visited 4 March 2018).
 For example: Ali Shahab علی شهاب, Tawadon qowa sini ameriki fi souriya, توازن قوّة صيني أميركي في سوريا! [U.S.-China balance of Power in Syria], Al Mayadeen, 29 November 2017, http://www.almayadeen.net/news/politics/840585/%D8%AA%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B2%... (visited on 4 March 2018).
 For example, see Thamer Badawi تامر بدوی, “altaqarob aliqtisadi alimarati almisri yatawasa aktar men ay vaqt mada” باحثون اقتصاديون: التقارب الاقتصادي الإماراتي الصيني يتوسع أكثر من أي وقت [Economist: The Chinese-UAE economic relations continue expanding], Emirates Center for Studies and Communication, February 28, 2017, accessed March 6, 2018, http://www.emasc-uae.com/news/view/7949.
 For example, see Sébastien Le Belzic, Le Maroc et les nouvelles routes de la soie : la troisième voie [Morocco and the new Silk Roads: the third way], Le Monde Afrique, December 4, 2017, accessed March 2, 2018, http://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2017/12/04/le-maroc-et-les-nouvelles-routes-de-la-soie-la-troisieme-voie_5224379_3212.html#oTd9hGlAbKf4R4KP.99.
 For example, see “Esteghbale iran az mianjigarie chin” استقبال ایران از میانجیگری چین [Iran welcomes China’s mediation], IRdiplomacy, March 10, 2017, accessed March 2, 2018, http://www.irdiplomacy.ir/fa/page/1967752/%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AA%D9%82%D8%A8... (visited on 2 March 2018).
 For example, see Kerem Alkin, “Çin’den bölgemiz ‘karisik’ gözüküyor [From China’s perspective, our region looks “complicated”], Sabah, March 27, 2017, accessed March 3, 2018. http://www.sabah.com.tr/yazarlar/kerem-alkin/2017/03/27/cinden-bolgemiz-....
 Yoram Evron, “China’s diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East: The quest for a great-power role in the region,” International Relations 31, 2 (2017): 1-20.
 Roie Yellinek רועיילינק, “ma bemet kore beyachasey sin veharasut hapalestinit” מהבאמתקורהביחסיסיןוהרשותהפלסטינית [What is really happening to the China-Palestinians relations?], Mida, January 6, 2018, accessed March 1, 2018, https://mida.org.il/2018/01/06/מה-באמת-קורה-ביחסי-סין-והרשפ/.
 Nitzan Horowitz ניצןהורוביץ, “sin mezaneket kadima oval yin tachlif leyropa” סיןמזנקתקדימהאבלאיןתחליףלאירופה [China is leaping forward, but there is no substitute for Europe], Haaretz, January 21, 2018, accessed March 1, 2018, https://www.haaretz.co.il/opinions/.premium-1.5747814.