China’s Middle East Balancing Act

This article originally featured at the Conference of Defense Associations Institute, and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here

CDA Institute Security & Defence Blogger Adam MacDonald, an independent scholar on Canadian foreign policy and Asia-​Pacific security, examines China’s role in the Middle East.

Turmoil in the Middle East has motivated most of the world’s major powers to become increasingly involved in stabilizing the region while progressing their own geopolitical agendas. Both the United States, trying to foster local solutions that would allow them to reduce their involvement and refocus energies elsewhere, and a Russia that senses an opportunity for increased influence in a theatre long outside its reach, have a number of strategic and security interests in the region. But it is China which has the most to lose (and gain) from a stable Middle East. Despite the strategic importance of the Middle East, Beijing has been cautious in engaging the region – an approach informed by higher level considerations underpinning their global engagement strategy as a whole.

China’s increasing reliance on Middle Eastern oil imports is becoming the Achilles Heel of Beijing’s energy security interests, owing to the disruption risks associated with ongoing regional volatility and the fact oil shipments travel on lengthy Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs). Despite diversification efforts (including closer energy partnerships with Russia and Central Asia), China receives 51 percent of its imported oil from the Middle East, with estimates projecting this value to increase to 60 percent by 2030. China is currently taking advantage of current low oil prices to build up its National Strategic Reserve, resulting in major shortages in storage capacity. Of course, Beijing also assesses supply disruptions as a realistic concern, and is cautiously beginning to become more diplomatically involved in strengthening relations with major oil suppliers as well as supporting conditions maintaining the general stability of the region writ large.

China’s Middle East engagements have stressed the importance of peaceful resolutions to conflicts and political tensions, fearing that a region-​wide conflict would paralyze desperately needed oil supplies and justify foreign interventions to remove regimes friendly to Beijing. China’s foreign policy privileges incumbent governments (regardless of the ways in which they access, wield, or maintain power) and pledges ‘non-​interference’ in their internal affairs, offering a counter-​balance (along with Russia) to regional players wary of Western calls for democratic development and political pluralism. Western powers have been frustrated by Russian and Chinese vetoing of numerous United Nations Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) to end the Syrian civil war, but these obstructions largely stem from their experiences in supporting UNSCR 1973 in 2011 that imposed a No-​Fly Zone over Libya but quickly morphed into a military régime change campaign.

China and Russia, thus, only agreed to the latest UNSCR pertaining to Syria when explicit assurances were made that the Assad régime could remain in power until elections are scheduled. Within such negotiations China has played a supportive role, allowing Russia (which whom they share many broad strategic and regional interests), to be the face of opposition to the West. Beijing, however, has taken the initiative on some fronts, such as offering to host cease-​fire talks. As it pertains to the Iranian nuclear deal, Beijing has also played a low-​key diplomatic role but emphasized the need to reach a peaceful resolution to reduce the likelihood of conflict between Tehran, a major oil partner, and the West.

China is slowly beginning to augment bilateral diplomatic relations with regional partners, moving beyond collective action as part of their role as a permanent member on the UNSC. President Xi’s recent trip to the Middle East, the first by a Chinese president since 2009, included visits to its three largest trading partners in the region (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran), signing dozens of new economic deals, particularly with Tehran. Sino-​Iranian relations in particular have been strengthened, with Tehran now named a ‘great neighbour’ in Chinese foreign policy – a term denoting a state which shares similar economic, political, and strategic interests with Beijing. China, however, must balance its interests in Iran with those in Saudi Arabia, their largest oil partner, particularly as tensions have been rising dramatically with both powers supporting opposing sides in various regional conflicts. One can also add the cessation of diplomatic relations between the two, when Saudi Arabia’s Iranian embassy was sacked following Riyadh’s execution of a prominent Shia Cleric.

Beijing remains reluctant to fully engage in the region, especially on the military front. Much of this apprehension stems from the United States’ expected reaction of more comprehensive Chinese involvement in an area historically defined by heavy American influence. Despite protests for Beijing to become more of a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in providing public security goods in support of the international system, China believes the deployment of military forces, regardless of their composition or purpose, would create anxiety in Washington, thereby drawing their strategic focus towards them vice their current fixation with Russia and its recent activities in Ukraine and Syria.

Chinese concerns regarding the lack of influence over their SLOCs including oil supply routes from the Middle East has motived the military, particularly the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), to focus towards expeditionary operations under the new mandate of ‘Open Seas Protection’ as opposed to their traditional role of coastal defence. The PLAN will continue to remain mostly active and focused in their immediate environment but have begun operating abroad in new theatres, most recently in the Bering Sea which drew much interest (and concern) in the US media. Beijing, wanting to avoid the strategic gaze of the West, has been surgical in employing them abroad, especially the Middle East. To date, Chinese military deployments have focused on protection of commercial traffic from piracy in the Gulf of Aden; assisting in the evacuation of citizens (and other foreign nationals) from conflict zones such as Yemen; and non-​combat units participating in UN peacekeeping missions. China, therefore, despite their fury following the execution of a Chinese journalist by ISIS, will most likely not deploy military assets in any large measure to the region anytime soon, especially in a combat role.

Beijing has pursued a low-​profile role in the region’s complicated political environment to avoid comprising other aspects of their foreign policy, not least relations with other major powers, most importantly the United States. Chinese leaders have and will avoid calls from some within the region, such as Egypt (which admires and wants to emulate Beijing’s successful development model of economic modernization without political pluralism), for a greater Chinese presence and leadership role to counterbalance the West. China does not necessarily lack the capacity to assume such a role (even if it lacks experience in global leadership) but will continue to play more a supporting role and rely on the other major powers to do the heavy lifting in maintaining regional stability.

Throughout this process, Beijing will continue to position itself in a supportive and non-​threatening role, allowing Russia to assume the mantle of the geopolitical ‘destabilizing other’ displacing American leadership and influence in the region. China will continue to expand its diplomatic engagements throughout the region, specifically on a bilateral level with Iran and Saudi Arabia, but these shall not result in any comprehensive change in Beijing’s current regional strategy. Assisting (but not leading) in regional stability efforts; building strong and reliable economic partnerships; and avoiding the entanglements of great power competition over influence and leadership between Russia and the United States will remain Beijing’s main objectives in the Middle East.

Adam P. MacDonald is an independent academic whose work focuses on Canadian foreign policy in Asia, Chinese naval developments, and the ongoing political transition in Myanmar. He can be reached at adampmacdonald@gmail.com. (Image courtesy of Reuters.)

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