Can China replace the US in the Middle East?

As the Saudi-Iran deal shows, Beijing’s clout in the region is growing. But it can’t substitute US security presence — and might not want to.

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[Nataliia Shulga/Al Jazeera]

On April 6, the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran met for the first time in seven years. A month earlier, top national security officials of the two countries had stunned the world, re-establishing diplomatic relations after years of hostility that had raised tensions across their shared neighbourhood.

But the meetings that led to the dramatic breakthrough were not held in the Middle East. They were hosted and mediated by China, after years of unsuccessful attempts by Oman and Iraq.

In the West, China’s central role in keeping Russia’s economy afloat despite sanctions, and Beijing’s unwillingness to even question Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine have drawn sharp criticism.

Yet experts say its newfound success as a peacemaker in the Middle East signals a shift for China, which has traditionally hesitated from involving itself too deeply in efforts to resolve global conflicts.

And it seems to be dreaming big. In February, shortly before the Iran-Saudi talks concluded, Beijing launched its Global Security Initiative, with the aim of “peacefully resolving differences and disputes between countries through dialogue and consultation”.

Then last week, China’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, said Beijing was ready to mediate peace talks between Israel and Palestine.

The Saudi-Iran deal could serve as China’s “launchpad to future initiatives”, said Julia Gurol-Haller, an associate fellow at the Arnold-Bergstraesser-Institut Freiburg in Germany. It is a declaration that China is ready to play a bigger role than it previously has in mediating conflicts, she said.

All of this comes at a time when the influence of the United States — traditionally the biggest power broker in the Middle East — has waned, according to many analysts. The US decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, its blow-hot-blow-cold relationship with Saudi Arabia, and its long occupation and chaotic withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan have hurt its credibility. Domestic politics have also kept the US distracted, as has a growing wariness among the American public about the country’s decades-long role as a global policeman.

But can China offer the Middle East everything that the US — for all of its failings — has over the years?

The short answer: Despite its fast-rising clout, China still does not have the ability to replace the US in the Middle East, where Washington has dozens of military bases and allies it has committed to defending. But Beijing might not want to take on that responsibility yet in any case, experts say. For now, China can benefit from expanded diplomatic and economic influence while letting the US continue leading on the region’s security concerns.

In this picture released by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, left, shakes hands with his Saudi Arabian counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, right, and Chineses counterpart Qin Gang in Beijing Thursday, April 6, 2023. (Iranian Foreign Ministry via AP)
Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, left, shakes hands with his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, right, and Chinese counterpart Qin Gang in Beijing, April 6, 2023 [File: Iranian Foreign Ministry via AP]

Advantage China

Well before the Saudi Arabia-Iran deal, China had already established itself as a vital partner to countries in the Middle East.

China is the top trading partner of Saudi Arabia and Iran and is the biggest buyer of oil from the two nations. In recent years, it has further cemented these relationships, signing a 25-year cooperation deal with Iran in 2021 and a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement with Saudi Arabia in 2022.

But that goodwill extends beyond Saudi Arabia and Iran, thanks in no small part to the massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) launched in 2013, with the aim of connecting Asia, Europe and Africa through a China-backed network of ports, railways, highways and other infrastructure projects.

China invested more than $273bn in the region between 2005 and 2022. It is the largest investor in the Middle East. It also buys oil from Iraq, gas from Qatar, and exports weapons to Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It is helping Egypt build its new capital outside Cairo, and has constructed the metro rail network in Mecca.

In December 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia for three days, during which he also held Beijing’s first-ever summits with the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman described the visit as marking “a new historical era” in ties between China and his country.

Meanwhile, China’s rapid advances in cutting-edge tech in recent years mean that Beijing can offer access to services like 5G connectivity through companies like Huawei.

All of this gives China automatic clout in the region, said Trita Parsi, the co-founder and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington-based think tank. This influence has enabled Beijing to succeed with Saudi Arabia and Iran where past negotiators had failed, he said. Countries across the region want to stay in China’s good graces for economic reasons.

Even better, Beijing is viewed as an ideologically neutral trading partner, which has long maintained a policy of non-interference in the domestic issues of Middle Eastern countries, from politics to human rights, making it a less controversial mediator than countries like the US.

It is also not associated with a particular cause like the US’s close relationship with Israel, and has no history of punitive action — whether through military action or sanctions — in the region.

“At the end of the day, a key reason as to why many of these countries have a benign view of China is not just because China doesn’t interfere in their affairs, it’s because they have not seen China conduct itself in a way that would be threatening to them, or that has the potential of being threatening,” Parsi told Al Jazeera.

The US does not enjoy that reputation, even among some of its traditional partners — and the sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine have added to the unease in the region’s capitals, he suggested.

“With the United States, they see [it] has the ability to cut Russia off of the international financial system within five days. That is an immensely powerful tool, and the United States has not conducted itself particularly responsibly for the last 20 years,” Parsi said. “So it’s a very powerful tool in the hands of an at-times reckless player. That’s threatening.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shares lunch with members of the military as he visits the Prince Sultan air base in Al-Kharj, in central Saudi Arabia Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. Pompeo met with Saudi Arabia's King Salman on Thursday in a visit focused primarily on discussing shared security concerns about regional rival Iran. (Andrew Caballero Reynolds/Pool via AP)
Then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sharing lunch with members of the US military at the Prince Sultan airbase in Al-Kharj, in central Saudi Arabia, February 20, 2020. The US has more than three dozen military bases in the Middle East — a presence China cannot compete with [Andrew Caballero Reynolds/Pool via AP]

A different kind of power

At the same time that it is setting itself up as a potential alternative to the US in the Middle East, Beijing is not really trying to usurp the position Washington has long held, said Fan Hongda, a professor at the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University.

China’s power primarily lies in its economic influence and projects like the BRI – and this is something it would be happy to maintain for now in the region, he said.

“China never intended to control the Middle East,” Fan told Al Jazeera. “I don’t think Beijing has any plans to displace the US in the Middle East. Because many actions of the United States in the Middle East are not what China likes. In short, China has its own way of cooperating with Middle Eastern countries.”

China and the US have found themselves on opposite ends of conflicts like the Syrian civil war. Beijing has used its veto at the United Nations Security Council to keep Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in power. But it has otherwise kept a much lower profile on major conflicts than Washington, DC, and it does not have the same historic track record of carrying out regime change and helping to topple democratically elected leaders. The US has more than three dozen military bases in the Middle East.

To be sure, despite the image it likes to promote of itself as a benign power compared with the US, China has in recent years moved to dramatically upgrade and expand its military capabilities, which it often showcases in its own neighbourhood. In 2017, the People’s Liberation Army built its first overseas military base in Djibouti, near the Strait of Hormuz.

Four years later, the Wall Street Journal reported that China was possibly building a naval base in the United Arab Emirates, a project that was grounded after the US intervened with UAE authorities. Some China watchers say Beijing follows a policy of “first civilian, then military” as it builds up infrastructure like ports, railways, and airports, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Still, Zakiyeh Yazdanshenas, director of the China-Middle East Project at Tehran’s Center for Middle East Strategic Studies, said China’s track record so far showed little appetite for US-style involvement in the region.

“Beijing has neither the ability nor the desire to have a military presence like that of the US in the region, but it does try to expand its influence in the Middle East and especially in the Persian Gulf,” she told Al Jazeera.

Yazdanshenas described China’s aims as threefold: “Ensuring the security of the free flow of energy while imposing the lowest cost on China and at the same time raising its prestige as a responsible international player.”

A railway usher gestures to Muslim pilgrims arriving on a Metro from Arafat area to Mina during the annual Hajj season in the western Saudi city of Mecca on August 22, 2018. - The Holy Sites subway light rail in Mecca was opened eight years ago. The Chinese-built monorail project, linking Mecca with the holy sites of Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah, started operation in 2010 during the Hajj season to ferry Saudi nationals taking part in the annual Muslim pilgrimage. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)
People disembark from a Mecca Metro train during the Hajj season in the Saudi city on August 22, 2018. The Chinese-built monorail project started operation in 2010 [File: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP]

Limits to influence

But while this can get China quite far, its reluctance to take on the role of “policeman” or security provider could limit its negotiating toolkit in the long run, said Mark Fitzpatrick, an associate fellow for strategy, technology and arms control at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

It also remains to be seen whether China can enforce deals it has mediated with economic guarantees alone, or if it can replicate its recent success beyond Iran and Saudi Arabia – both of which are deeply tied to China through energy sales.

“One issue is whether the Saudi-Iran rapprochement will hold and whether China will be able to enforce it. I think a lot of people have had some doubts about how stable it will be,” Fitzpatrick told Al Jazeera. “There could be something that happens that unravels it again, and China’s economic leverage might not be enough to really enforce it. That’s not saying it’s going to unravel, but it may be that all aspects of the deal may not play out as it hoped.”

For now, China has to walk down a “very long and bumpy” road to peace and avoid becoming embroiled in protracted conflicts, like the US has done many times, Gurol-Haller at the Arnold-Bergstraesser-Institut Freiburg said.

“It’s not clear how China will accompany Iran and Saudi Arabia in walking down the road,” she told Al Jazeera. “The joint statement that was issued after this deal was made does not clarify how the signing parties or China will respond to violation.

“So what happens if Iran breaks its part of the deal? Or what happens if Saudi Arabia does not comply with what it had promised? It’s really not clear how China can react to that and what are the carrots and what are the sticks.”

What is clear, Gurol-Haller said, is that for China in the Middle East, the hard work starts now.

Source: Al Jazeera