Panel Report: CEIP Event on China and the Middle East

This past Tuesday March 12th, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) held a dialogue event on China’s involvement in the Middle East. The discussion sought to tackle how Middle Eastern countries view China, the priorities when it comes to relations with China, and what China’s underlying goals and ambitions are in the Middle East. The panelists for the discussion were Dr. Hesham Alghannam, Director General of the Strategic Studies and National Security Programs at Naif Arab University for Security Sciences; and Jin Liangxiang, Senior Research Fellow at Shanghai Institutes of International Studies. The event was moderated by Maha Yahya, Director of the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.

Dr. Alghannam started off the discussion by first asserting his view that the Middle East did not play a major role in China’s Grand Strategy. He claimed that China’s principal interest since the 1990s has been oil in the Middle East, and will likely continue to be so. This is a mutually beneficial relationship, as 45%-50% of Gulf oil goes to China, providing a large market for various Middle Eastern countries. Other political and diplomatic goals will be marginal, as economic interests will dominate the relationship. China has not indicated that it wants to play a big political role in the region, as they have regional concerns of their own such as Taiwan, that are much more pivotal to their Grand Strategy. China has three main security concerns in the Middle East which are the development of nuclear programs, Iranian proxies, and the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine. Mr. Liangxiang explained that while China doesn’t seem to have a strong political policy in the Middle East, it still possesses guiding frameworks and general principles that are cultivating global development, global security, and global civilization. China lacks a strategy to address these issues, but an advantage that China possesses over other global powers is that their foreign policy aligns more closely with Middle Eastern regimes, emphasizing principles such as sovereignty, non-interference, and mutual benefit. These aspects make China more attractive to Middle Eastern governments such as in Saudi Arabia, and they have thus built oil security ties that are likely to only grow deeper with time.

Economic ties between China and Middle Eastern regimes are the rationale behind trying to maintain stability in the region, as doing so provides a steady market for China to do business with. One of the major diplomatic achievements that China made was the brokering of a détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Mr. Liangxiang noted that this deal was especially important for Saudi Arabia, because it allowed the country to redirect its energy toward beneficial policies and was a sign of good faith that China was living up to its desired role as a global leader. China seeks to play a non-interference role, avoiding meddling in the domestic politics of Middle Eastern countries and instead pushing for dialogue which furthers security. Dr. Alghannam explained that this is a gradual step in the right direction, but he believes that China could do more to address regional challenges, stating that China tends to focus its efforts where it can make a significant impact and ignore those where it cannot.

On the issue of Israel’s ongoing Gaza War for example, China has called for a ceasefire and the establishment of a Palestinian state, but has not taken an active role in alleviating the conflict. Dr. Alghannam believes that China could do more to leverage its relationship with Israel to achieve a ceasefire and ensure more humanitarian aid. Mr. Liangxiang on the other hand, contended that China did not have enough of a relationship with Israel to leverage concrete change.

Overall, the main dynamic of the relationship between China and the Middle East remains predicated on economic mutual benefit, but China is beginning to play a more active role in areas of security and politics. According to Dr. Alghannam, there is a larger role waiting for China in the Middle East that many countries could be eager to capitalize on.

Enter the text or HTML code here