China, the Middle East, and IR Theory

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and State Councilor of the People’s Republic of China Wang Yi Signing the Iran–China 25-year Cooperation Program in Tehran © Tasnim News Agency / CC BY 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

In the West, commentators and politicians struggle to understand the rise of China. Too often, we apply 20th century frameworks to make crucial analyses. The myriad cold-war references give testament to this unhealthy tendency. Still, conventional concepts often fail to appreciate the unique nature of China’s society. Its governance structure, business models, technological context, and complicated state-society relations warrant an original examination. Nowhere is this truer than in the developing world, where the ‘Middle Party-State’ is leaving deeper footprints by the day. In the Middle East, commentators have described China as passive, disinterested, and a grave threat to American hegemony. How does our fundamental lack of adequate theories to represent China as different from both the Western democratic model and the Soviet Union contribute to these divergent views? What can be done to address this problem? Finally, what can this tell us about China’s potential interaction with Europe and America in the region?

Due to its wide-spread instability and domination by the United States, Chinese diplomats historically regarded the Middle East as politically inaccessible. Thus, the country has shunned security-commitments in the region and avoided taking sides in local conflicts. Instead, it has chosen to apply a passive interpretation of non-interventionism, one of its core ideological identities. To fuel its domestic economic objectives, it has focused on vital commercial relations and avoided any sort of military entanglement (Dorsey, 2017). However, in an age of American retrenchment, analysts have pondered the continuous viability of this approach. In China, this meant ever-growing voices arguing in favour of a more active role in the region (Lons, et al., 2019). The rationale behind these considerations is rooted in the globalization of China’s political interests and the need to better protect them in a situation of great strategic uncertainty.

The PRC’s economic rise did not only drastically increase the reach of its capabilities, but also heightened its stakes in the regions’ politics. Having become the world’s largest oil importer, China now sources almost half of its foreign supply from there (Young, 2020). Furthermore, domestic terrorist attacks have alerted it to the danger of Islamic radicalism, which it fears will provide support for Uighur separatist movements. It has also greatly deepened its trade relations with the region, with Chinese money flowing into the GCC member states and Israel becoming a major source of technology (Lons, et al., 2019). The Jewish state has not only become a productive economic partner. Due to its advanced military and sophisticated defence industry, it can also play an important role in the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army.

Furthermore, President Xi’s signature policy, the Belt and Road Initiative, relies heavily on investment into the Middle East to facilitate trans-Eurasian trade-routes. It is a direct attempt by the Chinese government to provide capital investment into Middle Eastern infrastructure and features intensive involvement of Chinese state-owned enterprises into strategic assets in Pakistan and many Arab states. Even beyond this high-profile initiative, Chinese private and state-owned companies are heavily involved in ports along the Suez Canal, the resource sector, and transportation industries in the Middle East and North Africa. Thus, Chinese investment is not only financial in nature. It tends to concentrate on strategic assets that can provide tangible benefits for both China and the local states and have the potential to fundamentally alter the geopolitics of the region.

In the wake of these developments, Chinese merchants and expatriate communities have become larger and more vulnerable. China’s growing commercial shipping fleet has also encountered threats of piracy in the Gulf of Arden. Simultaneously, the rising conflict with the United States has raised the need to secure shipping lanes along important choke points, such as the Suez Canal, through which almost sixty percent of Chinese exports flow (Rózsa, 2020).

These growing interests have resulted in steadily intensifying diplomatic exchanges between China and the Middle East. Over the last fifteen years, it has not only declared more than 15 strategic partnerships with local states but has also founded the Chinese-Arab Cooperation Forum (Lons, et al., 2019). In the UN Security Council, it has begun to proactively raise its voice on several relevant conflicts, such as the Palestine issue, Libya, and the Syrian civil war. In the latter two arenas, it strongly criticised the American position and diplomatically supported parties opposed to Western interests (Evron, 2015). Additionally, China has been very active in the negotiations regarding the South-Sudanese conflict, a struggle closely related to the local oil industry. Here, Chinese SOEs have major stakes (Jian, 2019). Furthermore, China has opened its first foreign military base in Djibouti, giving it fast access to the Gulf of Aden. It has also participated in several United Nations Peacekeeping Operations within or adjacent to the region and had to evacuate its citizens from Libya, Yemen, and Syria (Zerman, 2014). The popularity of the Wolf Warrior movie-franchise, which was heavily inspired by these events, might indicate that these operations are starting to enter the Chinese public conscience and slowly increase the domestic legitimacy of military involvement abroad.

In the face of existential American insecurity over China’s ever-growing ability to shape world politics, the inroads it made into the strategically vital Middle East are certain to cause major concerns in Washington. The American government has repeatedly urged its allies not to expose themselves to strategic dependence on the PRC or support its security interests. For example, it has discouraged Israeli private companies from sharing sensitive technologies with the Chinese military (Mitnick, 2019). It has also heavily criticized many of China’s commercial initiatives in the Middle East. However, many analysts argue that the two countries have numerous shared interests. Both prize regional stability and are concerned about disruptions in the oil market. Both fear the threat of Jihadist insurgencies. Finally, both want the region to be open for foreign businesses and investment.

Therefore, China can still afford to work within the American-dominated status quo (Lons, et al., 2019) . It has thus not yet outrightly challenged American hegemony in the Middle East. This strategy does not only provide it with the necessary stability to pursue its interests and slowly strengthen China’s position in the region. It also allows the country to profit off substantial American investments into Middle Eastern “security”, while committing little financial or ideological resources.

Still, in the medium term, China’s geopolitical ascendency will provide it with major leverage over regional states. Shaping infrastructure development and international export markets, China can not only offer ever more credible alternatives to American economic engagement. It also creates various technological interdependencies that can be used in China’s favour. However, China’s civil assets clearly outshine its military muscle. While it has modernized its armed forces, the nation lags still far behind the United States in firepower. This is especially true for China’s ability to project force in distant regions. It is also the case for its defence industry, which still relies on relatively technologically unsophisticated production and cannot compete with American levels of exports to the region.

Thus, to judge China’s potential to disrupt American hegemony in the Middle East is to make a statement on the potency of different forms of power. Can Chinese economic influence compete with American aircraft carriers? This is – primarily – a theoretical question that touches on some of the most fundamental questions in International Relations scholarship. Here, the Euro- and Americentric focus of much past IR scholarship clearly obfuscates strategically important truths.

In IR theory, the nature of power, the question of what constitutes an actor and agency, and how that agency is wielded are often the criteria by which different approaches are classified. Realism, for instance, closely identifies power with violent coercion, prescribes agency to the state, and employs a self-interested rationalist perspective on decision making. Liberal scholars, on the other hand, identify power with institutional norms both domestically and internationally, understand the agency of the state as derived from individuals, and employ a theory of decision making more accommodating to normative concerns. Contemporary Sino-Middle Eastern relations challenge both frameworks in fundamental ways.

As a quintessentially western theory, liberalism in IR scholarship assumes not only a certain set of normative values as universal, but also the existence and continued relevance of democratic government as a given. Independent of one’s own political preferences, it is difficult not to doubt whether these values are sociologically relevant in the interactions between non-western and non-democratic powers. Furthermore, models of civil-society involvement based on the American experience tell us little about decision making in China or many of the Middle Eastern states. Because of that, one might feel tempted to apply the state- and military-centric perspective of a realist.

Still, understanding China’s engagement with the Middle East exclusively through a realist perspective would lead only into theoretical dead ends. Traditional aspects of economic power, such as market access, technology leadership, and control over capital must be granted an important space in the analysis of China’s international relations. This requires a conscious departure from conventional representations of the relationship between the state and economy in both liberal and Marxist thinking. Albeit being in stark normative disagreement over the merit of capitalism, both approaches essentially assume the primacy of market dynamics over political ones. In China, however, the relationship between the state and its economy is far more complicated. While prices are generally driven by supply and demand, a large portion of the Chinese economy remains under state control. This is especially true for many sectors that are most relevant for its international relations with the developing world. For instance, the policy banks and construction companies most active in the Belt-and-Road initiative are all controlled by the government. Thus, judging inter-state power relations, it is important to stay cognizant of the different strategic possibilities provided by different forms of government. For instance, China can easily use the supply of capital through SOE investment and the import of oil and other goods as a bargaining chip. While the United States can certainly make use of market access and its control over international financial institutions for leverage, its market-led system hinders state-led FDIs and complicates politically motivated economic activity. Thus, its economic engagement is more limited to the realm of conventional foreign aid and trade policy.

Despite this, many of the influences of economic interdependence on national decision-making addressed in liberal IR theory still affect China. Like all countries, business interests in relation to the maintenance of open markets are an important consideration in domestic politics. In the case of state-owned enterprises, this could even play out directly in bureaucratic politics and take on a more immediate relevance in intra-state power competition (Jakobson & Knox, 2010). Furthermore, the need to establish a certain level of market stability in an intensive trade relation requires an institutional management of cooperation. China’s past behaviour, such as the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, clearly suggests a preference to work through multilateral institutions rather than unilateral action. However, if its current relationship with Australia is any indication, it is not afraid to leverage its economic might for its own interests. Despite China’s claims to the opposite, this is likely to affect its relationship with smaller or less developed countries. A relatively recent episode concerning Kenyan fish imports will unlikely be the last trade conflict of its kind (Africa Factsheet, 2019). Still, this does not warrant an assessment of China as a distinctively unilateral actor. Instead, it is more reasonable to assume that China would seek to (re-)design international institutions to maximize its own power while granting lesser states the minimal amount of influence necessary to maintain their willing cooperation in the system.

Finally, many Chinese scholars of international relations suggest that China’s unique history will express itself in a new form of international engagement. While some go so far as to suggest that China’s rise will or should fundamentally transform the basic institutions of world society, many more agree that Euro-centric norms in international governance will be made increasingly obsolete (Paltiel, 2011). Thus, it is likely that China will formulate an evolving discourse to legitimize its role in the Middle East and stabilize its institutional arrangements through a set of norms and expectations. Albeit major cultural differences exist, the enduring unpopularity of the liberal discourse employed by the United States coupled with the painful memory of European colonialism gives reason to believe that this could at least partially be received positively.

On the basis of these brief considerations, one could begin to grow much-needed innovative theoretical activity. For example, weighing the benefits that China and the United States can bestow on Middle Eastern countries, one could construct a ‘market of loyalty’ in which regional states set their agenda in the participation of US or China-led systems – both formal and informal – against a price of political concessions. This pull-factor is amended by the push factor of the threat of force. However, America’s failures to transform its overwhelming military advantage into policy achievements in Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that outright invasions of delinquent countries are not usually cost-effective methods to achieve political goals. Thus, the threat of force should only be understood as a functional tool to establish red lines, enforce negotiations, and punish enemies for transgressions against regional allies.

In this ‘market of loyalty’, one can already see clear signs of concessions being made to China. For instance, none of the Middle Eastern states has publicly objected to the treatment of Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang (Azzeem, 2019). In the future, it would be wise to expect more of this behaviour. However, as true as that might be, one should not underestimate the importance of military matters. In the current Middle East, ongoing conflicts often necessitate a defence-driven agenda. This gives great leverage to powers that can supply security against intra-regional and internal threats. This explains not only the great importance attached to military procurement, but also alliances with great powers. Those states that can sell weapons and beat back a foreign invasion will always hold great sway over their clients. In the face of the priorities of current Middle Eastern governments, it is thus reasonable to assume that military power is more potent than economic power. Given America’s current lead in that area, it is thus likely that it will be able to maintain its hegemonic position under two conditions. First, if the Middle Eastern state-system were to fundamentally change towards a more stable and secure environment, China’s economic influence would become more politically powerful. In many ways, this is already the case in Africa, a region similarly subject to great-power competition. Second, if China were to massively increase its military commitment in the region, it could surely expect to alter the rules of engagement. While the first seems unlikely, the second proposition is more probable. As has been described above, China’s increasing linkages with the region have already created a powerful domestic lobby for deepened involvement. Considering China’s economic trajectory, there is little reason to doubt that this trend will continue. Thus, one can expect amplified military competition between China and the US in the long-term future.

It is difficult to predict what this will mean for Europe. Ideologically, it is evident that the EU and China are fast diverging from each other. However, with the end of the age of ‘democracy promotion’ (if that ever existed as a genuine political purpose) both side’s interests are becoming more compatible. Surely, China’s alignment with Russia causes anxiety in Europe. Its pro-Assad, pro-Putin views on Syria are a clear threat to European interests. Its scathing criticism of the Libyan intervention embarrassed London and Paris in front of the Muslim and African worlds. Still, China’s increasing investment in Middle Eastern infrastructure, its need to regain outstanding debts, and its dependence on oil imports also suggest that the country will prioritize stability in the Middle East. It is not a ‘revolutionary’ power like the Soviet Union. In an age in which European diplomats are desperate to stop refugee flows from the Mediterranean, restart the global economy, and avoid an all-out confrontation with Iran, China can be a partner. In the long term, military competition is also likely to be softened by elements of cooperative behaviour. With the United States becoming an oil-exporter, both China and the European Union will be united in their interest in open and functional oil markets. Furthermore, the European countries have far more to gain from Chinese-led infrastructure initiatives than the US, as they are physically close to the middle East and participate in the trans-Eurasian trade networks. Still, Chinese presence can be interpreted as a threat in the context of a globalized geopolitical confrontation. Therefore, European policy makers should be careful not to leave the ‘market of loyalty’ to the Chinese alone. Recognizing that it is both impossible and immoral to curtail Middle Eastern cooperation with China, European countries should ensure that these states are able to balance Chinese involvement with European resources, so they do not become too dependent on it. As both China and the EU share many core-interests, a reasonable balance of power is the only realistic and cost-effective way to build a stable environment in which these interests are met. It is also the only way in which the autonomy of Middle Eastern states and their legitimate developmental goals are respected.

David Fuhr was born in 1993 and grew up in southern Germany. He has a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Hamburg University and is currently pursuing an MSc from Peking University and LSE. He is fascinated by nationalism, China’s relationship to the developing world, and international institutions. He is happy to chat on LinkedIn or via email (

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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