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The Meaning of China’s Increased Engagement in the Middle East

Panel IX-18, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
In December 2022 Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia for the second time and attended a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). During his visit in Riyadh, Xi Jinping also met with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, and they agreed on continuing and expanding large projects related to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In March 2021 China and Iran had signed the 25-year Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Deal. Despite criticism from the United States, Sino-Israeli relations, including cooperation in high-tech, is developing; Chinese compagnies are also having contracts for upgrading Israeli and Arab ports. Sino-Maghreb relations have also taken greater importance. Thus, the PRC is developing good relations with all the states in the Middle East despite hostility between the regional players, e.g., Iran v. Saudi Arabia v. Iran and Israel. Except for Egypt that had already signed in 1999 partnership agreements with China,14 states in the MENA have entered the last decade partnership agreements with China to boost strategic and economic cooperation in all areas highlighted in the Chinese government 2016 Arab Policy Paper: (1) Energy, (2) Infrastructure and Investments, and (3) digital technology, nuclear power, and space technology. China has considerable interests in the MENA’s oil and gas sectors. Relations between the MENA and China in military and security cooperation have also expanded. Beijing has sold sophisticated weapons (drones, missiles, and radar systems) to Algeria and conducted naval exercises with Saudi Arabia and with Iran. China has geoeconomic and strategic interest in the MENA and thus sees the MENA as a strategic geopolitical hub vital for the development of the BRI. The questions that the members of this proposed panel will raise revolve around how these developments will impact the tense US-Sino rivalry and what consequences they will have for the shifting world order. What is the impact of China Maghreb relations on the Maghreb’s relations with the European Union? Drawing from a combination of International Relations and Political Science theories, and based on and primary sources from China, the United States, the MENA and Europe, the panelists will address China’s infrastructure diplomacy, the health silk road diplomacy, regional security in the Persian Gulf, and China’s integration of the Greater Maghreb’ into the BRI. This international panel is composed of widely published experts in China-MENA studies.
International Relations/Affairs
Political Science
  • This paper explores Sino-Iranian relations in the context of the US Persian Gulf policy after WW II. Based on diplomatic history, using primary Chinese, Iranian, and US sources the paper traces the relations back to the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979 until the initiation of the US maximum pressure strategy by the Donald Trump administration after its withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018. In analyzing the global impact of the regional security issues in the Persian Gulf, the paper draws on regional security complex theory as well as geopolitical theory in the tradition of Halford Mackinder including the academic debates on the relevance of the theory that has evolved especially among Chinese scholars. The background for the analysis is that Sino-Iranian relations quickly developed after the establishment of the Islamic Republic. China became Iran’s largest trading partner and friend in international affairs. China bought oil, invested in the energy sector, and until 1997 Beijing supported Iran in developing the civil nuclear energy program. During the negotiations up to the deal on Iran’s program with the UN, EU, Germany, and the five permanent members in the UN Security Council, China acted as mediator between Iran and the US. After the US withdrawal from the deal in 2018 China has constantly criticized the US unilateral sanctions but simultaneously put its investments on hold and significantly reduced its trade with Iran. Obviously, the question is whether China is important for Iran in times of sanctions and conflicts with the US. This paper focuses on why Iran is important to China and identifies three areas: energy, economy, and the geopolitical geography of Iran, thus making Iran an important actor in China’s global development policy with the Belt and Road Initiative the kernel in the Chinese geoeconomic and geopolitical strategy. Both China and Iran have criticized the US liberal order and argue for an alternative world order. Taking Iran as a case study, the paper investigates how China is promoting itself diplomatically as an important global player in the security issues in the Persian Gulf by insisting on a multilateral approach. Besides diplomatic history and geopolitical academic debates the paper is based on interviews with Chinese scholars in Beijing and Shanghai and American researchers in Washington, DC.
  • China’s overseas infrastructure building is a type of foreign commercial activity involving foreign aid, foreign trade and foreign investment. As Beijing is actively investing in and constructing infrastructure in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), numerous stories and misconceptions have spread about the changes China can and will bring through its infrastructure diplomacy to the region. The paper seeks an understanding of China’s infrastructure diplomacy in the MENA and how this diplomacy affects the presence of other powers in the region, particularly the United States and the European Union. In doing so, this research conducts spatial quantitative analysis of the American Enterprise Institute’s China Global Investment Tracker Database, combined with a qualitative study of government documents, companies’ briefings, media reports, and interviews with business executives. Applying the transactionalist behavior theory and role theory, the paper argues that contrary to certain interpretations, in its internal new role conceptions, Beijing seeks two objectives which are not necessarily compatible: 1. to become a conditional supporter of the prevailing world order in which it can be placed in a better position to secure its own commercial and political interests; 2. to enjoy maintaining the role of ‘a shirker’ which tries to avoid assuming excessive responsibility and confronting established powers over issues not directly related to its domestic interests. Moreover, instead of following well-designed scripts as the established powers in the region used to do, China’s identification of what ‘roles’ it plays and its role performance in the region serve immediate, non-systematic initiatives, with a focus on short-term benefits. Our preliminary findings show that so far China is in a beneficial position in the MENA compared to the established powers and has achieved significant economic gains and political influence through infrastructure diplomacy. Yet, China–MENA interactions in infrastructure have not reached their heyday as was expected. This derives from several factors, the most important of which being China’s predicament in its role-taking, which despite bringing flexibility to its policy implementation, makes its foreign policies such as the infrastructure diplomacy subject to shifts and open to interpretation. The paper draws from Role Theory and International Political Economy and from innumerable interviews with senior business executives and government officials in China and the MENA.
  • The paper will analyze the evolution of China's political, economic, and military/security relations with the Greater Maghreb States (Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, and the conflict in Western Sahara), a major part of the Southern Mediterranean in which various foreign powers, namely, the United States, the European Union, Russia, Turkey, and China are vying for influence. The paper explains how relations with China, in particular, enable states in the Global South and in the Greater Maghreb to counterbalance the weight of other powers, even allies like the United States and/or their former colonial rulers, making the dependency theoretical approach relevant. The relationship with and expectations from China are essentially of an economic nature (building of their infrastructure, which is critical for the region’s development but also beneficial to Chinese firms dealing with overcapacity in important sectors). The paper discusses how China has gradually incorporated the Southern Mediterranean states into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) through bilateral and multilateral relations, strategic partnerships, and the development of interconnectivity not only in the Southern Mediterranean but also onto the adjacent Sahel. Notwithstanding their dependence on Europe, the Maghreb countries’ economic relations with China have grown considerably. Due to shared historical legacy and overlapping roles, Algeria has the closest ties with China, which signed in 2014 a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Algeria, the first of its kind in the Middle East and North Africa. China strives for an environment in the region that is conducive to advancing its geo-economic and national security interests. It seeks to enact that objective through its self-attributed roles as South-South collaborator and developer. The multilateral forums it has instituted contribute to its external altercasting of ‘developmental values’, to cultivate trust, and engage in greater socialization with its partners. Through altercating, Beijing expects its partners to assimilate and support its policies and accept China's national role conceptions. The paper applies role theory, using the works of scholars such as Holsti, Walker, Mitzen, McCourt, Harnisch et al, Thies, and Breuning, as well as the works of Chinese scholars like YAN (Xuetong) . Additionally, the paper uses elements of International Political Economy to explain the Greater Maghreb States to turn to China. The paper also draws from innumerable interviews with Chinese scholars and officials in Beijing and Shanghai and with businesspeople and officials in the Greater Maghreb region.
  • China’s conduct of health diplomacy to address public health challenges in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has become increasingly important in recent years. China has offered medical aid and assistance to many countries in the region, including sending equipment; providing expertise, training and capacity building support to healthcare professionals; providing support for vaccine research and development; signing agreements with governments to build and upgrade healthcare facilities; and promoting collaboration between Chinese and MENA health organizations, through various initiatives, such as South-South cooperation and the Health Silk Road. Aiming at strengthening political and economic ties between China and the countries of the Middle East, all these endeavors have played a key part of China's broader diplomatic effort to showcase China's growing global influence. To analyze China’s increasing presence in the MENA, the paper draws not only from the theories of social power and smart power but also from numerous interviews with Chinese health practitioners and government officials who have collaborated with their counterparts in the MENA region. The study proposes to use the concept of social power and smart power, arguing that persuasion (hard power) and attraction (soft power) can no longer fully comprehend 21st century power politics. Coined by Peter van Ham, social power allows to connect the dots between geopolitics and states’ hegemonic ambitions, institutions, public diplomacy, place branding, and agenda setting in international relations. A state’s social power is its ability to push a preferred foreign policy frame and thus tilt the playing field, by setting, without coercion, the structural conditions needed to achieve foreign policy goals.