China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran, Iran, March 2021
Majid Asgaripour / WANA News Agency / Reuters

The last few years have witnessed a paradigm shift in U.S. foreign policy. The Middle East is no longer Washington’s top priority. Washington has significantly reduced the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, and U.S. President Joe Biden has pledged to focus on only a small number of objectives in the region. As this retrenchment has proceeded, analysts, columnists, and elected leaders have warned that China is poised to take the United States’ place in a part of the world where Washington has long been dominant. In the Middle East as elsewhere, the argument goes, the United States must counter China’s military power, economic clout, and ideology at every turn, lest Beijing replace Washington as the preeminent global superpower.

Even as the United States pulls back from the Middle East, some in the U.S. foreign policy community believe that the region will be among the places where a so-called great-power competition between Washington and Beijing will play out. These analysts cite China’s investment in the area, its bilateral trade deals with regional powers, its military base in Djibouti, and Beijing’s increasingly close ties to Iran as evidence of new and dangerous threats to U.S. security. In line with this view, the scholars Michael Doran and Peter Rough have argued that China’s “ruthless” drive for advancement in the region contributes to a broader risk of the United States losing control of the international system at large.

Such claims rest on thin evidence, however. American conceptions about China’s role in the Middle East are often shaped more by Washington’s own experience there—defined by military alliances and armed interventions—than by actual Chinese behavior. In reality, Beijing’s growing presence is motivated less by a desire for hegemony than it is by economic concerns and domestic politics. Its dependence on fossil fuels, coupled with a desire to insulate itself from regional opprobrium regarding its treatment of Uyghur Muslims, drives much of its outreach.

China’s strategy is far from settled, and a global economic calamity or a geopolitical meltdown could move the Chinese Communist Party to reconsider its current approach. But the fact remains that Beijing has maintained relations with countries beset by both internal and external conflict over the last two decades—including Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Sudan—and it will likely continue to demonstrate a high tolerance for violence and volatility in the Middle East. China may yet wind up the dominant power in the region, but if that happens, it will owe less to any grand strategic designs on Beijing’s part than to Washington’s slow but steady detachment from the Middle East.

IT’S THE ECONOMY, STUPID

For the past two decades, Beijing has devoted considerable time and resources to building diplomatic and commercial ties with all major players in the Middle East. Few other countries can boast of good relations with Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states, and that balancing act remains a critical component of Beijing’s regional strategy. When Xi Jinping made his first trip to the region as president of the People’s Republic in January 2016, he first stopped in Saudi Arabia, where he signed a comprehensive stra­tegic partnership agreement between Beijing and Riyadh. He then flew directly to Tehran and did the same with Iran. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to the region in March—throughout which he reiterated well-worn themes in Chinese foreign policy rhetoric about “win-win projects,” mutual respect, and dialogue in the Middle East—signals a continuation of the friends-with-all approach that has served Beijing well.

These moves have led many, including a variety of foreign policy experts, editorial writers for major newspapers, and members of the U.S. Congress, to conclude that China harbors great regional ambitions. By their account, the Middle East’s unique position as a logistics hub, fuel supplier, and potential chokepoint of global trade makes the region critical to Xi’s goal of reorienting global governance away from the United States. China has clearly pursued an increasingly aggressive foreign policy in recent years. Following the 2008 global financial crisis and Xi’s assumption of power in 2012, the Chinese leadership began to slowly move away from the former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s maxim that the country should “hide its capabilities and bide its time.” China now flexes its muscles in East Asia and beyond: ignoring an international tribunal’s judgment regarding its claims in the South China Sea, breaking long-standing flight protocols in the Taiwan Strait, slapping tariffs on Australia and South Korea in response to perceived slights such as Canberra’s investigation of the origins of the novel coronavirus and Seoul’s deployment of an enhanced antimissile system, and bullying UN organizations on issues ranging from the outbreak of COVID-19 to human rights concerns.

It is a mistake, however, to make assumptions about Beijing’s approach to the Middle East based on its assertive behavior in East Asia and elsewhere. Although China’s leaders may seek to overtake the United States in many domains, there is little evidence that such efforts extend to the Middle East. Given U.S. military misadventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, Chinese political elites concluded long ago that Washington’s regional policies had sapped its greatness, reduced its global influence, and placed it on the road to relative decline. Beijing has no desire to follow suit.

What really drives China’s presence in the Middle East is the country’s rapid economic development. Between 1990 and 2009, China’s imports of Middle Eastern oil increased by a factor of ten. In 2019–20, Gulf countries supplied approximately 40 percent of China’s oil imports, of which 16 percent came from Saudi Arabia alone—making that country China’s largest supplier of crude oil. Iraq, where the United States has spent trillions on regime change, is among the top five oil suppliers to China; Iran ranks eighth. Beijing clearly view the region’s energy resources as critical to China’s ongoing development and, by extension, its global influence.

Beijing’s growing presence is motivated less by a desire for hegemony than it is by economic concerns and domestic politics.

China’s economic relationship with the Middle East isn’t limited to energy; the country is also expanding ties through its Belt and Road Initiative. Thanks in large part to the BRI, China is now the region’s single largest investor and the largest trading partner to 11 Middle Eastern countries. It has financed the construction of ports and industrial parks in Egypt, Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Djibouti, where Beijing maintains its sole overseas military base. These facilities lie along vital chokepoints that connect the region to the rest of the world: the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, the Red Sea, the Bab el Mandeb Strait, and the Suez Canal. The BRI’s success depends on keeping these arteries open. One need only look back at the March 2021 grounding of the Ever Given container ship in the Suez Canal and the subsequent economic ripple effects to understand why Chinese leaders have placed a premium on the Middle East and its waterways.

China’s economic imperatives in the Middle East, along with the diplomacy required to maintain them, explain a good deal of its recent outreach to the region. In early 2021, for example, Beijing struck a much-hyped “strategic partnership” agreement with Tehran. The 25-year deal, which included the promise of $400 billion in Chinese investments in exchange for heavily discounted oil supplies and increased security cooperation, raised eyebrows in Washington. To many, it looked as though Beijing were trying to undercut U.S. sanctions intended to pressure Tehran into shifting away from its aggressive foreign policy and nuclear development.

At the same time, however, Beijing’s pact with Iran was an understandable reflection of China’s economic and diplomatic interests. Given Iran’s status as one of China’s main oil suppliers, Beijing has an interest in preventing the Iranian regime from collapsing under the weight of U.S. economic and diplomatic pressure. China’s leaders are also keen to maintain Iran’s position in the region—keeping the United States distracted by developments in the Persian Gulf and out of East Asia. Although Beijing may not condone the activities of Iranian-sponsored armed groups in the Levant or in the Gulf, Chinese officials do not see a need to cut ties with Tehran over such issues. Beijing likewise remains untroubled by the 2009 and 2019 crackdowns within Iran itself—in fact, there have been reputable reports that Tehran relies heavily on Chinese technology to pursue its domestic enemies.

INTERNAL AFFAIRS

But Chinese policies aren’t all about oil. After all, China has successfully used a combination of diplomacy, new investments, and market diversification to meet its growing domestic demand for fossil fuels. Crude oil from the United States, natural gas from Australia, and domestic coal extraction all supplement China’s growing Middle Eastern imports. Investments in renewable energy will also inevitably offset some of the country’s reliance on hydrocarbons.

So rather than seeing the Middle East solely as an energy source, China also views its ties there as an insurance policy against an entirely distinct internal threat: a separatist movement among predominantly Muslim Uyghurs in the autonomous region of Xinjiang. Beijing began its brutal campaign of repression against China’s Uyghur population in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States and escalated this campaign following a spate of attacks carried out by Uyghur separatists in China and neighboring countries in 2014 and 2015. Xi declared in 2019 that “anyone who attempts to split any region from China will be crushed with shattered body and bones.” Both the Trump administration and the Biden administration concluded that Beijing’s harsh repression of Uyghurs—including arbitrary imprisonment, forced sterilization, rape, torture, forced labor, and draconian restrictions on freedom of religion—constitutes a crime against humanity and genocide.

Chinese leaders have long hoped that by cultivating closer ties with Middle Eastern and Central Asian regimes, they could prevent external support for Uyghur separatists and smother cross-border Islamist networks. Despite Washington’s opprobrium, Beijing’s outreach to the Middle East seems to be working. Through regular diplomacy, hydrocarbon purchases, and large-scale investments, Beijing has successfully managed to dissuade governments and religious organizations in Muslim-majority countries from providing material and rhetorical support for the Uyghur people—or even criticizing the extreme steps Beijing has taken against them. Many of those governments and organizations have dismissed the crackdowns as a purely internal matter. Others have even cooperated with China against Uyghur activists. Officials in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates have all targeted and allegedly deported Uyghurs at the behest of Beijing.

ON GUARD

The fact that China’s policies in the Middle East stem mostly from domestic economic and political considerations does not mean that Washington should be wholly unconcerned with Chinese conduct in the region. The Chinese leadership remains committed to military modernization and power-projection platforms that could affect the Middle East. Chinese participation in an antipiracy task force in the Gulf of Aden, for example, may be read as a commitment to international collaboration—but the experience will also help prepare China’s navy for future missions far from the Chinese coastline.

And Beijing is clearly not averse to military action. Since its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic has fought armed conflicts with nearly all its neighbors, from the Korean War in 1950 to recent border clashes with India. China’s deployment of military assets to the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Taiwan Strait remains a cause for concern, as do Beijing’s attempts to undermine global norms and institutions.

That said, there is little reason to believe that Chinese leaders will follow a similar playbook in the Middle East. Washington’s multigenerational security footprint across the region holds little appeal for Beijing. Such a blunt approach would undermine China’s carefully cultivated economic and diplomatic achievements.

The United States and China clearly have different interests in the Middle East, but the conclusion that Beijing wants to supplant Washington in the region is simply not supported by the available evidence. The Chinese leadership will pursue its goals irrespective of Washington’s desires. Under these circumstances, the Chinese are unlikely to seek conflict, preferring to build up relations with a range of countries in the region in order to ensure their access to oil and markets. The result will be a great deal of jockeying with the United States for influence, while regional powers maneuver between Washington and Beijing hoping to avoid having to choose between them. To the extent that Middle Eastern leaders remain predisposed toward Washington, the United States will retain the upper hand in this contest. If, however, U.S. retrenchment starts to look more like a U.S. withdrawal from the region, those leaders may begin to drift away—in which case China might wind up becoming the dominant power in the Middle East despite lacking a clear intention to do so.

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  • STEVEN A. COOK is Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
  • JAMES GREEN is a Senior Research Fellow at Georgetown University’s Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues.
  • More By Steven A. Cook
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