In a Fortnight: Xi Jinping’s Middle East Diplomacy

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets Saudi Arabia's King Salman (Source: Xinhua International)

In mid-January, Chinese President Xi Jinping embarked upon a high-visibility series of visits to Middle Eastern countries, with stops in Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia—three centers of power in the region. This marks the culmination of a long-term strategy to build Chinese national power in the Middle East. Though China is heavily invested in Middle Eastern stability, and likely with an eye on rolling back the influence of the Islamic State, Xi’s visit is more directly an exercise in prestige diplomacy. Already known for his more active involvement in foreign policy, his visit to the Middle East comes ahead of a meeting scheduled for late January in Geneva of the international community and Syrian government and opposition figures to negotiate the future of Syria. Having played a constructive role in the Iran nuclear talks, China now seeks a more permanent place as a broker of peace and stability in the region. Chinese Foreign Minister described the visits as “reaching a new height of relations” with countries in the region (Xinhua, January 24).

Xi’s visits have two hallmarks: that China offers a neutral, “win-win” partnership to build stability, and economic rewards. Speaking at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Xi noted that “the international community should respect local actors and not seek to force a solution from without (CNTV, January 21). As the secretary of the Arab League later pointed out in an interview, China is respected as a neutral actor and a supporter of the Palestinian cause (Xinhua, January 19).

The promise of greater Chinese investment is omnipresent in Xi’s speeches. In an open letter to the Saudi people, Xi invoked the historical ties China maintained with Arabia via the Silk Road and also recalled past days of Chinese naval power by referring to Admiral Zheng He’s port calls to the region during the 15th century. Saudi Arabia and Iran both promised to expand economic cooperation through Xi’s economic initiative to tie China’s economies to wider Eurasia, the Maritime Economic Belt and New Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (the Belt and Road Initiative) (OBOR).

China, however, has chosen to show engagement and leadership in the region at an awkward moment. Saudi Arabian and Iranian ties—never robust to begin with—experienced a major rift over the course of 2015. Earlier this month, relations were shattered due to the execution of a popular Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr and Iranian accusations that its embassy in Yemen—where Iran and Saudi are fighting a proxy war—was targeted during an air strike (China National Radio, January 8). Against this background, China is expanding its ability to project power throughout the region, reorganizing its counterterrorism apparatus, and exploring new avenues for energy and investment with its partners in the region (for more details on these topics, see the other articles in this issue).

Saudi Arabia has an impressive collection of allies, and outspends its much more populous rival Iran on defense. Despite low oil prices and continuing crises to the north in Iraq and Syria and to the South in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has a strong economy. By playing a leading role in the Gulf Cooperation Council, a group of aligned Arab Gulf States, Saudi Arabia has tremendous influence with the regions other “petro states.” With $69 Billion dollars in bilateral trade and an estimated 16 percent of Chinese oil coming from Saudi Arabia, the Saudi relationship is one where China cannot afford to miscalculate. Unsurprisingly then, China’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has not just been about oil and romanticized history.

China has also chosen to continue building a strong relationship with Iran. Xi’s visit to Tehran during this trip saw the signing of agreements to cooperate on high speed rail projects, and to deepen oil and gas production (Sina, January 18). Chinese petroleum companies have partnered with Iran to explore Iran’s vast—though difficult to access—gas fields, and conventional oil exports made sanctions on Iranian exports a bitter pill. China has been building stronger military ties with Iran over the past few years (China Brief, February 4, 2015). Earlier in 2015, PLA General Staff Department (GSD) Deputy Chief Admiral Sun Jianguo, visited Iran (MOD, October 15, 2015). Perhaps in part due to this strong economic and military relationship, China has been able to act as a “neutral” party when international pressure comes to bear on Iran. State Councilor and former Minister of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in June of last year as part of China’s participation in urging Iran to accept a deal to deactivate its nuclear program (Xinhua, June 2, 2015; China Brief, July 17, 2015).

Where, then, do Chinese interests in the Middle East stand? Despite talk of “people to people” connections, national security and economic interests remain China’s primary reason for engagement in the Middle East. Though Chinese growth has slowed, and it has actively worked to diversify and expand both its energy production and sources, China will remain reliant on Middle Eastern oil for much of its energy. Its other economic interests in the region, though small compared to the trade for oil, are also growing and diversifying (See in this issue: China and the United Arab Emirates: Sustainable Silk Road Partnership?). Though China has committed itself toward building a strong relationship with Iran, the numbers seem to indicate a much deeper relationship with Saudi-aligned nations (see below).

Chinese Interests in the Middle East

(Bilateral Trade in billions of US Dollars1, Oil Exports in Percentage of Chinese Total Imports2)

Gulf Cooperation Council States

“Shia Crescent”3

Saudi Arabia

$69

16%

Iran

$53.9

9%

United Arab Emirates

$54.7

4%

Iraq

$28.4

9%

Oman

$25.8

10%

Lebanon

$ 2.6

Kuwait

$13.4

3%

Syria

$ .9

Qatar

$10.3

Bahrain

$ 1.4

1. UN Comtrade, 2014

2. Energy Information Agency, 2014

3. Note this is a notional arc of states with large Shi’a Muslim populations whose foreign policy frequently aligns with Iran.

With a foreign policy that has been determinedly agnostic toward either side in Saudi-Iranian competition, China is more likely to leverage its influence in countries on both sides of the Sunni-Shia divide to maintain stability while growing its international prestige.

Xi’s visits have two hallmarks: that China offers a neutral, “win-win” partnership to build stability, and economic rewards. Speaking at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Xi noted that “the international community should respect local actors and not seek to force a solution from without (CNTV, January 21). As the secretary of the Arab League later pointed out in an interview, China is respected as a neutral actor and a supporter of the Palestinian cause (Xinhua, January 19).

The promise of greater Chinese investment is omnipresent in Xi’s speeches. In an open letter to the Saudi people, Xi invoked the historical ties China maintained with Arabia via the Silk Road and also recalled past days of Chinese naval power by referring to Admiral Zheng He’s port calls to the region during the 15th century. Saudi Arabia and Iran both promised to expand economic cooperation through Xi’s economic initiative to tie China’s economies to wider Eurasia, the Maritime Economic Belt and New Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (the Belt and Road Initiative) (OBOR).

China, however, has chosen to show engagement and leadership in the region at an awkward moment. Saudi Arabian and Iranian ties—never robust to begin with—frayed over the course of 2015. Earlier this month, relations were shattered due to the execution of a popular Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr and Iranian accusations that its embassy in Yemen—where Iran and Saudi are fighting a proxy war—was targeted during an air strike (China National Radio, January 8). Against this background, China is expanding its ability to project power throughout the region, reorganizing its counterterrorism apparatus, and exploring new avenues for energy and investment with its partners in the region (for more details on these topics, see the other articles in this issue).

Saudi Arabia has an impressive collection of allies, and outspends its much more populous rival Iran on defense. Despite low oil prices and continuing crises to the north in Iraq and Syria and to the South in Yemen, has a strong economy. By playing a leading role in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a group of aligned Gulf States, Saudi Arabia has tremendous influence with the regions other “petro states.” With $69 Billion dollars in bilateral trade and an estimated 16 percent of Chinese oil coming from Saudi Arabia, the Saudi relationship is one where China cannot afford to miscalculate. Unsurprisingly then, China’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has not just been about oil and romanticized history. To strengthen the relationship, and perhaps promote stability in the region, China has over the years helped Saudi Arabia build a conventional missile deterrent using Dong Feng Type 3 and 21A intermediate range ballistic missiles—with Iran as the target (NTI, August 2015; Global Times, June 24, 2014). With Saudi Arabia’s new King Salman eager to roll back Iranian influence in the region, such a capability provides Saudi Arabia with a conventional (and potentially nuclear) deterrent against Iran.

China has also chosen to continue building a strong relationship with Iran. Xi’s visit to Tehran during this trip saw the signing of agreements to cooperate on high speed rail projects, and to deepen oil and gas production (Sina, January 18). Chinese petroleum companies have partnered with Iran to explore Iran’s vast—though difficult to access—gas fields, and conventional oil exports made sanctions on Iranian exports a bitter pill. Earlier in 2015, PLA General Staff Department (GSD) Deputy Chief Admiral Sun Jianguo, visited Iran (MOD, October 15, 2015). Admiral Sun, who in his role as GSD Deputy Chief is in charge of the PLA’s intelligence portfolio, also sits on the influential Foreign Affairs Small Leading Group of the Politburo Standing Committee. Though the visit was more likely a part of his official position in promoting PLA ties with foreign nations, his additional “hats” might lend more weight to his visit. China has been building stronger military ties with Iran over the past few years (China Brief, February 4, 2015). In September 2014, the PLA Navy visited Iran’s Bandar Abbas port, reciprocating an earlier visit by an Iranian naval detachment to Zhanjiang in southern China in 2013 (China News, September 20, 2014; Sina News, March 5, 2013). Perhaps in part due to this strong economic and military relationship, China has been able to act as a “neutral” party when international pressure comes to bear on Iran. State Councilor and former Minister of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in June of last year as part of China’s participation in urging Iran to accept a deal to deactivate its nuclear program (Xinhua, June 2, 2015; China Brief, July 17, 2015).

Where, then, do Chinese interests in the Middle East stand? Despite talk of “people to people” connections, national security and economic interests remain China’s primary reason for engagement in the Middle East. There are few migrants to China from the Middle East, and few Chinese students study abroad there. Though Chinese growth has slowed, and it has actively worked to diversify and expand both its energy production and sources, China will remain reliant on Middle Eastern oil for much of its energy. Its other economic interests in the region, though small compared to the trade for oil, are also growing and diversifying (See in this issue: China and the United Arab Emirates: Sustainable Silk Road Partnership?). Though China has committed itself toward building a strong relationship with Iran, the numbers seem to indicate a much deeper relationship with Saudi-aligned nations (see below).

Chinese Interests in the Middle East

(Bilateral Trade in billions of US Dollars1, Oil Exports in Percentage of Chinese Total Imports2)

Gulf Cooperation Council States

“Shia Crescent”3

Saudi Arabia

$69

16%

Iran

$53.9

9%

United Arab Emirates

$54.7

4%

Iraq

$28.4

9%

Oman

$25.8

10%

Lebanon

$ 2.6

Kuwait

$13.4

3%

Syria

$ .9

Qatar

$10.3

Bahrain

$ 1.4

1. UN Comtrade, 2014

2. Energy Information Agency, 2014

3. Note this is a notional arc of states with large Shi’a Muslim populations whose foreign policy frequently aligns with Iran.

With a foreign policy that has been determinedly agnostic toward either side in Saudi-Iranian competition, China is more likely to leverage its influence in countries on both sides of the Sunni-Shia divide to maintain stability while growing its international prestige.