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China’s Growing Influence on the Middle East: A New Order?

What role might China have in the Middle East, including in Palestine and Israel?

What role might China have in the Middle East, including in Palestine and Israel?

China’s presence in the Middle East has grown considerably over the past years to such an extent that Beijing has become a key player in this highly strategic region, yet until then perceived as an essentially American zone of influence.

For a long time, China has been a major customer of oil companies in the Gulf, making it a strategic partner of the peninsula’s monarchies and, subsequently, a political player in this region. Although the recent China-brokered deal restoring relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran is deemed historic, it took a lot of effort – indeed, between the monarchy of Saudi Arabia, traditionally pro-American, and Communist China, which still persecutes Uyghur Muslims, the agreement was not easy. 

However, Xi Jinping was able to take advantage of the rise of Mohammed Ben Salman in 2015 to bring about a rapprochement based both on the development of economic exchanges and Riyadh’s desire to distance itself from Washington.

And in 2014, China ensured it already; its involvement in the political issues of the Middle East would grow.

“In recent years, China-Arab cooperation has mainly focused on the economic field. […] We will also play a role in the political area”, confided Wang Yi, Chinese Foreign Minister at the time, to the Qatari media Al-Jazeera on 8 March 2014. 

For China, diplomatic success is inevitable and illustrates its growing influence with regional players traditionally allied with the Americans, notably the Saudi Kingdom. Thus, the Chinese mediation in the Saudi-Iranian file could be a new paradigm in the regional order, even worldwide.

Heavily dependent on Arab countries in the field of energy – more than 40% of its oil comes from the Gulf – Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, China, has been undertaking for several years a timely rapprochement with the countries of the Middle East. 

In January 2016, President Xi Jinping began a series of official visits to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, also known as the “New Silk Roads”. Launched in 2013 by the Chinese president, it provides for infrastructure projects such as the construction of ports, stadiums, and investments in telecommunications networks.

In March 2021, amid the resumption of Iranian nuclear talks in Vienna, Wang Yi signed a twenty-five-year “strategic cooperation” agreement with the Islamic Republic amounting to 400 billion dollars, which provides for Chinese investments in exchange for Iranian oil at a discount price. 

China’s interest in the two major regional players was reflected in Xi Jinping’s visit last December in Riyadh and that of the Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, in Beijing on 14 February.

Israel-Palestine: Could China be a major mediator?

On 14 June 2023, China and the Palestinian Authority signed a “strategic partnership” agreement in Beijing during a four-day visit by PA President Mahmoud Abbas to the Chinese capital.

“Mahmoud Abbas was the first Arab head of state received by China this year, embodying the high level of good Sino-Palestinian relations, which are traditionally friendly,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said. This invitation comes as China tries to position itself as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

During a meeting with the leader of the Palestinian Authority, Chinese Supreme Leader Xi Jinping offered to facilitate peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

“China is willing to strengthen coordination and cooperation with Palestine, push for an early, comprehensive, just and lasting settlement of the Palestinian cause,” Jinping said in a meeting with his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, according to the Chinese newspaper Global Times.

In December 2022, the Chinese president met Mahmoud Abbas in Saudi Arabia and said that China would continue to work on a “swift, just, and lasting solution to the Palestinian issue”.

China is among the first countries to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the State of Palestine. In November 1988, China established its first official diplomatic relations with Palestine, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry website.

Last December, at the Sino-Arab summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Xi Jinping affirmed his support for Palestinian efforts for Palestine to obtain full member status at the UN, where Beijing is a member of the Security Council.

Beijing has presented itself as a defender of the Palestinian cause, and of the Arab peoples in general, since the Conference of the Nonaligned in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955. Until the death of Mao, China provided financial and military support to the Palestinian armed groups, including the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) of Yasser Arafat, who personally visited China 14 times.

Today, even if Beijing stresses that it has “no selfish interest” in the Israeli-Palestinian issue and maintains good relations with both sides, China’s trade with the Zionist state has steadily increased in recent years, becoming its second-largest trading partner after the United States, with more than $16 billion in exports in 2022.

Beijing sells semiconductors there, invests in strategic sectors such as high technology, and several large Chinese companies have set up research and development centres on Israeli soil. A rapprochement closely watched by the Americans, longtime allies of Israel, in a context of growing tension with China.

Following this new move by China, the United States remains wary of the situation. Some analysts across the Atlantic see it as an intrusion into one of the backyards of American diplomacy. 

Even if Washington does not pretend to attach too much importance to Beijing’s efforts to facilitate dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, the United States knows that a third country cannot question its privileged relationship with Israel. On the other hand, the political investment of the Chinese alongside the Palestinian Authority could force Americans and Israelis to move the lines.

Among the Arab public opinion, many speculate about China’s future role in the appeasement of many conflicts, benefiting from its quiet diplomacy and its commercial and economic strength and the image it has forged as an honest mediator, unlike the negative image of American diplomacy perceived by Arabs.

Indeed, Washington is criticised for delaying the search for a solution to the Israel-Palestine issue and supporting Israel to the detriment of the Palestinians.

Thus, if the United States were to completely disengage from the Middle East and allow China to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, it would thus constitute a moral downfall of the West in the region. 

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