China’s growing influence and presence in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have raised concerns in Washington and around the world about Beijing’s long-term intentions and the implications for great-power competition in the arena. The MENA region has become increasingly important for Beijing’s economic interests and its quest for global influence, and many regional states have embraced China’s offerings as a means to diversify their great-power relationships. China will continue to deepen its economic and diplomatic footprint—and, to a more limited extent, its military engagement—in the MENA region over the coming years, albeit at a slower pace than the previous decade due to its renewed attention to internal development amid global uncertainty. China, however, neither seeks to nor is likely to replace the United States as the dominant security player in the region for the foreseeable future and will likely maintain its self-interested policy of neutrality in the region’s complex rivalries and local conflicts.
China’s growing geopolitical weight poses serious challenges to certain U.S. objectives, such as promoting democratic norms and strengthening human rights, in a largely illiberal arena in which states prefer partners like Beijing who do not question their governance models and domestic transgressions. At the same time, the United States and China also share common interests in the MENA region, including preserving stability and the free flow of trade. Rather than viewing the arena as one of zero-sum competition, therefore, the United States should adopt a nuanced strategy toward China in the MENA region. Washington should compete with Beijing where necessary by deepening and diversifying engagement in coordination with U.S. allies and partners to offer alternative options and to ensure that China does not become the sole economic, diplomatic, and military partner to the region. It should also strengthen political accountability, the rule of law, and human rights in the region and invest in institutional capacity building so that MENA leaders and their citizens can better manage China’s growing presence. At the same time, Washington should encourage Beijing to use its growing power to provide public goods and advance peace by welcoming its constructive contributions. And it should work with China in areas of mutual interest, such as on nonproliferation and humanitarian efforts.
China’s Strategy in the Middle East and North Africa
China’s footprint in the MENA region has expanded rapidly over the last two decades, and today it ranks among the region’s top trade partners and foreign investors. China’s engagement predates the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). But since the BRI’s official launch in 2013, Beijing has signed dozens of agreements with MENA states on infrastructure, energy, finance, and technology cooperation, in addition to softer initiatives such as cultural exchanges and promoting tourism. Energy cooperation, in particular, is one of Beijing’s top priorities—China relies on the Middle East for nearly 40 percent of its oil and natural gas imports. Beijing has also focused on establishing a so-called Maritime Silk Road, partnering with MENA states to build a strategic network of ports and industrial park complexes that provides China access to the Persian Gulf, the Arabian and Red Seas, and, ultimately, the Mediterranean. To advance the BRI and its associated economic and strategic interests in the region, China has also invested heavily in building diplomatic ties with MENA states, launching multilateral mechanisms like the China–Arab States Cooperation Forum and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation.
As China’s economic and diplomatic engagement in the region has deepened, its military presence in the general theater has naturally expanded as well. In 2017, China opened its first overseas base in Djibouti. Beijing described the base as critical for China’s continued participation in counterpiracy patrols, peacekeeping missions, and emergency rescue and evacuations, especially given the growing number of Chinese citizens and commercial interests in the region. It has also forged “strategic partnerships” and “comprehensive strategic partnerships” with almost all of the region’s states. In addition to economic, diplomatic, and cultural components, these partnerships with regional heavyweights such as Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia also feature elements of military cooperation in the form of military exchanges and, to a lesser degree, arms sales. Over the last decade, China has engaged in port calls, military exercises, and exchanges with Djibouti, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, among others. China has also become the dominant supplier of advanced armed drones to the region, filling a gap left by strict export restrictions that prevent U.S. companies from selling such technology to MENA partners. In selling heavier weapons systems to MENA states, however, China lags far behind other major players including France, Russia, and the United States. As China advances its domestic defense industry, it may very well seek to sell more arms to states in the region. But such a push would likely be motivated chiefly by commercial interests as opposed to a strategic vision for shaping the balance of power in the MENA theater.
U.S.-China Competition in the Middle East and North Africa
Although China’s military presence and engagement in the region are significant, Beijing has shown no interest to date in overtaking the United States as the region’s premier military power and security provider. The presence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the region is very modest compared to the United States’ forces, assets, and network of bases and facilities. And it is likely to remain so, given the PLA’s primary mission remains protecting China’s core interests in the East Asian theater. Even if the U.S. military were to draw down from the region, China would have little interest in rushing to fill the vacuum. As U.S. security provision diminishes, China may feel obliged to deploy greater military personnel and assets to protect its citizens and investments. But any dramatic PLA buildup in the region would require a fundamental shift in China’s grand strategy, which is premised on seeking global dominance first and foremost through economic power rather than global military expansion.
Recent news that China finalized a comprehensive strategic partnership with Iran that includes elements of both economic and military cooperation have raised concerns that Beijing is forging pacts that will destabilize the Middle East at the expense of the United States and its regional partners, including Saudi Arabia and Israel. But such fears seem overstated, given China’s strong stake and long-term interests in maintaining a relatively stable relationship with the United States and other MENA states, including rivals of Iran.
Chinese investment and trade with Iran remain minimal, especially compared to its other economic portfolios in the region. China and Iran also made headlines in December 2019, when they conducted unprecedented trilateral naval drills with Russia in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman. Analysts point out, however, that the exercise was more about signaling symbolic support for Iran than a sign of deep security cooperation between the three powers. Although Beijing certainly seeks to modify the international order to its benefit, its broader interests in regional and global stability render its outlook fundamentally different from Iran’s or Russia’s. These interests will continue to disincentivize intimate coordination with both states and limit China’s involvement in any extreme revisionism in the MENA region.
In fact, China’s strategy in the MENA region has been premised on its efforts to remain neutral in the various regional rivalries. China’s “five-point initiative” for “achieving security and stability in the Middle East,” articulated by Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his recent Middle East tour in March 2021, broadly summarizes Beijing’s long-standing approach to the region. The list included familiar exhortations for peaceful coexistence, a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nonproliferation, and specifically Iran and the United States’ return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It also indicated China’s interest in a multilateral dialogue with MENA states to promote regional security and stability, and continued cooperation on development.
In the Middle East and elsewhere, Beijing has long touted its principle of “noninterference”— a policy that implies China is willing to do business with any sovereign entity, regardless of its regime type and what it does within its own borders, as a defining feature of its diplomacy that sets it apart from other major powers. China’s “value-neutral” and mercantilist approach to the region poses arguably a greater challenge than its military ties for the United States and like-minded partners who are pushing for better governance, democratic norms, and human rights in an area of the world where most states rank in the bottom quarter of Freedom House’s global freedom index. Beijing’s diplomatic engagement in the region and its public efforts to highlight the successes of its so-called development first model—which privileges state-led economic development and stability over political reform and inclusion—and, by implication, the failures of the Western liberal model can reinforce existing nondemocratic norms and practices.
Another concerning facet of China’s engagement in the region is that while it has avoided taking sides in local conflicts, it has used its growing influence with MENA states to win symbolic support for its own core interests and policies on Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. As long as regional states face little to no domestic or international price for endorsing or at least muting their criticism of China’s official positions, they are likely to continue supporting Beijing’s policies at the United Nations and other international bodies. This carries implications for the advancement of human rights and democratic norms as well as regional stability in China’s own neighborhood as well as the broader global arena.
It is important to note, however, that MENA states do not seek to exclusively work with China. While they have welcomed China’s growing engagement, they continue to hedge by maintaining close ties with the United States and other major external powers, including European and Asian states that also have deep security and economic interests in the region. Moreover, while there have long been concerns that the United States is withdrawing from the MENA region as it turns its attention to the Indo-Pacific theater, the trajectory of China’s engagement remains uncertain as well. In response to growing global uncertainty and competition with the United States, Beijing is pushing its new “dual circulation strategy,” which calls for China to shift its attention from overseas markets and place just as much, if not greater, emphasis on developing its domestic market and domestic innovation. Chinese leaders insist that this new strategy does not mean China is turning inward and that the BRI will continue. But, realistically, China’s attention will be split and its economic investments in the MENA region are unlikely to expand at the rapid pace seen in the early days of the BRI.
Toward More Constructive U.S.-China Relations in the Middle East and North Africa
For the foreseeable future, U.S.-China competition in the MENA region will be less a contest for security partners or military dominance and more about building diplomatic coalitions and influence over regional and global political norms. By demonstrating deep economic, diplomatic, and, to a lesser extent, military investment in the region—including its recent pandemic outreach—China has generated support for its nondemocratic, “development first” model in a part of a world where authoritarian tendences are already well entrenched. It has also used its influence to generate support, albeit mostly symbolic, for its narrower core interests closer to home. Such developments challenge efforts by the United States and its like-minded partners to advance human rights and democratic norms (in the MENA region as well as globally) and to censure China for its human rights violations and destabilizing behavior within its own borders and immediate neighborhood.
However, both the United States and China, as well as other European and Asian states, share a strong common interest in ensuring regional stability and the free flow of trade and energy resources in the MENA region. Instead of viewing the theater in simplistic, zero-sum terms, therefore, Washington should adopt a multifaceted strategy for managing relations with China in the region. It should push back on the destabilizing aspects of China’s growing influence in the region by deepening and diversifying U.S. engagement in coordination with U.S. allies and partners. But Washington should also welcome Beijing’s contributions to public goods, such as humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping, the protection of sea lanes, and conflict mediation, and work with China where appropriate in the interest of peace and stability in the MENA region.