- Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Riyadh this month to meet with Mohammed bin Salman and other leaders.
- It was seen as a message to the US, but it is a mistake to think that China has the same ambitions in the Middle East as the US.
- Natalie Armbruster is a Research Associate at Defense Priorities.
This month, Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Riyadh for a three-day meeting. to visit which included a bilateral meeting between China and Saudi Arabia, a Gulf-China summit and an Arab-China summit, reaching a consensus on energy and technology cooperation between China and Saudi Arabia.
Throughout the visit, the Western media were quick to conclude that the agreements are a message to the West, a snub to Washington and President Joe Biden.
However, assuming that China views the Middle East through the same lens that the United States has used for the past 30 years is a mistake. China has long assessed that the United States’ involvement in the Middle East is detrimental to the power and strength of the United States. Xi’s visit and China’s interest, investment and involvement in the Middle East have far more to do with shared economic interests and a stable energy supply than any potential security alliance or geopolitical aspirations.
The first thing to know is that China’s involvement in the Middle East is largely based on its energy dependency. In 2021, 72% of China’s crude oil consumption was imported. Middle East accounted for fifty% of these imports. China alone accounted for more than a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s crude exports as well.
As China remains dependent on external sources of oil and Saudi Arabia seeks profit, it is natural for Saudi Arabia and China to expand their economic cooperation: bilateral trade currently amounts to $87.3 billion.
This remains true for China’s heavy investment in the Middle East through the Belt and Road Initiative. China’s BRI investments have largely focused on building ports and industrial parks in countries such as Egypt, Oman, Saudi Arabiaor the United Arab Emirates.
One needs to know little about geography to see that China’s investments are focused on secure and stable access to vital energy and trade bottlenecks: the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, the Red Sea, the Bab Strait to the -Mandeb, the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, etc.
The second thing to know is that China is pursuing what few in the region have achieved: a friends with everyone Getting closer. Thus, as China deepens its cooperation with Saudi Arabia, Beijing has also signed a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement with Iran in 2021. The deal brings Iran out of the cold of US sanctions, pledging $400 billion in Chinese investment in exchange for heavily discounted oil supplies.
While many may read such an agreement as antagonistic, China’s interests are its own. China has a vested interest in continuing Iran’s ability to consistently supply China with oil, and an Iran that is too weak is also too unreliable. The justification for avoiding this outcome is much cheaper than a little power play.
Furthermore, China understands that these regional disputes are not related to Chinese interests. A key aspect of China’s approach to its energy supply is diversification. Taking sides between adversaries in the Middle East would only limit China’s trading partners and opportunities for mutual economic interest.
So Xi’s visit is unlikely to convey any particular alignment with Saudi Arabia in particular, as Beijing would prefer to balance its relationship with regional competitors.
Third, the US relationship with Saudi Arabia in recent years has also resembled this client relationship. However, cooperation with the United States tends to also generate greater scrutiny, including criticism of autocratic leaders or illiberal values. China and Saudi Arabia are plagued by such international disputes and resent the moral ties associated with economic or diplomatic cooperation with the West.
Therefore, during their visit, China and Saudi Arabia pledged to non-interference in internal affairs, allowing its economic cooperation to be an independent entity. Where Saudi Arabia seeks to escape criticism for its war in Yemen or the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, China seeks Arab support (aka silence) in its human rights abuses against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Both are looking for partners against this inexorable Western critic who can enter into trade deals with little or no additional baggage or expectation.
The reality is that, regardless of China’s vision of the Middle East, the potential benefits that China could reap from its investments in the Middle East are neither significant nor threatening enough to US interests to justify the current level of concern.
China seems to know that assuming the US role would be more a burden than a blessing and it has no intention of falling into the same trap as the Americans (and Russia before them) by extending their relations beyond shared economic interests or by attempting to assert their military and political will in the region.
The United States will eventually leave the Middle East with little gained and much lost. It must be remembered that China is not eager to repeat this pattern.
Natalie Armbruster is a Research Associate at Defense Priorities.