China in the Middle East: what does it mean for Russia?


© AP Photo / Saudi Press Agency

Beijing has become more active on the regional stage.

The signing of the agreement on the normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Beijing has in fact cemented a qualitatively new role for China in the Middle East. If before that China was limited to the economic sphere and did not participate in high-level political games, now the Celestial Empire has clearly declared its entry into the club of global players that actively and independently act on the regional stage.

The appearance of the "Chinese factor" in the Middle East inevitably leads to a change in the balance of power and interests of the main players. To what extent is China capable of squeezing America in the region and affecting Russia's position?

China's Middle East strategy is based on two conceptual pillars: the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) and the Global Security Initiative. They complement each other: the OBOR aims to create the broadest possible international global transport, logistics and, eventually, economic system, while the conditions for its normal smooth functioning are described in the Global Security Initiative.

Meanwhile, the economic component, the OBOR, has been the leading one; for years, China has been purposefully building a solid foundation for its relations with the Middle East and the base of its presence here. For example, back in 2016 Xi Jinping visited Riyadh and Tehran, and since then the trade, economic, financial and other relations of the countries in the region with Beijing have developed rapidly.

Although the Chinese did not go beyond purely economic ties, however, the scale of their activities was perceived with increasing irritation in Washington. The Americans offered the region their own concept of development - Trump's "deal of the century," based on the formation of a common economic space, the political formulation of which was to be the "Abraham accords."

As part of this "deal," China was given a certain place. It was assumed that Beijing should agree to it and would not claim more. In simple terms, the White House hoped that the Chinese would agree that only in Washington they could gain access to promising development projects in the Middle East.

This logic could hardly satisfy Beijing. And it is probably far from the fact that China has plans to oust America from the Middle East through a massive economic offensive. Chinese diplomacy is never directed against anyone; it is aimed at achieving the so-called "conjugation." This term, in particular, is applied to Russian-Chinese relations: the conjugation of integration processes within the framework of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Chinese OBOR initiative. Most likely, such conjugation of the OBOR with the U.S. "deal of the century" was - and still is - Beijing's strategic goal in the Middle East.

After Xi's visits to Riyadh and Tehran in 2016, the Chinese assertiveness in the region alarmed Washington. So much so, in 2021, that intelligence convinced the White House that the PRC was building the Khalifa deep-water port in Abu Dhabi, which could be used by the Chinese navy. A command was issued, and the Emirates reported that the terms of cooperation with the PRC on this project had been renegotiated.

A similar scenario developed around the Israeli ports of Haifa and Ashdod. However, neither project was shut down. Neither the Emirates nor Israel turned their backs on China. This is an indication of how seriously the region considered the prospects for the development of OBOR at that time. It was the Chinese initiative that turned out to be the most attractive against the background of the virtually frozen U.S. "deal of the century."

But why did this deal not work? It seems that the Americans in their strategy focused not on the economy, but on politics - the "Abraham Accords," which, according to Washington's logic, were supposed to prepare a solid ground for the launch of ambitious economic programs. This has thrown off the tempo that Trump was trying to set the process, and as a result, the U.S. plan has lost its appeal and competitiveness.

The Chinese continued to fundamentally work only on the economic front, ignoring politics. The correctness of this approach became fully evident when China and Iran concluded a strategic partnership agreement in 2021. It turned out that by blocking projects with China that are profitable for the countries of the region, America is no longer able to stop China's offensive in the Iranian direction and is unable to offer anything more interesting, although, of course, it can still prevent someone from doing something.

During the same period, it was reported that Beijing was allegedly helping Saudi Arabia develop missile, and even nuclear, programs. This meant that China was already encroaching on the spheres of influence on the regional balance of power. And the U.S. is no longer able to stop this encroachment.

It is logical to assume that at that time Washington understood the need to find a formula for " conjugation" of American and Chinese strategies in the Middle East. It is possible that the difficulty of this task was one of the reasons why President Biden's visit to the Gulf in 2022 was first postponed, and when it finally took place, it was so ineffective. But for China, the search for a mutually acceptable solution was hardly easy: last year's visit of President Xi to the region was also postponed from May to December... True, its results were not much better.

This was followed by the visit of Iran's president to China in February, which resulted in the launch of a practical program of strategic cooperation between the two countries. By the spring of this year, a truly solid, sustainable platform had been established to ensure China's strong and long-term presence in the Gulf. And on this basis, Beijing took the next step by elevating its regional role to a political level; the Global Security Initiative followed in the wake of the OBOR. Apparently, the Middle East is one of the first regions (along with Ukraine) where China will put this initiative into practice.

This means that the competition between the concepts of the "deal of the century" and the OBOR is complemented by the competition between the American "Abraham Accords" and the Chinese Global Initiative. But does this competition lead to confrontation? Hardly.

China's entry into the Middle Eastern political scene fits into the logic of the U.S. strategy. Judge for yourself: the normalization of relations between Iran and the KSA (and, therefore, with all the Gulf countries plus Egypt) is a crucial component of the plan to "make Iran a responsible participant in the balance of power." This normalization had been prepared for a long time, and America did not interfere in any way. Apparently, the question was who would take responsibility for it, or rather, who would vouch for Iran. Only China could take on that role. Which it did, doing the United States a great favor. Interestingly, one of the results of such a step could be a situation in which the fate of Iran's "nuclear dossier" would be decided between Washington and Beijing, while the other participants in the "Vienna format," including Russia, would be left out of the equation.

In one of the first comments on the news of the Iranian-Saudi agreements in Beijing, U.S. officials noted that Washington is primarily concerned about stopping the conflict in Yemen and shelling the territory of the KSA from Yemeni territory. The response was Iran's refusal to continue arming the Houthis, against the background of which China at the UN declared its "readiness to solve the Yemeni issue."

Perhaps these examples are not enough to state unequivocally that China and America are working on mechanisms not of confrontation, but of conjugation of their Middle East strategies. But let's look at what is going on in Israel: the severe internal political crisis has actually deprived Tel Aviv of the opportunity to conduct an active regional policy, which has opened up the widest opportunities for Chinese projects with the Arabs, Iranians and Turks. Is this a coincidence? Hardly, given the power of American influence over the Jewish state. In other words, there is good reason to believe that the (temporary) neutralization of Israel is one possible sign of the complex game Beijing and Washington are playing in the region to change the balance of global power in the region. At the same time, the Americans appear to be seeking to shift the brunt of responsibility for regional stability onto the Chinese shoulders, leaving themselves open to blocking Beijing's actions that would run counter to American interests.

This development carries significant risks for Russia, since one of the direct consequences of the U.S.-Chinese strategic "conjugation" could be the reduction of Moscow's place and role in the Middle East. For example (theoretical at the moment), we could look at Chinese mediation in Syria: China could take the initiative to replace the "Astana format" with the "Beijing format" and achieve what Moscow has not yet succeeded in - to bring Damascus and Ankara to the table. This does not look unbelievable... Is Russia ready for this?

Another example: China has proposed holding a comprehensive summit of the Gulf states, including the Arabs and Iran, in Beijing. It could culminate in the formation of a regional security structure under the auspices of the PRC. Will there be a place for Russia in it? Probably, yes. It is not for nothing that naval exercises of the Russian Federation, the PRC, and the IRI are held. And the expansion of the SCO toward the Gulf can also guarantee Russia’s participation in the regional balance. But the conditions, scale and degree of independence of such participation may be limited.

The model of Russia's interaction with the Chinese strategy in the Gulf may become a model for such interaction in other, adjacent regions, in particular, in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea, in the Eastern Mediterranean. And here, as in the Gulf, it is likely to be about integrating Russia into the logic of China's actions with the prospect of a gradual loss of freedom of action and room for maneuver.

Of course, in doing so, Russia's role, experience, connections, and active assistance will be indispensable to Beijing. But for how long? That is something to think about..