Skip to content
China Is not looking for adventure in the Middle East

China Is not looking for adventure in the Middle East

What will China's role in the Middle East look like in future? Read an analysis of the situation by an International Relations scholar. 

This guest post is by Atilla Can Ekici. Atilla completed his master's degree at Birkbeck, University of London in 2020. He continues his doctoral education at the University of Plymouth, which he started in 2021 under the guidance of Dr Patrick Holden. His main areas of work are Saudi Arabia, Iran, foreign aid, and the Middle East.

… But it is no more than buzz. Aggressive, mercantilist, and opportunistic, Beijing remains uninterested in choosing sides in the region’s ongoing power games.

Dan Blumenthal and Danielle Pletka, Foreign Policy, 20 July 2022

After the 9/11 attacks, America's increasing political and military presence in the Middle East caused many human and resource losses. In addition, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which was recently added to the human rights violations in the Middle Eastern countries that have always remained on the agenda, has once again created a serious indignation in American society and brought about a serious demand for America to reduce relations with these autocratic countries.

In July 2022, there was once again a widespread movement in the foreign policy of the Middle East. The highlight was US President Biden's visit to Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. The US President, who when he came to power declared that he would stay away from a country that was not governed by democracy and where a person accused of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi was the de facto leader, felt compelled to back away from his word in the face of changing political conditions.1

How can international relations students interpret the changing Saudi-American alliance? Read an analysis of the current situation:What's the future of the Saudi-American alliance?

A withdrawal from the Middle East?

Despite all these events, and despite Biden's statement at the Jeddah summit that the United States will not leave a "vacuum" in the Middle East to be filled by Russia and China, the question continues to be asked whether America will really devote less time and resources to the Middle East and focus more on the Far East this time.2

As a matter of fact, it is a matter of debate whether China, which has become America's number one competitor with its growing economy, industry, and military power in recent years, will fill the gap left by America in the event of a possible withdrawal of America from the Middle East.

In this blog post, we will evaluate the article 'China Won't Replace the U.S. in the Middle East', written for Foreign Policy magazine by Danielle Pletka, a distinguished senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and Dan Blumenthal, a senior fellow and director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

According to Pletka and Blumenthal, just over half of the crude oil imported by China last year came from the region. In 2021, bilateral trade between the Arab world and China amounted to $ 330 billion, an increase compared to the previous year. China's renowned Belt and Road Initiative boasts more than 20 partners in the Middle East and North Africa, and Beijing has signed 15 "strategic partnership" agreements with Arab countries in the last decade alone.3

Avoiding security and political disputes

But Chinese leaders have consistently avoided playing any role in security or political disputes between Arab countries, Iran, and Israel in the region with which they have forged such strong economic ties. Strategic government documents backing Beijing's westward pivot underscore economic ties and development aid, while downplaying any other role China may play.4

Moreover, as the American experience in the Middle East shows, such a role requires enormous amounts of political, economic, and military resources.5

Economic growth, described as a Chinese miracle, has slowed in recent years, partly due to maturity. While extremely poor countries have the potential to grow rapidly, growth is more difficult and therefore slows down as it approaches the level of developed countries. For this reason, China is very mature for rapid economic growth.6 Even without these, the exemplary problems that America is facing in the Middle East give China sufficient reasons not to assume America's role in the Middle East.7

According to the contrary view, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's four-point proposal on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in May 2021 amid the conflict between Israel and Hamas can be interpreted as China's interest in Middle East issues because the minister is talking about important strategic questions such as a two-state solution. But the four points themselves were completely general, encouraging dialogue by many states and calling for an end to acts of violence against civilians.8

A new role for China?

Beijing's particular indifference to democratic deficits or human rights abuses shows China as a more attractive partner than America, especially in the eyes of Arab leaders, in contrast to the United States, which attributes almost every arms sale, economic aid and development fund to such criteria. But on the other hand, China's 25-year reciprocal trade agreement with Iran has made China no longer a reliable partner. Saudi Arabia is particularly concerned about Iran's expanding influence in post-Saddam Iraq and its pursuit of alleged nuclear weapons because of its asymmetrical power and regional ambitions.9

In summary, as long as Iran and Israel exist in the Middle East, neither Arab leaders nor Israel will want to see China in America's shoes. Because although it angered the Arab states by making a deal with Iran on enriched nuclear material, the belief that America is the only country in the world that can restrain Iran makes Arab leaders and Israel dependent on America. According to the authors, the Biden administration's pressure on Tehran is far from optimal, but more than China has to offer.10

Finally, according to Pletka and Blumenthal, if the nations of the Middle East were primarily interested in money and weapons, China would step in at this point. But Middle Eastern leaders' fear of Iran seems to be suppressing other fears. At this point, Beijing is not even interested in playing a balance-of-power policy, let alone providing a security umbrella for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. On the contrary, Beijing cares about its own priorities in the region, giving only an occasional salute to local security interests, and is likely to continue to do so.11

As part of Plymouth’s MA International Relations: Security and Development, you’ll study modules such as Economic Diplomacy and Development and Strategy and Security and have the opportunity to discuss issues such as China's role in a changing Middle East. Find out more:

Explore the course


1 - John Bowden, 13 July 2022, From ‘pariah’ to ‘partner’: Understanding Joe Biden’s evolving views on Saudi Arabia, The Independent

2 - Danielle Pletka, Dan Blumenthal 20 July 2022, China Won’t Replace the U.S. in the Middle East, Foreign Policy

3 - Ibid.

4 - Ibid.

5 - Jon Hoffmann, 9 May 2022, The Middle East and the Manipulation of Great Power Competition, The National Interest

6 - Bill Conerly, 4 May 2021, China’s Economic Miracle Is Ending Bill Conerly, Forbes

7 - Danielle Pletka, Dan Blumenthal 20 July 2022, China Won’t Replace the U.S. in the Middle East, Foreign Policy

8 - Ibid.

9 - Theodore W. Karasik, Frederic Wehrey, Alireza Nader, Lydia Hansell, Jeremy Ghez - Saudi Iranian Relations Since the Fall of Saddam

10 - Danielle Pletka, Dan Blumenthal 20 July 2022, China Won’t Replace the U.S. in the Middle East, Foreign Policy

11 - Ibid.

Start something big today.

We’ll get in touch to discuss your area of interest and answer any questions. Just fill in the details below: