China’s big bluff in the Middle East

Despite Washington’s fear-mongering, China’s Middle East policy suffers from the lack of a real vision, which makes it more opportunistic than conquering.

Signature of a “strategic partnership” agreement between China and Iran, in Tehran, on March 27, by the two foreign ministers (Abedin Taherkenareh, Shutterstock)

Joe Biden is constantly striving to mobilize his allies against a Chinese threat that he considers global. In the Middle East, the very recent “ strategic partnership Signed between China and Iran, after five years of negotiations, and for a period of 25 years, arouses as many expectations in one camp as apprehensions in the other. Even if the details of this text have not been made public, it already guarantees the import by China of one million barrels of Iranian oil per day, in return for the opening of free zones and from a Sino-Iranian bank. In either case, it is for Tehran to circumvent American sanctions and for Beijing to take a date, while awaiting Washington’s return to the Iran nuclear deal. But these considerations are more a matter of tactical maneuvers than of a strategic vision, which Beijing is sorely lacking in this region.


China, which in 2015 became the world’s largest importer of oil, is above all guided by this imperative in the Middle East, with the constant concern to diversify its suppliers there. In 2019, China imported 45% of its oil from the region, worth $ 40 billion from Saudi Arabia, $ 24 billion from Iraq, 17 from Oman, 11 from Kuwait and just 7 from l Iran, as much as the United Arab Emirates. In this sense, the ” strategic partnership ”Between Beijing and Tehran would especially allow the Islamic Republic to catch up with part of its delay compared to other suppliers of Beijing. This is why Ghazal Golshiri saw in “Le Monde” a ” symbolic victory for Tehran, and not a turning point “. Long before engaging with Iran, China in fact signed framework agreements of at least comparable ambition with Arabia, the Emirates and Egypt, all three actively opposed to Iran’s aims. In the region.

China has invested at least a hundred billion dollars in the Middle East since the launch, in 2013, of its ” belt and road initiative (Silk), referred to by its acronym BRI. It is now highly visible in the three ports of Duqm, Oman, Jizan, Arabia, and Port Said, Egypt, which connect the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea. But this long-term commitment is based on support for all the regimes in place, whatever the differences between them. Beijing does not even pretend to try to mediate between them, juxtaposing agreements that a cycle of hostilities could ruin. This policy seems to be paying off, since, despite the commitment, including military, of Beijing in Iran, Israel has opened to Chinese investment the new container port of Haifa and certain cutting-edge start-ups, ignoring the concerns of the United States. in terms of technology transfers.


China, by establishing such cooperation, has succeeded in silencing any serious criticism in the Middle East regarding the persecution of the Muslim minority in its western province of Xinjiang. The solidarity of authoritarianisms has prevailed in this regard over the religious community, especially in the case of Saudi Arabia, a deafening silence on this subject. This is how the Uyghur question now pits the only Western democracies against Beijing’s denial, a very significant victory for Chinese diplomacy. As for the coronavirus pandemic, it has allowed China to deploy its highly media solidarity with Iran, Egypt, the Emirates or Israel, while criticizing American policy in the region. A tremendous echo has, moreover, been reserved for ” diary of a foreigner in Wuhan “, published in Arabic and in the midst of a health crisis by a 33-year-old Lebanese student, whose ignorance of Mandarin makes it even more vulnerable to ambient propaganda.

However, it is excluded that China, despite its economic power, contributes to the reconstruction of Syria devastated by ten years of conflict. It may well have supported with its own veto, in the UN Security Council, the obstruction of Russia, and therefore unconditional support for the Assad regime, Beijing is definitely only interested in solvent markets. Likewise, during last month’s conflict around Gaza, the Chinese offer to host Israeli-Palestinian talks went unheeded. Beijing only launched this test balloon to better castigate ” l’obstruction Proved by the United States to the Security Council. Chinese diplomacy, assuming it feels like it, has no expertise in the Middle East peace process. It is therefore reduced to taking a negative position against American policy, but without ever opposing it with a serious alternative. A strategy cannot be built, especially in the Middle East, on the sole preservation of the status quo and on the absolute priority given to investments.

The United States would still need to be credible in the face of the « menace » Chinese, in turn nourish a vision that goes beyond just preserving the status quo in the Middle East.