Is China Benefiting From Instability In The Middle East? – Analysis

By Reid Standish

(RFE/RL) — A rocket barrage on a strategic air base in northern Israel sent from Lebanon by Hizballah is the latest in a growing string of events in the Middle East that analysts say could boost China’s standing in the region and create new opportunities for it to expand its influence.

That January 6 attack adds to other intensifying violence — from attacks by Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthis on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, strikes by Tehran-linked groups on U.S. bases in Iraq, a deadly bombing in southern Iran claimed by the Islamic State group, and the ongoing war in Gaza — that highlight rising instability that could undermine efforts by the United States and its allies to prevent a regional escalation in the Middle East.

In the face of this fluid environment, observers have pointed to the potential diplomatic and political opportunities for China — from siphoning U.S. attention away from the Indo-Pacific to being able to showcase its diplomatic leadership — whose influence in the Middle East has grown extensively in the last decade.

The large-scale humanitarian crisis and mounting civilian casualties in Gaza from Israeli strikes launched in response to the October 7 attack by Hamas — designated a terrorist group by the EU and the United States — that killed some 1,200 people, has been an opportunity for China to blame the hostilities on the United States’ Middle East policies.

At international bodies like the United Nations, Beijing has taken aim at Washington and accused it of double standards as part of what experts believe is a campaign designed to not only boost its influence in the Middle East, but across the Global South as well.

But how much sway does Beijing actually have in the Middle East and how well positioned is China to use it to further its goals in the region and beyond?

How China Approaches The Middle East Crises

China has charted a cautious policy on the Israel-Hamas war in which it has sought to contrast itself with the United States as being against foreign interventions and neutral in the conflict. But Beijing has not explicitly condemned Hamas and has grown increasingly critical of Israel as it stepped up its campaign in Gaza.

Beijing has so far managed to transform this stance into some diplomatic gains.

On November 20, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi welcomed Arabic and other Muslim ministers to Beijing for a conference as part of a diplomatic push to end the war in Gaza in a move that experts say sought to take advantage of perceived gaps in Western policy.

“China is a good friend and brother of Arab and Islamic countries,” Wang said. “We have always firmly safeguarded the legitimate rights and interests of Arab [and] Islamic countries and have always firmly supported the just cause of the Palestinian people.”

In the other crises in the region, Beijing has similarly looked to paint itself on the side of peace while pursuing its own interests.

China’s Foreign Ministry quickly condemned the January 3 twin bombing in Iran that killed dozens but has not commented on attacks in Iraq targeting U.S. bases carried out by Iranian-backed militia groups. Beijing has spoken in vague terms about Hizballah’s missile barrages into northern Israel and an assassination in Beirut blamed on Israel, making vague calls for a calming of tensions while explicitly not mentioning any group by name.

In approaching the Huthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, China has charted a slightly different course.

A Hong Kong-flagged vessel was attacked by Huthis in December and Cosco, the Chinese state-owned shipping giant that holds almost an 11 percent share of the trade market, suspended shipping to Israel through the Red Sea on January 8.

Some Chinese analysts, such as Jiang Limeng of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, which is connected to the country’s Ministry of State Security, have warned that the Red Sea problems could harm Chinese interests by raising energy prices, curbing global trade, and contributing to wider instability in the Middle East. But other Chinese experts view the attacks as an opportunity.

In a video posted in late December on Douyin, the domestic Chinese sister app of the social-media platform TikTok, Xiao Yunhua, a professor at the People Liberation Army’s National Defense University, argued that the Huthis “inadvertently did China a big favor” because choking the shipping lanes will likely lead to the increased use of Chinese-built and -backed railways for overland trade between China and Europe.

“The Huthis have indirectly contributed to the shift in transportation from sea to land, undermining U.S. maritime supremacy and promoting [Beijing’s] international strategy of global multipolarity,” Xiao said.

Is Chinese Influence Growing?

China has cast itself as a neutral geopolitical player in the Middle East and in recent years has boosted its standing with regional players like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Energy, particularly oil, has been behind much of Beijing’s recent outreach.

China is the world’s top buyer of oil from Saudi Arabia — the world’s second-largest producer behind the United States — and half of China’s oil imports and a little more than one-third of all the oil burned in China, comes from the Persian Gulf, according to Kpler, a global intelligence consultancy.

China has also more than tripled its imports of Iranian oil in the past two years, according to Kpler.

China also promised Iran in 2021 to invest a reported $400 billion in the country in exchange for oil and fuel supplies, though Western sanctions against Tehran have prevented Beijing from realizing the terms of that sprawling agreement.

Beijing has also been active diplomatically.

In June 2023, China elevated its relationship with the Palestinian Authority to a “strategic partnership” — the second-highest rank in Beijing’s diplomatic interactions and Chinese leader Xi Jinping offered a three-point proposal for a path toward a two-state solution meant to achieve “a just and lasting solution to the Palestine issue.”

In March 2023, Beijing also brokered a deal to help Iran and Saudi Arabia restore relations, which helped boost China’s standing as a peacemaker in the region.

Analysts say that raised expectations for China to play a larger diplomatic role following the outbreak of war in Gaza, but that Beijing has so far not lived up to those expectations.

Fan Hongda, a professor of Middle East studies at Shanghai International Studies University and well-known scholar on the region, wrote in November that Beijing could face numerous problems if the Israel-Hamas war continues and instability spreads to other countries.

“With Beijing already paying great attention to the Palestinian issue, other countries — and especially the Middle East — are scrutinizing China’s ability to respond to the Gaza-Israel war,” he wrote. “This is clearly a challenge for China as well.”

That warning has since played out. China’s mediation efforts have largely tapered off following its November conference and China’s Middle East envoy, Zhai Jun, has kept a low profile since his sole visit to the region in October.

The war in Gaza has also greatly damaged Beijing’s relationship with Israel, which had previously become an increasingly close partner in the Middle East and where Chinese companies invested heavily into cutting-edge technologies and strategic ports in the country.

Short-Term Opportunity Vs. Long-Term Risk

Fan also warned that the growing instability is against China’s interest as it would push the region away from a focus on trade and economic investments and instead increasingly towards security. “[If] the situation in the Middle East continues to worsen, Middle Eastern leaders will inevitably focus more on national security, which is not a core area of China-Middle East cooperation,” he wrote.

While China has shown that it can respond to opportunities, Fan warned that a drawn-out conflict could expose Beijing’s limits in the long-run.

While Wang has spoken with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to discuss stabilizing the region, the United States has emerged as the only actor with enough diplomatic power to engage across the Middle East.

Blinken is currently on a regional tour that includes Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank, Egypt, Turkey, and Greece. Meanwhile, questions remain over whether Beijing is willing or able to exercise pressure on Tehran or its partners to lower tensions.

“China can do little to convince Iran to rein in Lebanese Hizballah from attacking Israel in the north nor stop Iraqi [Shi’ite] militias from harassing American troops and diplomats,” wrote Ahmed Aboudouh, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“Even if it could, the Chinese would not go out of their way and endanger their relations with strategic partners to give Washington a free win,” he added.

This situation could ultimately backfire on China should instability continue to spread, wrote Niu Xinchun, director of Middle East Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, which is run by China’s Ministry of State Security and based in Beijing.

“If the Middle East really plunges into full-scale turmoil, China, as the region’s largest trading partner and the largest buyer of Middle East oil, will turn out to be the biggest victim,” he wrote.

Niu added that China remains the only permanent member of the UN Security Council that does not have a military base or troops stationed in the Middle East and will have less influence to use as the conversation shifts to national security issues.

“[China’s] influence on the emergence and scale of crises in the region is limited,” he wrote.

  • Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.