Over the past two decades, China has advanced its interests in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and expanded its energy focus to include economic, geopolitical, and strategic considerations. According to China’s 2016 Arab Policy paper, its cooperation with Arab states follows a “1+2+3 pattern,” wherein they focus on (1) energy cooperation (2) infrastructure construction and trade and investment facilitation, and (3) nuclear energy, space satellite, and new energy cooperation. China’s foreign policy in MENA also rests on its stated “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence,” most notably the non-interference doctrine. Beijing’s comprehensive and non-interventionist policy offers some MENA countries an enticing economic alternative to their traditional global power partner, the United States — meaning the role of the US in MENA might be due for an evolution going forward.
The central pillar of China’s 1+2+3 blueprint is its need for oil and natural gas, which MENA countries provide. This catalyzed robust trade partnerships between China and the critical regional players — most notably Saudi Arabia and Iran. China imports around half of its oil from MENA countries and is the top oil client of both Saudi Arabia and Iran. Not only that, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expects China to double its oil imports from the region by 2035. This gives China a vested interest in the dynamics and stability of MENA and in fostering strong relationships with regional powers that could be leveraged going forward.
Beyond its energy needs, the PRC focuses on infrastructure development and trade facilitation in the region, a key component of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Most of China’s BRI investment projects in 2021 targeted MENA (28.5%), with Iraq as the largest beneficiary after receiving $10.5 billion in Chinese construction contracts. Additionally, as part of the BRI, China is investing in a variety of major infrastructure projects in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel. Of particular interest is the Iran-China “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,” estimated to be worth nearly $400 billion — around 10% of China’s total BRI budget. These projects constitute an essential step toward securing China’s economic interests in MENA and ensuring Beijing's continued access to its markets.
Over the horizon, China aims to solidify itself as a global technological leader by aiding MENA countries in developing nuclear energy, space satellites, and new energy capabilities. These ambitions dovetail with the development objectives of these states, who are eager to diversify their economies and drive innovation through the pursuit of advanced technologies. By offering technological collaboration, China has positioned itself as a valuable partner to MENA countries seeking to leapfrog their development journeys.
As a result of China’s 1+2+3 blueprint, trade between MENA and China expanded from $180 billion in 2019 to $259 billion in 2021; in the same period, their trade with US declined from $120 billion to $82 billion. China is the largest trading partner of many regional powers: Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
This trend is partially explained by two causes: (1) China’s Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, specifically the non-interference doctrine, which states that China will not meddle in the internal affairs of states — something MENA states find very appealing — and (2) US congressional resistance to providing regional actors with advanced weapon systems and technologies coupled with China’s ability to fill that void. These factors, in combination with China’s economic leverage over many power players in the region, give Beijing a unique position as a possible diplomatic fixer in MENA. China’s mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which culminated in a diplomatic détente between the two rivals, speaks to this point. Reducing tensions in the Middle East’s Cold War serves China’s economic interests of securing consistent energy flows from MENA and access to the region’s markets through increased stability. China views “the promotion of greater interaction of economic interests [as] another effective means of safeguarding security.”
The implications of China’s expanded role in MENA extend to US interests in the region as the two great powers often compete on the global stage. Currently, China does not seem interested in supplanting the US as the region's security guarantor. Historically, China has benefited from free-riding off the American security apparatus in the region. That is because it provides the benefits Beijing needs — security of its energy flow and access to MENA markets — without necessitating huge military costs on China’s end. China often follows a “first civilian, then military” policy as it builds up infrastructure like ports, railways, and airports. This corroborates the prediction that China is interested in expanding its economic and diplomatic efforts in MENA while taking advantage of the American security umbrella.
Nonetheless, Washington’s influence over the Middle East has been waning. The exit from the JCPOA, America’s rocky relationship with Saudi Arabia, the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan & the subsequent withdrawal failures, and American domestic friction over the US role as a global policeman have left regional partners uncertain about Washington’s commitment to the region. Beijing filling the void should worry US policymakers, but that does not necessarily mean that they should engage in zero-sum competition with China in MENA. There are better approaches.
The US has historically been inconsistent with its foreign policy toward the Middle East. For instance, the approach of the last two administrations to the region varied greatly: Trump's divide-and-conquer policy of isolating Iran and boosting Arab partners versus Biden's policy of isolationist disengagement from the region. Such inconsistency could (1) backfire due to shifting regional dynamics towards Beijing, and (2) force MENA countries to respond to consistently changing administration policies — a turnoff for the region. A nuanced American foreign policy approach, one that might require the US to embrace multilateralism in the region, is necessary to create a balanced and sustainable policy, capable of competing with China's 1+2+3 strategy.
America should not force its Arab partners to pick between Washington and Beijing, but rather compete with China to retrieve the region into its sphere of influence. Practically speaking, this requires Washington to offer MENA countries solid alternatives to Chinese initiatives by increasing investment rather than solely focusing on security partnerships. Washington could also compete with China using soft power initiatives such as cultural and educational outreach.
The United States could collaborate with China in the region as the two powers have shared priorities in MENA: the security of the global energy flow and ensuring freedom of navigation through its waters. A zero-sum competition could spell further instability for a region in dire need of a reduction of tensions and an increase in security. However, as things stand currently, strategic competition and cooperation between Beijing and Washington in the region seem to be the name of the game for the foreseeable future.