Fred Halliday, in his 'The Middle East in International Relations', wrote that the history of the region up until the late 90's could have been written without taking China into account. Indeed, China represents a new player in the Middle East's geopolitical context. Such a change has been driven by its growing “energy thirst”. Despite its status as one of the major oil producers of the world – currently standing at 5th – China has remained a net importer of crude oil since 1996. Since then, its major foreign policy aim has been to secure energy supplies. According to EIA data, China has been the second largest oil consumer since 2008 with a daily consumption of 7.8million barrels (bb/d).
Despite the global economic crisis effecting China's financial, performance its energy demand has not fell. In the first quarter of 2009 the GDP rate collapsed to 6.1% compared to the 10.6% of the same period in 2009. its expected consumption of oil in 2010 will reach 8.2 million bb/d. In 2008, China imported approximately 3.9 million bb/d. According to FACTS Global Energy, half of these supplies came from the Middle East (1.8 million bb/d).
This is leading to China playing an increasingly major role in the Middle East to the point where Beijing can now be considered a key player. The Asian power has a strong and specific interest in further deepening its relations with the Gulf states as they supply the “energy lung” of the global economy. In 2008 Saudi Arabia was the most important oil exporter to China (725000 bbl/d) with Iran as the third (425000 bbl/d). Following in the list are Oman (291000 bbl/d), Kuwait (121000 bbl/d), UAE (91000 bbl/d).
Under the shadow of its pragmatic foreign policy approach, China has used economics as means to penetrate the region. Its cheaper finished products, the availability and adaptability of Chinese workers (as shown by the recent Saudi railway contract), its huge domestic market and the increasing role its coastal cities play as global financial centres have boosted Chinese penetration.
There is a specific political point that could make China an attractive partner for many countries in the developing world and especially in the Middle East. Beijing, at least from a rhetorical point of view, does not have any ambition to influence the internal politics of its allies. Moreover, it represents a successful mix of free-market economics and an authoritative and bureaucratic state. It gives an alternative model for those national elites suspicious of the Western mix of “liberalization plus democratization”, perceived as a threat. China also represents a model for 'alternative development'.
However, there are some geopolitical considerations behind this increasing presence. In the area of political primacy the US is still unchallenged, in spite of the problems Washington is facing. Gaining new allies in the Middle East and showing itself as a reliable partner of “geopolitical diversification” could be an asset for China to challenge US global hegemony. China has almost all the features of a revisionist power gaining a stronger influence in the global system. It means to play a stronger role in the geopolitical and military fields which it has been diplomatically absent from for decades.
The entrance of China into the strategic equation of the Middle East is an immensely important geopolitical development. In the past two centuries, the dominant powers of the region have been the Western countries, the Europeans until the end of the Second World War and the US since then. An increasing Chinese involvement could represent a strong challenge. The economic role of the China in the Middle East could turn into greater political activism. Its role will be multidimensional: it will be mainly focused on economics but Beijing could also represent a reliable geopolitical partner and ideological and institutional model. The transatlantic alliance should be aware of the different and multidimensional aspects of Chinese involvement in the Middle East. Addressing China's rise in the Middle East will serve not only the interests of the Western powers but it will be also a way to preserve stability and strengthen the transatlantic partnership.
Dario Cristiani is a PhD candidate in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London. He has been a political analyst with the Power and Interest News Report (PINR) from 2006 to 2008.
Related material from the Atlantic Community:
- Man Tien Hang Tim: Must the Dragon Liberalize in Order to Rise?
- Alex Glennie, Building Bridges, Not Walls, Between the West and MENA
- Ting Xu: China's Rise and the Emerging G3 Global Framework