The Sino-Middle Eastern relations: history of the past and dynamics of the present (2/3)

.: June 7, 2018

In this serie of three articles, Xiaodong Zhang discusses the interests of China in the Middle East and the relations between China and the countries in this geographical area. In this second part, Zhang explains the China’s foreign policy in the middle east. He describes China’s geopolitics in this area, its relationship to Islam, energy resources and the economic and political cooperation between the actors in this region and the middle kingdom.


Improving relations with neighboring countries and strengthening economic cooperation with the developed countries in the Americas and Europe have always occupied an important position in China’s foreign strategy. By contrast, the Middle East is located at the periphery. As the twenty-first century approaches and China’s economy becomes unavoidably linked to the entire world’s, there are reasons to reappraise the strategic significance of the Middle East for China.


Only Afghanistan among Middle Eastern countries is adjacent to China. And since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Afghanistan has lost nearly all its geographical significance. However, the rise of the Taliban indicates that a new geopolitical competition has begun. Moreover, the collapse of the Soviet Union has produced another crisis: the problematic future of the Central Asian countries, with their weak economies. Because they have many racial and religious ties with the northwest area of China, their future development will surely exert a major impact on the stability and security of that region. Now rid of Russian dominance, the Central Asian countries expect to receive selfless aid from those Middle Eastern countries with which they have historical, cultural, racial and religious linkages. Many of these countries have involved themselves in Central Asia with varying objectives, principally the rich oil and mineral resources of the area. Therefore, political and economic cooperation between China and the Central Asian countries must occur without delay. The advantages of the Middle East to China, through Central Asia, have become clear. The emergence of a greater Middle East that includes Western Asia and Central Asia seems probable. A realistic foreign policy cannot separate the two regions.


Islam exercises influence on the evolution of international relations in at least two dimensions. On the one hand, Muslims account for about one billion people, mainly living in the long arc from North Africa through the Middle East and Central Asia to South and Southeast Asia. This area covers some important hubs of communication, strategic locations, major producing and exporting countries and is the region with the most vitality in today’s world. Thus, the Muslim countries constitute an important force in international affairs. On the other hand, some countries in the Muslim world are full of poverty, backwardness, war and corruption, and their future is uncertain. The prevalence of so-called Islamic fundamentalism has greatly eroded regional stability. Many Western scholars and government officials even believe that Islamic fundamentalism already constitutes the main threat to the West after communism.

China is a big country and a big Third World country. It cannot ignore the existence and influence of the Muslim states and still seek their sympathy and support in international affairs. In addition, China has ten Muslim minorities with a population of 17 million. The Islamic religious and political ideologies from the Middle East and Central Asia often influence Muslims in China. If the religious ideologies integrate with minority separatism, it will pose a great challenge to social stability and economic development in Northwest China. Therefore, in both international and internal affairs, Islam challenges Chinese policy-making. In the face of a complicated and changeable international situation, China must soberly consider and work out a strategy and policy to deal with the key area of Islam - the Middle East.


China is a major oil-producing country, but it is also a major oil consumer. With the further growth of the economy, China’s demand for oil will increase significantly. But its oil output will gradually decrease. The present oil fields, such as Daqing, Shengli and Liaohe, are drying up. From a long-range perspective, the undersea oil field along the southeastern coast and newly discovered desert oil fields offer much hope, but they cannot quickly meet the oil demand due to a late start, backward technology and the need for huge funds. According to the most optimistic estimate, in 2000 the gap between oil supply and demand will amount to over 20 million tons. Therefore, for the next ten years (or longer) China will have to alleviate a serious energy crisis by depending on oil imports. In 1993, China for the first time became an importing country of petrochemical products, and in 1996, it became an importer of crude oil. In recent years, China has expanded international cooperation in the oil field, attempting to diversify its energy sources. However, oil from the Middle East comprises more than half of China’s total oil imports, reaching 53 percent in 1996. It seems that Middle East oil has become a major resource to meet China’s demand. Meanwhile, as a country with a population of 1.2 billion, China must consider its state and national interests. How to acquire cheap energy on the international market and protect domestic supplies are challenges we must face. Considering that China’s oil resources will dry up around 2025, and in view of present and long-term development, a strategy for developing oil and gas resources in the Middle East and Central Asia should be a top priority.

Economic and Political Security

The "openness" of China means mainly opening up to the West. The availability of funds, technology and market and management experience from the Western countries will heavily influence the success or failure of China’s modernization. In economic exchange with China, some Western countries expect that political change will naturally follow. In addition, they often use economic or non-economic means to directly interfere with China’s development process. Although China’s relations with the Western countries are interdependent, China is often in a passive and unfavorable position due to its technological backwardness and lack of investment funds. The Western countries still control most international agencies, especially those dealing with economics, trade and finance. They work out the rules of the game and decide the agenda. They even impose their own wishes on other countries and frequently threaten them with economic sanctions and trade blockades. These actions of some Western countries have constituted a threat to China’s economic and political security.

With the economy quickly expanding in recent years, the concept of a "Chinese threat" has spread. The United States and other Western countries seem to encourage hostility toward China to contain its development. In their exchange of visits, the presidents of China and the United States reached extensive consensus on Sino-U.S. relations oriented toward the twenty-first century. However, major differences between them still exist, and anti-China sentiment on Capitol Hill and within the United States is strong.

Therefore, it is predictable that Sino-U.S. relations will improve at times and meet with setbacks at other times. In the face of this situation, China needs to reappraise the international environment and reconsider its foreign policy, including its strategy toward the Middle East. Considering the position of the Middle East in the U.S. global strategy and the great potential of the Middle East for cooperation with China in the energy, trade, financial and investment fields, a more active and progressive Chinese policy on the Middle East will surely expand cooperation between China and the United States and effectively improve the economic and political security of China.

Economic Cooperation

The progress of the Arab-Israeli peace process has brought hope for economic development and cooperation in the Middle East, and regional economic cooperation has already been put on the agenda. In current international affairs, the Middle East is inherently a region in which it is easy to arouse controversy. When economic cooperation in the Middle East was merely a possibility, disputes in the international community had already appeared. The United States dominates the Middle East peace process and it certainly attempts to dominate regional economic cooperation. Europe considered that it could not invest in the region and not reap benefits. As a result, soon after the first economic summit conference of the Middle East and North Africa, held in Casablanca, Europe put forward a proposal on economic cooperation around the Mediterranean area. The dispute between Europe and the United States shows that the key strategic position of the Middle East has not decreased with the end of the Cold War. On the contrary, the Middle East seems to be more important than ever because of the realignment of political forces and the appearance of potential economic opportunity.

The countries in the Middle East are conducting economic reform to different degrees. The reorganization of their national economies, readjustment of industrial structure and gradual opening of commodity markets provides a rare opportunity for Chinese enterprises. It opens a broad prospect for China and the Middle East to cooperate in the fields of energy, desert agriculture, oil and petrochemicals. Meanwhile, it provides a new channel for China to strengthen economic ties with the European countries, because the Middle East market is near to Europe, and some countries of the South Mediterranean have signed free­ trade agreements with the European Union.

Xiaodong ZHANG © Middle East Policy Council (USA)

Xiaodong Zhang is associate professor and director of the Division for International Relations Studies at the Institute of West Asian and African Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and secretary-general of the China Association for Middle Eastern Studies.

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