As previous IDRN Insights have stressed, the Middle East North Africa (MENA) is of great importance to the European Union not only due to its proximity to Europe but because of the region’s vast energy resources, and the political and security challenges within the area.
The 2015 migrant crisis demonstrated the importance of the MENA to the European Union for it highlighted the interconnectedness of regions and the need for the EU to have a comprehensive approach to addressing the causes of migration, such as conflict and economic instability in the region. Therefore, it is crucial European decision makers closely monitor significant developments that may impact (or even jeopardise) European interests within the region. China’s increasing influence within the MENA has the potential to do this.
Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia in December 2022 marked an important step in strengthening China-Middle East relations. During the visit, China and Saudi Arabia pledged deeper cooperation on a range of issues, including oil, security, and space research. The trip was described as a “diplomatic victory” by Chinese state media, and reflects a longer trajectory of deepening China-Middle East relations.
China has grown its influence in the region through various investments, trade, and diplomatic projects, including the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It also has an increasing security presence within the MENA. Moreover, its influence in the region is likely to increase as Beijing aims to complement the BRI with two newer initiatives, the Global Development Initiative (GDI) and the Global Security Initiative (GSI).
China’s increasing presence in the MENA region has wider ramifications for Europe, given the region’s geographic and strategic significance. However, as attention turns to the Indo-Pacific as a new arena of geopolitical competition, the region risks being overlooked by decision-makers.
Investment & aid
In recent years China has significantly increased its investment in energy in the MENA region, with a particular focus on oil and gas. This has been driven by Beijing’s growing energy needs and its desire to secure long-term energy supplies. As the largest oil importer in the world, China maintains robust relations with major oil-producing countries in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia who have become one of China’s top suppliers. This has allowed for relations between the two countries to deepen, as was evident during Xi’s trip where a joint statement from Beijing and Riyadh emphasised that strengthening energy cooperation between the two reflected the importance of the strategic partnership. China is also the top buyer of oil from many MENA states including Iraq and Iran.
China has also expanded its influence in the MENA region through its involvement in development and aid projects. In Egypt, for instance, China has invested heavily in the New Administrative Capital, the new city intended to serve as the country’s new capital. Additionally, China has provided humanitarian aid to countries in the region during times of crisis, such as the Syrian conflict.
The BRI, launched in 2013, has been a significant tool used by China to increase its influence in the MENA, and many countries in the region have signed on to participate in the initiative. In 2021, during a speech at the United Nations General Assembly, Xi introduced the Global Development Initiative which, like the BRI, is vague in terms of details but does provide a framework for both new and existing development efforts. Over 55 countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, have joined the Group of Friends of the GDI, thus demonstrating their support for the initiative. The initiative is viewed as a manifestation of China’s soft power approach and has been criticised for promoting Chinese ideology in the developing world.
Some of aspects of the GDI clash with the European Neighbourhood Policy, the EU’s foreign policy initiative designed to promote stability, security, and prosperity in neighbouring states. The EU aims to support reforms in areas such as governance, rule of law, and human rights, while promoting regional economic integration through a partnership approach that emphasises joint ownership and shared values. In contrast, China’s approach to development aid, as typified in the GDI, aims to decouple human rights from governance thus conflicting with the EU’s emphasis on democracy and human rights.
Furthermore, the pursuit of strategic interests and great power competition is increasingly shaping the landscape of development cooperation which often overshadows Sustainable Development Goals, rising inequality and climate change. China perceives such investments as a strategic move to enhance its influence, with the hope that the financial and trade cooperation will yield economic benefits for both China and its partner countries.
However, Brussels can look to collaborate with Beijing on development aid. An example of this is the construction of power plants in North Africa and the Gulf states, with the goal of providing renewable energy to Europe. As the global leader in renewable energy technology, China has expertise in similar projects in the MENA, making this a mutually beneficial opportunity for both Beijing and Brussels to advance their interests in the region through cooperation.
In addition to considerable Chinese investment Beijing has also agreed various levels of partnerships with many countries in the MENA region.
China’s use of strategic partnerships is hierarchical, ranging from a ‘Friendly Cooperative Partnership’ up to a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”. The highest level is a commitment to a full pursuit of cooperation and development but excludes any political or security commitments. In the MENA region, China has five at the top level – Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Algeria and the UAE. This is because these states offer Beijing more than just trade or economic opportunities as they are all significant political and economic regional actors, but they also have importance beyond the region too.
Both these partnerships and investments have allowed China to strengthen its political and economic ties with countries in the MENA, thus increasing its influence in the region. This could have important political implications for the EU and its ability to define itself as a significant regional actor, particularly as competition between the US and China intensifies.
Although China’s influence in the MENA region has been largely driven by its energy investments, its security presence has been relatively limited, as Beijing prefers to maintain stability in the region and has so far relied on the US to manage this. However, given the shifting international security priorities of the Biden administration, China may have no choice but to strengthen its security involvement in the region in the future.
In recent years China has increased its security presence in the MENA, conducting anti-piracy and maritime security missions in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and providing peacekeeping forces to UNIFIL. Moreover, in 2017 China established its first overseas military base in Djibouti, near the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, as a means to showcase its ability to safeguard its interests without relying on the US security umbrella, which has raised concerns about Chinese security interests and ambitions in the region.
China’s Global Security Initiative represents a geostrategic alternative to the existing global order, which China perceives as being dominated by nations that are not aligned with its interests. The main aim of the GSI is to safeguard Chinese national security interests by working with other countries on shared security issues, such as nuclear non-proliferation and climate change. Beijing hopes to build informal coalitions with like-minded nations through the initiative and establish its role in shaping the conversation around security in the MENA and other regions.
The development of the GSI may lead to an increase in China’s security presence in the MENA region. In a recent statement, China welcomed the participation of GCC countries in the GSI, highlighting a joint effort to uphold regional peace and stability while Iran has publicly supported it. Moreover, as China’s engagement in the region deepens, its approach to security cooperation is likely to become a key feature of its broader strategy.
Optimists may argue China can be a useful partner on certain security issues. For instance, China’s unique position as a comprehensive strategic partner of Iran, combined with its deep economic ties with the country, offers hope that it could play a positive role in renegotiating the JCPOA, particularly given its advocacy for regional stability. The recent China-GCC joint statement further underscores the significance of resolving the Iran nuclear issue, adding to the optimism that China could aid in securing an agreement.
China’s increasing influence in the MENA region has important implications for the EU. While the EU has long recognised the MENA’s strategic importance, it is at risk of overlooking the region amid increasing focus on other areas of geopolitical competition. China’s investments, strategic partnerships, and diplomatic projects in the region have allowed it to increase its influence, with potential implications for European interests, including energy security. However, the EU has the opportunity to take a comprehensive and integrated approach to the region, promoting stability and prosperity, and protecting its interests. As China’s influence in the MENA grows, it will be increasingly important for the EU to carefully consider the impact and take appropriate steps to safeguard its interests.
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