The latest attacks on a Saudi Arabian oil field and processing facility have led to a sudden surge in the market price of crude oil, exposing the vulnerability of industrialized nations that rely on imported oil to fuel their economies. China is no exception.
In the past few years, China’s dependence on energy resources from the Middle East and its pursuit of bilateral ties through the Belt and Road Initiative have marked a clear departure from its earlier policy of supporting local revolutionary movements.
Israel was the first state in the Middle East to recognize the People’s Republic of China in January 1950, but the countries only established formal diplomatic ties in 1992.
Throughout the 1960s, China cultivated warmer relations with the Arab world. Seeing the Palestinian liberation as part of a global anti-imperialist struggle, it armed various guerrilla groups against Israel.
When it abandoned its support of revolutionary communism in the 1980s, China considered Israel to be a valuable strategic partner, and therefore sought broader socioeconomic and technological collaborations.
Today, China has overtaken the US as the largest buyer of oil from the Middle East, importing more than half of its crude oil from the region, which raises serious logistical problems.
First, China’s oil reserve cannot fully satisfy its level of energy consumption, but it has yet to expand its strategic petroleum reserve. The country is still vulnerable to fluctuations in oil prices caused by geopolitical and military crises in the Middle East.
Second, China does not have a powerful ocean navy to protect its oil tankers sailing through the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and the Straits of Malacca. While counting on Washington to guard these important ocean shipping lanes, Beijing’s pursuit of energy security often clashes with the US’ Middle East policy.
This political reality differs immensely from the Chinese media’s projection of the country’s willingness to assert its military influence in the Middle East.
Last year, the widely acclaimed movie Operation Red Sea (紅海行動) was released. It portrays a mighty Chinese navy that is capable of filling the power vacuum left by the US, and which undertakes humanitarian and military operations in the war-torn, yet oil-rich, region.
As the US has paid a high price to be a hegemon in the Middle East, China has deliberately kept a low profile and seldom chooses sides in conflicts.
For now, at least, countering US regional influence does not seem to be a top priority for China.
During former US president Barack Obama’s administration, Washington welcomed growing Chinese security engagements in the region and conducted numerous bilateral talks over shared interests, but US President Donald Trump suspended these diplomatic exchanges after assuming office in 2016.
To counter US suspicions, China is diversifying its energy supply system.
In times of chaos and confusion, China refers to the UN as an ideal platform to debate and seek solutions to the vital problems facing the Middle East.
In doing so, it advances the Sino-centric vision of global governance, opposing external intervention in domestic affairs of nation-states, and favoring the absolute rule of sovereign governments over individuals and intermediary organizations.
With respect to elite politics, China has cultivated long-term relationships with major ruling families and military strongmen.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has met with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman five times, and the prince has paid three high-profile visits to China.
Many Saudi Arabian oil engineers, military officers and state-owned company executives who used to go to the US for training are going to China instead.
Given the authoritarian nature of many Middle Eastern states, China perceives the region as a promising market for its technological products. The most notorious example is Huawei Technologies Co’s sale of advanced surveillance technologies to Iran.
To bypass US sanctions, Huawei has allegedly used a high-tech company in Hong Kong to develop surveillance technologies for Iranian clients, relying on the territory’s open banking system for financial transactions.
Evidently, China has embraced a holistic diplomatic strategy to reach out to the Middle East. Although still far from replacing the US as a dominant regional player, its proactive efforts are bearing fruit and the world is taking notice of its incremental expansion.
Joseph Tse-Hei Lee is professor of history at Pace University in New York City.
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