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China and Russia in the Middle East: Seeking Integration Under a "Common Goal"

MEP_DAHSHAN

China and Russia have had different relations with the Middle East since the mid-20th century. Over the years, their regional involvement has diverged, with Russia focusing on military and energy sectors and China on economic engagement.

Contrary to popular belief, the Soviet Union did not introduce China to the Middle East. During the Bandung Conference in 1955, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser asked China to provide military equipment to confront Israeli strikes on Gaza, which was under Egyptian military rule. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai responded that China was relying on the Soviet Union for its armament, proposing mediation with them to provide military support to Egypt. This led to the Czech arms deal, which marked the first Egyptian-Soviet military cooperation, paving the way for Soviet influence in Egypt, the Middle East, and Africa.

According to Xiaodong Zhang, the secretary-general of the China Association for Middle Eastern Studies, "China had little interest in the Middle East. Until 1985, the trade volume between China and the Middle Eastern countries was $1.7 billion, and Maoist Communist parties had no significant presence in the region. China did not have the financial resources or privileges to offer, except for light weapons to Palestinian leftist movements, along with scholarships, labor, and expertise."

Therefore, despite their rivalry along their shared border and in Asia, China and Russia did not compete or confront each other in the Middle East. 

Therefore, despite their rivalry along their shared border and in Asia, China and Russia did not compete or confront each other in the Middle East. When Beijing stood alongside Washington against the Soviets, Afghanistan became the arena where China supported fighters opposing the Soviet presence.

After the June 1967 War, Russia lost its influence in the Middle East due to Israel's victory over Egypt and Syria. This was a significant blow, as former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat severed ties with Moscow and signed the Egyptian Israeli Peace Treaty in 1979 under US mediation. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russian influence in the region came to a complete end.

The current context

Currently, Moscow views its position and presence in the region as marginal. However, it's been strengthened through several naval and air bases and direct involvement in the Syrian war, accompanied by propaganda confirming Moscow's commitment to its allies, unlike Washington. This has generated a strong response among Arab leaders after the Arab Spring and what seemed to be an American abandonment of its ally, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

For the first time, Moscow established close relations with Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, through joint coordination to control oil markets within the OPEC+ mechanism, which has proven successful with several agreements. Its relationship with the UAE has also witnessed unprecedented growth in trade and investments and high-level coordination with Qatar, ensuring neither party infringes on the other's share in traditional gas export markets. This marks Moscow's return, for the first time since the 1970s, to supplying the Egyptian army with weapons, implementing economic projects in the Suez Canal Economic Zone, and the constructing Egypt's first nuclear reactor in Dabaa on the Mediterranean coast.

In turn, China has become a major trading partner for all Arab countries and has surpassed the US economically in its traditional sphere of influence in the Gulf region. It has become the largest buyer of Arab oil and has established good relations with all conflicting parties, such as the Palestinians and Israelis, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Through mediation between the latter two, relations that had been severed between them since 2016 have resumed.

Speaking on Chinese-Russian relations in the Middle East, and Iraq in particular, Baher Mardan, an Iraqi researcher, diplomat, and one of the leading architects concerning the development of Chinese-Iraqi relations, says, "The current relations are based on a hidden alliance while relying on a foundation of cooperation and strategic partnership out in the open. They are also based on integration, with Russia as the spearhead and China as the handle, aiming to change the rules of the game and establish a multipolar international system."

He discusses the differences between the two countries, saying, "We see that there is a divergence in orientations and strategies, as Moscow has the historical experience and strategic tools that enable it to play an active and multifaceted role. While Beijing lacks historical experience in the region, which it sees as complex and sensitive, it still possesses soft power, represented by economic keys, enabling it to achieve influence and impact without a desire to fill the vacuum at the current stage." In his opinion, despite the difference in orientations, "Russian-Chinese understanding can achieve the principle of balancing roles globally, and in the region in particular, in the wake of the unipolar era."

Therefore, there is no serious competition between the two countries, but rather a difference in priorities. Moscow focuses on military-technical relations, ensuring Syria stays within its orbit while organizing energy markets with Arab Gulf states and Algeria and obtaining Arab support or positive neutrality towards its conflict with the West, as well as breaking the Western isolation imposed on it after its war on Ukraine. On the other hand, Beijing focuses on the economy and security of maritime routes, oil flow, infrastructure projects, and its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.

In recent years, the aspirations of both countries in Syria have become prominent, with apparent Russian efforts to bring China into the Syrian arena for several reasons. 

In recent years, the aspirations of both countries in Syria have become prominent, with apparent Russian efforts to bring China into the Syrian arena for several reasons. Russian Israeli professor at Saint Petersburg State University, Artyom Kirpichenok says, "Russia has been trying for more than ten years to involve China in reconstruction projects in Syria, most notably in the oil sector, where China was one of the largest investors before the start of the Syrian war. The volume of trade exchange between the two countries reached approximately 2.48 billion dollars in 2010, with around 30 Chinese companies operating in Syria. China occupied the first place among Syria's trading partners, accounting for 6.9% of Syria's total trade."

So far, China has refrained from the Russian invitation, which Kirpichenok attributes to Beijing's desire "to see stability in the region, the first of which is reaching peace with Israel," alongside "considering its priority relations with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the rest of the Arab Gulf countries, which were not as open to Bashar al-Assad's regime as they are now."

The Iranian issue

The Russian-Chinese relationship with Iran involves several complexities. The two countries have common interests and shared concerns about forming better relations with Arab Gulf countries and not portraying themselves as supporters of any party hostile to Israel. Conversely, Iran represents economic and geopolitical importance for both countries. This dilemma has been resolved through an integrative process between the two parties. Beijing becomes Tehran's economic 'airway' to keep it alive under suffocating and harsh Western sanctions, while Moscow serves as Tehran's military-technical supporter and diplomatic backer. 

Moscow, lacking the economic means to support Tehran, favors Chinese over Western influence in the region. Washington's unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018 has bolstered the positions of both countries in the Iranian arena. According to Russian professor Leonid Savin, who is the administrative head of the International Eurasian Movement and a frequent visitor to Tehran, "Russia and Iran are cooperating very successfully in several areas, and they have made significant progress and come a long way compared to where they were ten years ago."

Regarding Sino-Iranian relations, he states, "The two countries have a high level of partnership, with a readiness to strengthen and develop it." Moreover, there is no Russian concern about the growing Chinese economic influence in Iran; "On the contrary, China's increasing presence may motivate Russia to intensify its activities and develop trilateral projects, which is extremely crucial for strengthening multipolarity."

MENA’s role in global shifts


Former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski validates the argument that there is a significant power shift towards Eurasia and the Pacific Ocean in his book, The Grand Chessboard, and states that "Eurasia is the heart of the world and the center of the new post-Cold War conflict." The failure to integrate China into the Western liberal system, despite its growing economic capabilities, imposes this formula on the US in the Pacific. Despite new dynamics, the Middle East remains crucial, not diminishing in importance, but reinforcing its role as the pivotal arena affecting the balance of geopolitical conflicts, tipping dominance towards one party over another.

For its part, Moscow believes that its economic revival is merely a matter of choice, given its possession of endless natural resources. However, this revival cannot be achieved solely through Russian efforts; it requires Western technology and capital. Therefore, Moscow sees its openness to the West as contingent on overturning its geopolitical defeat and regaining its traditional influence in the Soviet space, with Ukraine at its heart. Otherwise, it will be unable to impose its conditions, even if it becomes a major economic power; it will remain hostage to Western capital, which is Beijing's mistake, according to the dominant view within the Kremlin. Thus, Moscow's primary task is to impose conditions to ensure the independence of its decision-making rather than to cooperate and open up to the West from a position of strength.

Similarly, Russia cannot guarantee the fulfillment of its geopolitical demands without good relations with the Arab Gulf countries and Algeria to ensure the stability of energy markets, in addition to neutralizing the rest of the Middle East countries, such as Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and Israel, and linking them to interests with Russia, while continuing its dominance over Syria. Without the Tartus naval base, the Russian Black Sea Fleet becomes limited in its capabilities and unable to confront the US Sixth Fleet in the Sea of Azov and Sevastopol, expand towards the Red Sea and Africa, or even access the Atlantic Ocean and Latin America.

China needs the energy resources provided by Iran and the Arab Gulf states, as well as access to the vast markets of the region, which has a population that exceeds half a billion. It also harbors concerns about the growing separatist sentiments in the predominantly Muslim Xinjiang region. Without solid relations with the countries of the region, its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative cannot come to fruition.

Moscow and Beijing lack visions for a new global order contrary to the current one and have no desire to dismantle it. However, they seek to change its rules.

Moscow and Beijing lack visions for a new global order contrary to the current one and have no desire to dismantle it. However, they seek to change its rules, allowing them to partner more "fairly." This is based on granting them full rights to dominate their traditional spheres of influence, where neither party interferes or infringes on each other's interests, and each party pledges to secure the interests of the other in the areas under its influence. On this basis, they can become cooperative partners with the US and acknowledge leadership of Washington.

Russian policy integrates well with its Chinese counterpart to achieve this without significant competition or serious disputes. Hence, their relationship appears to be complementary in the Middle East. However, this does not negate the existence of differences between them. Yet, current understandings will continue to govern their relations in light of their goal of altering the power balances in the current global order Middle East. This does not mean there won't be any change or shift in the relationship towards a more competitive or confrontational framework once this goal is achieved.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not express the official position of the Wilson Center.

This article is part of an ongoing collaborative series on Sino-Arab relations with Reseef.22.

About the Author

MEP_DAHSHAN

Ahmad Dahshan

Doctoral Student, Chief Editor, Center for Arab-Eurasian Studies
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more