As one of nine nuclear weapon states in the world, and one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and supplemented with their burgeoning economic dominance, China holds a significant amount of power in the international community. With its economic might and nascent global expansion plans (such as the Belt and Road Initiative), China poses a threat to U.S hegemony.[i] Not only does China’s growth challenge the U.S economically, but also geopolitically: one prime example includes China’s increasing presence in the Middle East. Over the last couple years, China has developed closer relationships with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, UAE and others.[ii]
With fervent tensions abounding throughout the region, questions over the correct path to gain regional security remain in the air. China has publicly supported the establishment of a weapons of mass destruction free zone (WMDFZ) as one path to regional security; the proliferation of nuclear weapons, as well as biological and chemical weapons, provides a veil of power but only exacerbates the security dilemma, and so the support of a major player like China for a WMDFZ could initiate momentum to its realization. However, China’s geopolitical interests in the region raise questions over the hope of building such a zone.
China has publicly stated their support for a weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East on several occasions. It is party to the NPT, the BTWC, and the CWC. In a Statement during the 2020 NPT Review Conference on Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones in the Middle East, the Chinese Delegation discussed the importance of non-proliferation in encouraging regional stability and mollifying tensions. They say, “It is necessary to adopt feasible intermediate measures in a step by step manner” and advocate for the support of the international community to help implement such measures.[iii] Thus, their solution for achieving the Zone is through multilateral cooperation but also through recognition by the states themselves of the necessity for internal resolution.
China has also supported enterprises presented by the states in the region and has voted affirmatively in the General Assembly for the establishment of a NWFZ every year since 1974.[iv] In more specific cases during the 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the NPT, China submitted a report articulating the responsibilities of Iran and Israel. It reads, “China always maintains that the nuclear issue in the Islamic Republic of Iran should be solved in a peaceful manner through diplomatic negotiations. To that end, China calls on parties concerned to enhance diplomatic efforts and actively pursue a long-term, comprehensive and proper solution to the Iranian nuclear issue”.[v] In a similar vein, it also urges Israel to acquiesce to the NPT and submit their nuclear facilities to IAEA safeguards. Such regional actions also need to be accompanied by external actions: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared the “unilateral bullying acts of the United States” subverted non-proliferation aspirations, and that to restore the JCPOA, it is the U.S’s responsibility to initiate progress by easing sanctions.[vi]
Despite China’s publicly stated opinion on a Middle East WMDFZ, its growing presence in the Middle East introduces a new dimension in the geopolitical chess match of the region. With the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China will develop both economic and diplomatic relations with states such as Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. Between each of these countries there are tensions and differences in agendas, yet each value a partnership with China. The most relevant partnership to a potential WMDFZ is China and Iran’s $400 billion deal that features, in return for heavily discounted oil prices, Chinese investment in banking, ports, railways, as well as weapons development/ research and intelligence sharing.[vii] Such a deal puts the pressure on the U.S to rekindle the JCPOA, as not only does it alleviate some of the economic harm of U.S sanctions, but also fortifies Iran with the support of a major nuclear weapon power.
China is also the largest customer of Middle Eastern oil, a large portion of which is from Saudi Arabia.[viii] China has also financed several ports and industrial parks in Egypt, Oman, U.A.E, Saudi Arabia, and Djibouti, where China holds a military base.[ix] Such infrastructure gives it access to strategic points such as the Suez Canal, the Bab el Mandeb Strait, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf. Experts believe these manoeuvres aren’t intended to expeditiously establish Chinese hegemony, but advance economic and domestic political goals; these include, respectively, oil and infrastructure enterprises, as well as the absolution of their treatment of the Uyghurs with states in the region.[x] The addition of China as a more prominent player in the region with a political agenda complicates the path forward for security and peace, particularly with the nuclear issue.
China’s relationship with Iran, their oil consumption, and the growing BRI questions the power dynamics in the region and what role these dynamics play in the establishment of a WMDFZ. In a region suffering from a preponderance of tensions inhibiting diplomacy and economic cooperation, China has managed to become a common link to many states. Additionally, many of those links have been made in the wake of American failure or dereliction (e.g. Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, etc.). Furthermore, in a region plagued by the stagnating effects of power dynamics, China’s presence adds more agendas, preferences, and alliances that can further muddle an already complex objective of establishing the Zone.
One could argue that the ability for China to form relationships with these states signifies an important mind-set shift within the region toward the need for stronger diplomatic relations, as such relations are crucial for building the Zone. However, I argue that China’s support of states, particularly Iran, could prompt the Middle East to be an arena for a power competition of alliances with great powers at the helm. To compare a future conflict between the U.S and China to the Cold War would be reductionist. The U.S and Russia primarily fought over military power and ideological issues; China and the U.S’s relationship is characterized by the tension between their economic and social interconnectedness and a battle for geopolitical power. And so, Middle East countries could further fall victim to their tactics to attain such power.
As revealed over the last two decades of U.S involvement in the Middle East, the interests of the states in the region become secondary to major powers’[xi]. Such a dynamic would only magnify security issues and threat perceptions, and further stagnate the diplomacy needed for establishing the Zone. With heavy U.S and Chinese political and economic investment in the region, they both will attempt to steer security aspirations by their momentary interests. And so, while China remains an important player in the region, the path to stability and security must derive from internal sources, from the people that live in the region, so as to break away from the geopolitical chess match of major powers, and build a stable and peaceful climate internally.
* Hamilton College, New York, United States
[i] Eyck Freymann. “Influence without Entanglement in the Middle East.” Foreign Policy, 25 Feb. 2021, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/2021/02/25/influence-without-entanglement-in-the-middle-east/
[iii] “Statement by Chinese Delegation at the Second Session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2020 NPT Review Conference On NUCLEAR-WEAPON-FREE Zones and Nuclear Issues in the Middle East.” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjb_663304/zzjg_663340/jks_665232/kjfywj_665252/t1611765.shtml
[iv] “Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Middle EAST/ Steps to Advance Me Peace Process – 2010 Review CONF. of the Parties to the NPT – Report Submitted by China – Question of Palestine.” United Nations, United Nations, www.un.org/unispal/document/auto-insert-208143/
[v] “Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Middle EAST/ Steps to Advance Me Peace Process – 2010 Review CONF. of the Parties to the NPT – Report Submitted by China – Question of Palestine.” United Nations, United Nations, www.un.org/unispal/document/auto-insert-208143/
[vi] Stephanie Nebehay. “China Urges U.S. and Russian Nuclear Cuts and Progress in Iran Talks.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 11 June 2021, www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/china-urges-us-russian-nuclear-cuts-progress-iran-talks-2021-06-11/
[vii] Farnaz Fassihi and Steven Lee Myers. “China, with $400 BILLION Iran Deal, COULD Deepen Influence in Mideast.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Mar. 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/03/27/world/middleeast/china-iran-deal.html
[viii] Steven A., Cook and James Green. “China Isn’t Trying to Dominate the Middle East.” Foreign Affairs, 13 Aug. 2021, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2021-08-09/china-isnt-trying-dominate-middle-east
[xi] “Why America Can’t Quit the Middle East.” Hoover Institution, www.hoover.org/research/why-america-cant-quit-middle-east