Hudson Institute Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East

China in the Middle East | December 5, 2022

12.05.2022 China in the Middle East
Moroccan and Chinese officials sign a memorandum of understanding to promote trade between the two countries in Rabat, Morocco, on November 30, 2023. (Twitter via HAIDAAbdelali)

General Context

Saudi Arabia’s Chinese-Arab Summit 

A Chinese delegation, headed by President Xi Jinping, is expected to arrive in Riyadh on December 7. We regard the invitation to Xi as part of a general hedge away from the United States, but Saudi Foreign Affairs State Minister Adel al-Jubeir implicitly rejected such an analysis when he depicted the visit as “natural,” given the “huge equities” in the relationship with China.

During Xi’s visit, Saudi Arabia will host a Chinese-Arab summit on December 9. Many Arab leaders and foreign ministers are expected to attend the summit, which will likely produce several agreements between China and Arab states regarding energy, security, and investments. Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani confirmed his country’s participation during a recent meeting with Cui Wei, the Chinese ambassador to Iraq, where they discussed increased collaboration in energy, investment, the economy, and culture, as well as the general development of bilateral relations. 

In an official report by China’s Foreign Ministry ahead of Xi’s visit to the kingdom, entitled “Report on Sino-Arab Cooperation in a New Era,” Beijing reiterated its claim to be focused primarily on trade and emphasized that it does not seek to gain a geopolitical advantage over the United States—a sure sign that the exact opposite is true.

Pentagon’s “China Military Power” Report

The Pentagon released its annual “China Military Power” report to Congress on November 29, finding that China has “significantly” increased efforts to engage with countries in the Middle East. Beijing, the report states, is searching for additional military bases and other means of projecting military power into the region.

China and the Iran Protests

Together with Russia, among others, China voted in the United Nations Human Rights Council against a resolution condemning Iran’s harsh treatment of the protestors demonstrating against the regime. 

FIFA World Cup

At the 2022 World Cup, hosted in Qatar, China has an outsized presence, despite not having a team on the field. Chinese companies funneled $1.4 billion in sponsorship revenue to the tournament, more than any other country. They also played a major role in producing the event, which—with a projected audience of 5 billion viewers over the course of the tournament—is enjoying record-breaking TV audiences. The China Railway Construction Corporation, a state-owned entity, won a $764 million contract in 2016 to build the Lusail Stadium, which hosted the opening ceremony and will also host the championship match. Additionally, China helped build the Al Kharsaah Solar Power Plant, which contributes much of the renewable energy to support the tournament.

Main Developments

Algeria’s Military Buildup

Algeria is in talks with China North Industries Group Corporation Limited, a state-owned defense corporation internationally known as Norinco, for the SY-400 short-range ballistic missile launcher. In combination with the Russian-built Iskander-E ballistic missile system and the Chinese-constructed YJ-12B anti-ship cruise missile, which Algeria has received in the past, the SY-400 will significantly enhance the capabilities of the Algerian military, especially in comparison to its historic adversary, Morocco.

These military talks contribute to China’s proclaimed goal to enable North African and Middle Eastern countries to determine their own destiny, rather than be swayed by what the Chinese Communist Party describes as “international intervention,” a euphemism for Western influence. By putting its thumb on the scales against Morocco, which is aligned with Israel and the West, China once again demonstrates that—although it deals commercially with all players—its sales serve a strategic purpose. Beijing is shifting the balance against the American-led alliance system and is placing Morocco between a rock and a hard place.

China’s policy in the Maghreb steals a page from its Gulf strategy. In their recent piece “Overmatch,” Hudson Senior Fellows Michael Doran and Can Kasapoğlu explain how China’s support for Iran does not alienate the Gulf Arab states. On the contrary, it pushes them toward Beijing, whose support they seek to moderate the Iranian threat. An American policy truly focused on deterring Iran would allow Washington to compete more effectively with China, but the Biden administration is opposed to getting tough with Tehran. The administration is now repeating in North Africa the same type of mistake it has been making in the Gulf, with the result that Morocco, too, is turning toward Beijing for assistance.

Morocco’s Memorandum of Understanding and Defense Negotiations

Moroccan Minister of Industry and Trade Ryad Mezzour and Chinese Ambassador to Morocco Li Changlin signed a memorandum of understanding on November 30 that calls for establishing a working group to foster bilateral trade by simplifying procedures and promoting economic cooperation. 

Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces are also currently in talks with the defense firm China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) to negotiate the purchase of weapons, including missiles and precision-guided bombs. Rabat is also looking to purchase Wing Loong drones

These will not be the first arms deals between Morocco and China, which is now arming both sides in the conflict over the Western Sahara. As with its courtship of America’s Gulf allies, China’s ability to influence Morocco positions Beijing as an alternative to the West as a source of investment funds and military equipment, one with no limitations based on human rights concerns and, in the case of weapons, end-user restrictions. In our view, the Chinese goal, at this stage, is not to supplant the United States outright but to diminish its status as the decisive strategic actor on the world stage.

Egyptian-Chinese Entrepreneurs Association

Trade relations between China and Egypt increased rapidly over the last five years and appear set to grow even more. In Cairo on November 28, Chinese and Egyptian business communities launched a new joint platform—the Egyptian-Chinese Entrepreneurs Association (ECEA)—designed to develop investment opportunities in areas the Egyptian government prioritizes, such as renewable energy, advanced industrial technologies, and pharmaceuticals. It will also bolster cooperation in strategic industries, including space technology, artificial intelligence, and e-commerce. Mohamed Maait, the Egyptian minister of finance, highlighted the importance of the Suez Canal Economic Zone in furthering the goals of the Belt and Road Initiative, underscoring the importance of Egypt as a logistics and economic hub for China. 

The Egyptian rhetoric around the launch emphasized that Cairo does not share America’s threatening view of the Belt and Road Initiative. 

Defense of Syria

On November 29, Geng Shuang, China’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, repeated earlier Chinese criticisms of the United States’ involvement in Syria. Speaking to the United Nations Security Council, Shuang argued, “We must firmly defend Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” He also called on Turkey and Israel to cease cross-border attacks immediately and prioritize diplomatic negotiations to resolve tensions.

In a December 2 press conference, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian condemned American presence in Syria, accusing the American forces of stealing Syrian oil from US-occupied oil fields and transporting it to northern Iraq in military tankers. He argued that this action is yet another example of the US violating international rules and laws, undermining its stated endorsement of “the rules based international order.”

It is not the first time that China has publicly criticized US involvement in Syria. These criticisms contribute to China’s perennial themes, namely, that the United States is a rapacious imperialist and a nefarious manipulator of the domestic policies of weaker countries.  

Tiandy Under Scrutiny

Chinese technology company Tiandy has come under fire in Washington for selling surveillance technology to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In a November 30th letter to the Biden administration, Florida Senator Marco Rubio called for determining whether the company is acting in violation of US laws that mandate sanctions on entities responsible for or complicit in human rights abuses. The company’s dealings with Iran, Rubio wrote, raise “serious questions about whether Tiandy’s products are being used against peaceful Iranian protesters.”

While the national security threat posed by the 5G networks of Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, has been the subject of much debate in Washington, less attention has been paid to the seven other internationally sanctioned Chinese companies that have sold surveillance technology to Iran over the last 20 years.

Final Notes

Huawei in Kuwait

Huawei has made its way to Kuwait. Preorder sales of its new phone, Huawei Mate 50 Pro, will be available starting from December 12. 

China and Lebanon Travel Agreement

On November 29, Chinese Ambassador to Lebanon Qian Minjian and Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib signed an agreement to exempt travelers holding official passports—including diplomatic and service passports—from visa requirements. Minjian said this agreement will reaffirm the value China places on bilateral relations and the strategic importance of Lebanon within the Belt and Road Initiative. 

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