Erzsébet N.Rózsa – Over the Periphery of the Periphery: China in the Middle East and North Africa

Erzsébet N. Rózsa is a Professor at the National University of Public Service, Budapest and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for World Economics of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. She is also an External Fellow at the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Budapest. Her fields of research include the political, security and social processes of the Middle East, Egypt, Iran, the Iranian nuclear debate, nuclear non-proliferation, as well as the Euro-Mediterranean cooperation institutions. She has published a book (in Hungarian) entitled The Arab Spring. The transformation of the Middle East in 2015, and another one with co-authors entitled The caliphate of the Islamic State in 2016. Her most recent publications in MENARA project are the Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East and (together with Rasmus A. Boserup, Eckart Woertz, Hiba Hassan and Luciano Zaccara) the Restoration, transformation and adaptation: authoritarianism after 2011 in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran.  Erzsébet N. Rózsa holds an MA in Arabic Studies, Iranian Studies and English Studies, and a PhD in International Relations.

The recent visit of the GCC Foreign Ministers to China, followed by that of the Iranian Foreign Minister, resulted in a new wave of analyses on China’s presence and role in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA): either in the context of global power rivalry between the US and China and/or an eventual ‘alliance’ between Russia and China; or in Asian terms, the great game for connectivity.

The rapidly evolving Chinese presence in the MENA region may be so far mostly of an economic – and less of a political or military – nature, yet, accompanied by an ambitious cultural push forward in the form of the mushrooming Confucius Institutes as well as Chinese scholarships, and the intensive COVID-diplomacy, the question has increasingly been asked if and when would China be ready to challenge the US position in the region. In order to formulate a guess at the Chinese options, however, a few remarks should be made first.

The MENA’s place and role in Chinese thinking

In spite of the ancient empires both in the territory of China and in the MENA region, as well as the memory of the ancient Silk Road, there were only sporadic relations between the two regions. The main hindrance – geographical distance – in the traditional Chinese view of the world arranged in ’concentric circles’ with the ’Middle Kingdom’/China in the center meant a relative invisibility, i. e. the Middle East and North Africa was/is ’the western periphery of China’s western periphery’.

Yet, with China’s global role (a permanent member of the UN Security Council, among the G2, self-perception as a responsible super-power, etc) and economic expansion (most notably the Belt and Road Initiative/BRI launched in 2013) the MENA has gained relevance in Chinese strategic thinking. While providing opportunities for the rapidly increasing Chinese economy, the MENA also serves the main Chinese aim of keeping the US as far from (East) Asia as possible. The US role of the “security provider” in the region fits into this aim as it keeps at least some US capacity tied to the MENA, and it helps China further maintain its policy of not taking sides in regional conflicts.

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China is a newcomer in the MENA

Diplomatic relations between China and the MENA states are relatively new as they were established following the declaration of the People’s Republic of China (1949) and the decolonization/independent statehood of the MENA states. Consequently, these relations have evolved  reflecting the stages of state-formation and the political developments taken by the MENA states as well as the political and economic shifts inside China: in the era symbolized by Mao Tse-tung and Zhou En-lai China’s relations to the socialist countries and within the Non-Aligned Movement were of primary relevance. China’s opening to the world in the Deng Hsiao Ping era resulted in a new point of selecting partners, namely their economic ‘usefulness’ for China. Under Xi Chin-ping Chinese foreign policy has become more assertive, including the launch and rapid expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative.

China’s slowly evolving diplomatic relations have remained bilateral in nature (an indication that China has no perception of the MENA as one region), are not meant to be alliances (China has painstakingly stayed away from taking sides in the conflicts of the region), and are ‘arranged’ into a set of different, hierarchically ordered partnerships, with only five – highest level – ‘comprehensive strategic partnerships’ (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, Egypt and Algeria).

China is not alone in the MENA region

The Middle East and North Africa is a ‘penetrated region’, where external great powers are not only present, but sometimes act as if they were regional states themselves. It has to be noted though that their interests and involvement have been shifting through space and time: the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth was mostly characterized by the European incursion in the form of colonization and the mandate system set up by the League of States  (United Kingdom, France, Italy). The Cold War brought the US and the Soviet Union to the region. In the post-Cold War era – after the relatively short period of the ‘unipolar moment’ of the United States and parallel to its narrative of withdrawal – the European Union and Russia are ‘back’, with their specific interests and relations. The EU has developed a set of Euro-Mediterranean frameworks of cooperation: the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, the European Neighbourhood Policy southern flank, the Union for the Mediterranean and the Global Strategy. Russia has been increasing its arms trade and has been offering its civilian nuclear energy technology and construction. Its ‘low cost’ participation in conflicts where the western states would not go provides Russia with the perception of a global power on the one hand, and offers it a way out of any eventual isolation (e. g. over its activities in the Ukraine and the takeover of the Crimea).

Consequently, in spite of the global trend of ‘pivot to Asia’, and with the Chinese ‘marching west’ theory built upon the eventual voids left by other external powers, Chinese interests and projects still have to be realized in competition with other external powers and have to attract both local state and society. In this competition the relative lack of Chinese soft power may prove a further obstacle.

China is not alone on the way to the MENA region

But neither is China alone on the way to the MENA region: the territory lying between China and the MENA region has through history been the scene of a competition for power among regional empires/states. Today, strategic implications as well as the rush for interconnectivity show that the three great powers of Asia – Russia, China and India – have overlapping strategic depths and (potential) spheres of interest. Though their strategic depths are typically not formulated against each other, but in response to the United States’ presence, their rooms for maneuver are overlapping. Though their focuses are different, the Russian push towards the south (the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus and the eastern basin of the Mediterranean), and the Indian presence on the Indian Ocean present a cross-section along the BRI’s land and maritime routes.

With the BRI launched in 2013, the MENA region has increasingly gained a new dimension both on the global and on the regional level.  The originally planned two routes – one maritime, one land route – have expanded and were broken down into several sub-routes, reaching out to far more countries than at the beginning. ‘Everyone wants to be in it’ – by now China has come to be present in practically all countries of the MENA region with its specific set of ‘partnerships’ offering a great variety of relationships depending on the character of the partner state and what it can offer to China. The acceptance by the local public of the projects realized in these frameworks may as yet be ambivalent, depending on the facts on the ground: where labour force is limited, as for example in the GCC countries, it is usually positive. But where unemployment is running high and local economies are struggling, as in Africa or some parts of South Asia, the temporary positive acceptance may turn sour.


The Middle East and North Africa is a relatively new, yet fast developing target of Chinese economic expansion. Nevertheless, China has to compete with other external powers – the US, Russia, the European Union – to realize its interests. A complete US withdrawal from the region, put forward by at least three consecutive US presidents, seems unrealistic in the short to medium term, and the US will still have enough capability in the region to put certain limits of China’s engagement. Yet, in consequence, regional dynamics have increased in relevance, which makes it harder for China to stick to its non-interference policies.

The Asian rush for interconnectivity and the intersections of interests of the Asian great powers may complicate China’s outreach to the MENA region: the Belt and Road Initiative projects at the moment seem to mushroom in regions and even continents well out of the main directions foreseen at its launch. While China’s credibility lies in the success of the realization of the BRI projects, two main questions still prevail: will China be able to maintain the BRI at such a rate of expansion? Can Chinese soft power – language, culture, working habits and ethics, COVID diplomacy, etc – win over the MENA societies?