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The Saudi Arabia Pavilion at the Shanghai EXPO 2010. Wojtek Gurak/Flickr
The Saudi Arabia Pavilion at the Shanghai EXPO 2010. Wojtek Gurak/Flickr
November 16, 2022

China Leans on Pragmatism in the Gulf and Middle East

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U.S.-China Nexus Podcast

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China’s global presence has extended from the far east and into the Gulf and the Middle East, not least because of some of the region’s oil-rich power brokers. 

While China has forged several strategic partnerships with members of the region, Beijing’s links remain predominantly economic in nature and are overwhelmingly managed on bilateral terms. Fudan University’s Andrea Ghiselli and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Iain MacGillivray join the show to unpack the nuances of how China is perceived by Middle Eastern states and to dispel the notion that China might displace the regional security role played by the United States.

This fall, we launched the U.S.-China Dialogue Monitor is a biweekly newsletter that draws on both U.S. and Chinese sources, with a focus on government statements and media reports. To subscribe to the newsletter, please sign up here.

Eleanor M. Albert:  Welcome to the show, Andrea and Iain. I want to pick your brains about China and the Middle East and the Gulf, but before we dig into all of that, I wanted to ask you both about how you entered this research space and how does China factor into your work with the Middle East, Turkey, and the Gulf. Why don't you go first, Andrea?

Andrea Ghiselli:  I have a background in China studies, and then I moved to IR [international relations]. And when I was looking for my topic, first for the M.A. dissertation, then the Ph.D. dissertation, I still wanted to do China foreign and defense policy. But as a European, I didn't think it was a great idea to focus too much on the Asia Pacific. So I thought, what's closer to me? And I thought, well, North Africa and Middle East [are] naturally closer to me. And so this is how I started to look at really China's relations with the wider Mediterranean region, but in reality, North Africa and Middle East mostly—trying to find a space for myself essentially.

Eleanor M. Albert: What about you, Iain?

Iain MacGillivray: I'm on the other end from Andrea. I'm actually a Middle East person, but I was doing China work and studied at Fudan University for a semester as part of my master’s in international relations. I then switched over and did Middle East politics and did another master’s in Turkey for two years, which was quite a formative time. But my original thesis and my research was on China-Middle East work.

And although I went and started talking about Turkey, part of the wider discussion in Australia has always been about China. I work in an Australian think tank. I'm currently a doctoral candidate in an Australian university, so we're always talking about China. So it was only natural that with my research in the Middle East that I would be brought back into talking about China.

Eleanor M. Albert: Let's get right into it and talk about the region and China's presence there. How is [China’s] regional presence viewed by these Middle Eastern and North African, Gulf states? Why don't you kick it off, Iain? And then we’ll turn to Andrea.

Iain MacGillivray: When we're looking at China's presence in the Middle East, it's very different depending on which country you're looking at. Somewhere like Saudi Arabia, for example, the Gulf countries, there's a lot of strategic partnerships, a lot of very deep economic engagement.

Iran particularly is one country where it's had deep ties to China. This is part of a longer tradition. China's played a massive part in its hydrocarbon markets, [to] help build up its oil industry and gas markets. It's one of those only actors, China, that's been able to get away with not being part of sanctions and kind of shielded the regime from sanctions. Of course, there's that growing closer given the ideological model, this authoritarianism that kind of brings them together. And there's a strategic partnership that comes with Iran and China.

But then we look at Turkey, and Turkey's obviously not one that many consider when looking at China's relationship in the Middle East. It's one of those burgeoning ones because of the Belt and Road Initiative. Turkey is now looking to get involved with that, given its slow shift towards more of an authoritarian system. And it's looking for a more independent foreign policy, shifting away from NATO and the West. Turkey and China see themselves as part of this growing block of authoritarian countries.

For Turkey, China presents this alternative economic and military model and support compared to someone like Russia, without the baggage of Russia. Russia has, particularly after Ukraine, a lot of baggage. But China doesn’t have that. It allows Turkey to pursue an independent foreign policy and Chinese money comes without the strings that a lot of the U.S. and NATO, and of course EU membership money comes along with. But you can see there's these different approaches to how China's regional presence is viewed, particularly amongst non-Arab, Middle Eastern countries, like Turkey and Iran.

Andrea Ghiselli: This is something that I’ve been working on for a while. My impression is that we might be at [a] moment in which because of changes in U.S. policy, changes in the region, also changes in China, it's possible that this is somehow [a] critical juncture in Sino-Middle Eastern relations. It might be; it's not really clear yet if the old patterns are

You hear different things in different countries. Of course, the fact that not in every place is the media necessarily very free or there's much debate, [makes] it also difficult to understand. Sometimes you read something in the media, but policymakers most likely are seeing something else. And [this is] especially the case when it comes to critical issues, such as whether China will play a security role in the Gulf or beyond. Sometimes, you see the discussion coming up. Some say maybe yes, some say maybe no. I honestly think that policymakers do not have much confidence in China really substituting [for] the United States. I find it very unlikely that they're so naive, so to speak, or they have such a little understanding of China's approach and interests. And especially of the Middle Eastern position in Chinese foreign policy, which is not central in any case.

The fact that there's a fairly recent economic slowdown in China is also another important issue because for a long time China was, for some, the economic model. For some, [it] was just an important market or an important source of economic development, broadly defined. Even when China slowed down, it became an opportunity because some, for example, thinking about Turkey, to say, “Well, this is our opportunity for our companies to kind of chip in, take the place of our Chinese competitors.” But for others [it] was a problem; I think about Israel and others that import a lot of pieces and components from China.

There is a very mixed understanding, especially now, about what China is and what China's going to do. Let's see what kind of China comes out of the 20th Party Congress. And even after, it'll take some time to really know what's the future direction of the BRI [Belt and Road Initiative], what's the future direction of China's relations with the United States. So a lot of variables.  

Eleanor M. Albert: Let's dive a little deeper into what some of these policy areas are that bind China to the region, but also what some of the wedge issues are that might be a challenge in managing their relationship. Economics and energy ties seem to come to mind first. Are they as prominent as they seem? What are the areas in which China is extending itself to the region, and what might prevent it from deepening its relations?

Andrea Ghiselli: Talking about the Middle East is always difficult because we have major oil-producing countries and others that have zero energy or any natural resources at all. Energy is an important binding issue, but mostly with some and not with many others. [In] recent years, the Middle Eastern markets in general, not just the Chinese market for energy, but the Middle Eastern markets for Chinese products, especially in large infrastructure contractors and so on, have become an expanding area that connects China and the region. Although that's probably going to change as well as China and the BRI change.

If you read what some Chinese scholars write, it's in the background from time to time: “how can we sustain the economic relations” and especially “what's the role of our economic relations for political relations.” Broadly speaking, I think no Chinese analyst or policymaker sees any political or diplomatic threat coming from the region really. No one willingly dares to threaten China's core interest. But of course there are issues in different countries that might from time to time create problems. China's position on regional disputes such as Syria, for example. Or if we also include the Horn of Africa, China's position when it comes to Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt for the dam in Ethiopia. That was something that the three countries tried to bring China in with really not much result.

Turkey has been quite a problematic country for many years for China. Probably not now as it used to be maybe 10 years ago because relations generally speaking with Erdogan have improved. Erdogan's style and priorities changed a lot since he came to power. And the role of the Uyghurs in Turkish politics and of course how China sees them and how China understands statements from prominent Turkish politiciansthat changed over time. I remember in the early 2000s in Chinese media were quite straightforward toward Turkey, for example, about say, “Mind your own business.” That has changed a lot over in ... if you read today. There's still something, they have negative comments but not really about this issue, but more about, for example, Turkey's role in the region. So, we see China and the region binding together, although from country to country, you might see issues that create tensions, but not really critical ones.

Eleanor M. Albert: Sure. And Iain, my presumption would be that some of the changes in the China-Turkey relationship result from a reorienting of Erdogan's position of how he wants to govern. But I also wondered if you could explore these ideas of these strategic partnerships. Economics have been a major driver here, but what are some of the strategic partnership dimensions, and how does that impact the way in which China is tied to the region?  

Iain MacGillivray: Basically, we can look at strategic partnerships in the region and China's use of strategic partnerships as a way of thoroughly engaging with the region beyond economics, more political engagement without the hang-ups of security. For example, with its relationship with Saudi Arabia, it's been one that's developed since the 1990s and has been a relationship that's moved beyond hydrocarbon resources into more areas of political engagement. Particularly we can see Saudi Arabia and China's relationship in terms of its engagement with Iran. China's been very influential in trying to, at times, mediate between the two.

Eleanor M. Albert: Over what sorts of issues?

Iain MacGillivray: One particular issue was of course the Iranian nuclear issue. China was very influential and being one of the partners [to] mitigate any Iranian nuclear proliferation.

 China has a deep strategic partnership with Iran. It's just signed a 25-year Iran-China agreement. This is obviously part of the BRI, but this is of course a deepening of Chinese products, the selling of state surveillance systems, which China is really at the forefront when it comes to tech, pushing these into markets like Iran, where it is being used by regimes for their own purposes and maintaining power. But again, these strategic partnerships are important because they allow China to engage politically, draw benefits from Middle Eastern countries, without the hang-ups of being involved in the region.

And Andrea made a really good point, and I agree with him that I don't see China playing a larger security role within the region. It will upset U.S. power, it will act as a counterbalance, but it will never replace U.S. power. China’s military, yes, there's been a huge military modernization, but in terms of capability, in terms of technology advancement, it pales in comparison to the United States and military hardware.

One of the lessons the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] learns about history is to learn from history, and it looks at the Middle East and it looks at what happens with Russia and Afghanistan, the U.S. and Afghanistan, the U.S. and Iraq, and knows that being involved too politically and being involved in security relationships in the Middle East causes huge tolls, to military personnel, to economic power, to military power. For them, I think China doesn't want to get involved. I don't see China usurping U.S. power in the Middle East, even though the U.S. is withdrawing. The Middle East is a bit of a minefield that can draw in powers and then suck away their resources very quickly.

Eleanor M. Albert: Do you want to touch on the issues that might bind or drive a wedge between China and Turkey?

Iain MacGillivray: One of the key issues there is obviously around the Uyghur issue, what's been happening in Xinjiang. Turkey has been for a long time a kind of safe haven for Uyghur dissidents. There's a large population of Uyghurs within Istanbul and throughout Turkey. This is part of the Turkish nationalist narrative around this idea of Pan-Turkism, that the Uyghurs are part of these larger, long historical Turkic tribes. And that Pan-Turkism is a very prominent thread throughout Turkish politics. So this one's been a real wedge in the relationship between China and Turkey developing beyond simplistic economic engagement or even deeper political engagement.

This has changed recently, given the shifts that have been happening domestically in Turkey—the shift to authoritarianism, particularly in the post-2016 coup attempt period. Erdogan and his ally the Nationalist Action Party, have been very quiet on the Uyghur issue and the AKP, his Justice and Development party have actually been sending dissidents back to China. So the relationship has changed. This might change again if there's an election next year in Turkey, if Erdogan loses. And that's a big if. If he does lose, the opposition, particularly, are very pro-Uyghur. So we might see that deterioration in relationship between China and Turkey happen again.

But again, the relationship between Turkey and Erdogan and the AKP at the moment has been really prominent. The AKP are looking for alternative sources, using Chinese power and Chinese economic aid, Chinese money, as it does with Russia, to counterbalance. But even China's mistrustful of Turkey because of its relationship with NATO, because its relationship with the EU. There'll always be that misgiving. Turkey's an interesting case study because it can go either way at the moment: it can become more in a China sphere, try to join the SCO [Shanghai Cooperation Organisation], but it still has these close relations with NATO and the EU, which of course I would believe makes the CCP quite suspicious of Turkey's intentions.

Eleanor M. Albert: I want to unpack some of the economic and security dimensions. I think in IR they are very often treated as separate entities. You have within the umbrella of international relations, there's international security and then there's international political economy. Increasingly the field has recognized, well, maybe there's actually much more of a tie between them. In the context of China's relationship to the Middle East, Chinese investments and its foreign aid, packaged under the Belt and Road initiative, are often considered an alternative to more traditional OECD or Western channels of funds. And not least because these are characterized as being either less risk averse or without strings attached.

But China's also had a learning curve on some of these security issues. It undertook a massive evacuation effort when conflict broke out in Libya. So how has China viewed some of the region's security concerns as it has invested? Has it changed the way that it's invested? How can we look at the regional security issues, not in terms of China wanting to be a security provider per se, but how do some of the regional conflicts or potential crises affect China's thinking? Andrea, do you want to take a stab at this?

Andrea Ghiselli: Libya was a great wakeup call that had a deep impact on Chinese foreign policymaking and China's understanding about nontraditional security issues, the fact that interests overseas are also liabilities and that the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] must play a more active role in foreign policy.

But in practice you should also pay attention to the change that happened in terms of diplomatic initiatives that China has launched, especially at the bilateral level to strengthen cooperation with other countries in the region, to ensure that they protect in the first place Chinese assets and citizens. A lot of law enforcement cooperation, especially attempts to strengthen the consulate protection system.

In general, China's been quite successful, truth be told. I'm quite skeptical about narratives that say China will definitely be part of this militarily. On the one hand it's true, crises happened. I'm thinking about Ethiopia, Iraq, in which Chinese nationalists had to be evacuated, but they evacuated very successfully, mostly thanks to cooperation with local governments, even in Iraq. So things worked out pretty well. There's always a possibility that something will go wrong even when China is cautious.

Especially now with growing tensions with the United States, I think there's even less appetite [in China] than before to really think globally in military terms. There [are] these resources, but focused in Asia primarily. As long as things work as well as they have since 2011, these are acceptable risks.

Eleanor M. Albert: Iain, do you want to give your take on some of the crises? The protests that have taken place in Iran pose some questions…The world is watching. Iran has [also] been pinched by increasing U.S. sanctions. So you would see it naturally turn towards China as a resource to help sustain its economy. Iran's in a tough place. Do you think China could have concerns about change there? Or is the relationship between authoritarian entities at the executive political level strong enough to accept certain types of risks?

Iain MacGillivray: The Iranian situation, I believe, of course, is a big concern to China because if there was hypothetically a fall of the regime, this would obviously impact China's relationship with Iran. Domestically, the China-Iran relationship has always remained a relatively elite affair. There's not really been much societal benefit. The market does have a lot of Chinese products, but there's not really any kind of soft power engagement beyond the elite affair and hydrocarbon.

When it comes to security concerns, one of the things that has been continuous throughout Chinese foreign policy discourse is about sovereignty. I think this is one thing that, particularly with the Middle East, China doesn't want to involve itself in the affairs of what goes on internally in countries because it doesn't like anybody being involved in its affairs. The Middle East has been a region that has obviously been prone to a lot of external engagement and interference.

When it comes to the Middle East, China will of course try to navigate whatever the situation for China's best interest. But fundamentally, I think, China's very wait and see. They're very proactive, particularly after Libya, about Chinese nationals, but in terms of engaging thoroughly in a security sense, I still think they're very defensive in the way they engage. You won't see a proactive China going in sending PLA.

They have the string of pearls going through Pakistan and Djibouti but they can't compete with, U.S. bases in Qatar and UAE [United Arab Emirates] and Oman. The U.S. still has a massive presence there that China can't counteract.

Eleanor M. Albert: I want to turn away from talking about China's view on the Middle East and shift back to looking at how the position taken towards China in Middle Eastern or Gulf countries could be politicized in domestic politics. I think politics exist regardless of whether it's a democratic or authoritarian society, but obviously these might manifest themselves differently. Are there other countries in the Middle East where the China issue has been politicized? How has that manifested?

Andrea Ghiselli: One [country that I think] we should all be paying a lot of attention [to] now, especially when it comes to the role of China in its domestic politics, for example, is Iraq. China has been buying quite a lot of oil over the past few years. China has become a major customer of Iraqi oil, a major source of income for the government. Especially through this now very discussed and very politicized oil-for-construction deals that have been signed by the two countries: essentially China finances projects, put forward by Iraq government using oil revenues. Every month there is someone that is against or in favor of this kind of cooperation with China, whether or not it's actually beneficial to Iraq, whether or not the government or, some government officials benefit from it more than the country, so does it fuel corruption…

Now also there are questions about China’s relations with Iran, especially in this very particular moment of Iraqi politics. What is China’s relations with Iran and what does it mean for Iraq, for the Iraqi government, for the influence of Iran inside the country and so on. Iraq is a very particular place where we see China becoming an increasingly politicized issue. Of course, there is Israel: China's been a critical issue, especially because of China's support for Palestinians and because of Israel's relations with the United States.

Policymakers in the region, will use China, in a way or the other, to boost their own legitimacy. It can be at home or abroad, Syria for example, use it just to increase its international prestige. In Egypt, it was also done to justify certain domestic economic and governance reforms. As China becomes such an important economic actor, and also diplomatic actor, if not security one, there'll be always someone that is ready to benefit by criticizing or siding with it.

Eleanor M. Albert: We'll continue with Iain. Do you want to talk about domestic politics vis-à-vis China and how that might have changed?

Iain MacGillivray: When we look at the Arab Middle East attitudes, most of the public opinion polls are actually quite positive of China, but they're not deeply held. There's a large percentage that prefers [a] stronger relationship with China. When we look at this relationship with China, we've got to look at [it] in contrast to the United States and the attitudes towards the United States because again, for a lot of Middle Eastern people and countries, the bête noire of the Middle East. A lot of countries see the United States as a larger threat economically and politically than they do China.

We see places like Algeria, Morocco, Libya, they have a very strong opinion of Chinese favorability. Places like Jordan, as well, there's a large percentage that see that they're positive towards Chinese economic and foreign aid being brought into society. It is a very interesting thing to see that China is seen as a somewhat positive economic influence in the Middle East. There's a lot of baggage that comes with [the] United States and Western aid and colonialism--baggage that China doesn't have.

Again, you see at an elite level, a lot of the elite within these countries are actually very positive towards Chinese investment for obvious reasons, because it comes without the dictates of human rights and all the other things that come with the aid that comes from places like U.S. or from Europe, for example. It’s an interesting trend to see.

When it comes to Turkey though, the Uyghur issue is a big one. Turkey's an interesting case study because it's not like the Gulf or Israel; it is a country that has been a long time at loggerheads with China.

There's a lot of people that are mistrustful of the U.S. relationship with Turkey. China doesn't have that baggage. So it's not really used as a domestic issue, except of course the Uyghur issue. This is an important issue, don't get me wrong, given what's happening in Xinjiang, but Chinese influence in Turkey isn't going to sway domestic politics as much as, let's say, the relationship between the United States and Turkey.

Eleanor M. Albert: Speaking of the U.S., we have to talk about how the U.S.'s relationship to the region factors into dynamics vis-a-vis China. Iain, do you want to touch on the impact of the U.S. overarching presence in the region?

Iain MacGillivray: Obviously for a lot of Middle Eastern countries, the United States still remains the primary security actor. We don't see the U.S. being supplanted by China. For the U.S., one of the big long-term priorities of foreign policy is of course keeping the navigational roots of oil free, for example, in the Strait of Hormuz, free for navigation.

Although there's been issues with Iran occasionally, the United States still has a huge military presence within the Middle East. China doesn't have the same footprint. It still doesn't have those same kind of security and long-term historical and sociological impacts of the U.S. presence within the region. The U.S., no matter how many times it tries to get out of the Middle East, it always gets dragged back in. The Middle East is still a priority for the United States.

[But] That relationship's starting to strain. We're seeing a lot more regional independence, a lot more independence by countries using China, Russia, these other multipolar actors [to] counterbalance against U.S. presence.

Eleanor M. Albert: Right. These countries still have agency to choose how they balance their relationship between the United States and China.

Iain MacGillivray: Look, we could see China, it's acting as a hedge. It's acting as a wedge and a hedge to U.S. power in the region. It will never supplant it. The U.S. will remain the dominant military actor for the time being. Even though it tries to pull itself out, it'll still be selling arms to Saudi Arabia, to the Gulf countries. It'll still be the one provider of aid within the region. But China will act as a wedge. So it's still going to play a role within security and the relationship vis-a-vis the United States and the Middle East. But, I don't see China supplanting or usurping because there's too many risks for China to do that.

Eleanor M. Albert: Andrea, on this question of how the U.S.'s relationship to the Middle East factors into regional dynamics?

Andrea Ghiselli: China still looks at the Middle East really through the lens of its relations with the United States. For example, cooperation with the United States in the Middle East could be a good thing to stabilize the relations in moments of tensions in Asia. Or maybe just hoping that something would happen to the United States in the Middle East and so that it would've less energy for it to focus on China in East Asia. China, I don't think, wants or has the capabilities to really take the place of the United States. But not that I think it'll probably keep on playing the role of somehow the offshore balancer, trying somehow to weaken the United States when it can from time to time, but not really putting too much effort in, unless there's something that the United States does that goes completely against Chinese interest.

So, for example, another military intervention. As we saw in the case of Syria, China, will intervene using the tools that it has, such as the veto at the Security Council of the United Nations. But at this point, the priority is on what happens in Asia. There is awareness at least, or a consensus among Chinese scholars about the fact that the United States will try to coordinate its Middle East policy with its Asia policy. A kind of a shift in the U.S. policy where the Middle East is not really focused anymore on democracy promotion or solving the problem between Israel and the Palestinians. But now at least what China believes is that the United States is really focused on China. And so that is going to be the focus of the United States’ actions, including in the Middle East.

As to other powers such as Russia and the European Union in this context: from China's perspective, the EU is not really an actor at all. The Chinese have long abandoned any hope really that the EU could play a role in the Middle East. Even on issues in which they would expect the EU to play a role such as the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]. They just don't believe that the EU is capable of acting as a unitary actor. And the single European countries [do] have not the strength to play a significant role.

As to Russia, I think there is a more ambivalent perception of Russian actions. I think if you read the Chinese academic debate, it's quite clear that Russia can destroy things, but it doesn't have the will or the capability to build something else, a new regional order, something that can really take the place of the United States. There's no confidence in that. And the situation in Ukraine simply strengthens these beliefs and this assumption.

And also Russia is to a large extent seen as a useful power that is willing to push against the United States, also intervene militarily, and it did very effectively in Syria. But at the same time, it's also one of the old powers in a way, not very different from the Europeans or the United States, seen as a greedy actor, an opportunistic one. Of course, this is a way to mostly create a difference between China and the rest of the world. But I also think there is something true in this, and that really influences how China behaves. China, for example, will not really oppose openly Russian actions in the Middle East, but also will not support them with much conviction at the same time, hoping that the situation will resolve itself. But again, it also largely depends on what the United States does. If the United States pushes, then China will probably also try to look for people that will push back on its behalf.

Eleanor M. Albert: To wrap up, I want to look a little bit towards the future, not the very far future, but in the short or medium term. Where do you see China's relationship with key actors in the region going, and what are the issues that either concern you or that you're following most closely? Andrea, why don't you start first?

Andrea Ghiselli: I honestly think that the relations with the main Middle Eastern actors will remain more or less as they are today. I don't think we will see anyone really emerging as the main partner. We'll see maybe from time to time China relying a bit more of one country than the other or favoring a bit more one than the other, being a bit more critical with one than another, but trying to keep some sort of equal distance from all of them.

Eleanor M. Albert: Who would you identify as those key actors?

Andrea Ghiselli: Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, the usual ones, Iran, Egypt to some extent, but still far from being the Egypt they used to be, The issue is that ... and, I refer to Chinese scholars here, all these countries have something to offer that can be useful to China. But they also have major problems that make them either too much of liability or too unpredictable or maybe just not capable enough of what China would like them to do.

I think China's learning a lot from the American experience. Sometimes when you have friends like this, you don't need enemies. A lot of them are U.S. allies or close partners, at the very least, and still they push back when they perceive weakness in Washington. So why should China need these kind of partners?

Eleanor M. Albert: Great. Iain?

Iain MacGillivray: For the Middle Eastern countries, China, its influence there, acts as a real wedge. It's a very important thing for shifting regional dynamics and shifting away from the U.S. kind of regional order. And we can see now the world's moved into a very multipolar world, and Middle Eastern countries will use countries like Russia, China, even India, to use them as a counterbalance to U.S. power in the region.

Beijing, I don't see them picking one particular actor that's going to be the strong Middle Eastern partner. It's very multidimensional. Every country has its problems, and in a lot of Middle Eastern countries there's huge issues around domestic politics and social movements. We look at the Arab Spring. But I think when it comes to Turkey particularly, Beijing sees Ankara as an important player in shaping and changing the rules-based order. I think Turkey has a lot of sway; it has a lot of influence in a strategic position between the Mediterranean, again, the Middle East and Eurasia.

So for China, it's using these countries for its own benefits in helping shape international organizations, bringing them onto organizations like the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa] or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. For Turkey, these are important because it allows them to have an independent foreign policy and shift away.

China will remain a kind of aloof actor in the Middle East; it will engage in economics, in political engagement. It won't engage militarily, but I think China sees countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other Gulf states as important actors in reshaping the international order.

Eleanor M. Albert: I have one final question. I am curious what you see as the value of China's more regional engagement? Historically China has a bilateral preference in managing its relationships, in conducting its foreign policy. It likes to give priority to the one-on-one dynamic. But in a place where there are so many rivalries, there are a lot of tensions, do you see China moving toward a more regional approach? Does China's relationship with the Gulf Council matter? How much is China relying on FOCAC [Forum on China-Africa Cooperation] to engage with some of the North African countries that find themselves in this Middle Eastern region?

Andrea Ghiselli: I would say that China's preference unsurprisingly will remain for the one-to-one relationship. That said, I think, China is quite flexible. When a region is more keen or more capable to behave as a region, China engages with those organizations in a way or the other. We keep of course the bilateral track as the most important one, but it'll follow the preferences of regional actors. When a region does not really behave like a region, then China will rationally pursue the strategy that it believes works best, which is of course bilateral. In any case, all these countries have their own independent foreign policies. They suspend each other from regional organizations. So why should also China really spend too much time? Why should China push those countries to create one?

Eleanor M. Albert: Any final thoughts that either of you want to share?

Iain MacGillivray: I think one of China's successes is that it's been able to engage bilaterally on a much bigger scale than a lot of countries and engage successfully. When we look at the Middle East, the Middle East is not known for regional attempts at governance or economic cooperation; they always fall down to geopolitical concerns. And I think for China, to go in and get involved with those would be very difficult. Again, what you need with these things is shared values, shared ideas, and shared norms.

It's not worked in the Middle East [is] because there are none of those shared values. The reason China's been so successful in its engagement is that it engages on a bilateral level. The Middle East doesn't have those strong regional economic frameworks, let alone geopolitical frameworks. For the time being, China will engage with the Middle East on a one-to-one basis with every actor there because every actor gives it something beneficial but also has a bit of baggage that comes with it as well.

Andrea Ghiselli: I will add just one thing. Exactly because China has been so successful bilaterally in dealing with all these countries that have decades long rivalries going on, and it still can engage with all of them with no problem. Why does it need a forum to do that when it
can just do it as effectively without investing those diplomatic and political resources necessary to do that? I imagine a lot of people, especially in the West, would be ready to wait for China's failure.

Eleanor M. Albert:  About today’s guests:

Iain MacGillivray is an analyst at Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Washington, DC, office. His research areas and expertise include Middle Eastern politics and security and detailed knowledge of geopolitics and international affairs in the Indo-Pacific. He was a 2021–22 Yale Fox International Fellow at Yale University. Iain formerly worked as a researcher and lecturer at the University of Melbourne, Australia, where he is a doctoral candidate.

Andrea Ghiselli is an assistant professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs (SIRPA) of Fudan University in Shanghai China. He is also a Non-Resident Research Fellow with the TOChina Hub and head of research of its ChinaMed Project. With a focus on China and Sino-Middle Eastern relations, your research seeks to explain how a rising power’s foreign and security policy is shaped by its own domestic politics as well as that of other countries.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position of Georgetown University.


The U.S.-China Nexus is created, produced, and edited by me, Eleanor M. Albert. Our music is from Universal Production Music. Special thanks to Shimeng Tong, Tuoya Wulan, and Amy Vander Vliet. For more initiative programming, videos, and links to events, visit our website at And don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your preferred podcast platform.