China and Russia each have their own economic and political objectives in the international arena. These two Global South powers are also both interested in challenging the dominant Western order. The Middle East seems to be a potential site for future competition between the two nations. Beijing’s efforts to influence and invest in key Middle East infrastructure will certainly expand beyond the economic sphere to further political and geopolitical ambitions. When this happens, Moscow will be keeping a close eye on the process.
At first glance, China and Russia share a common opposition to the West’s unilateralism in the Middle East. Both of the former seek to weaken US influence in the Middle East and prevent NATO’s eastward expansion. Russia is promoting de-dollarization in the Middle East and Russian President Vladimir Putin has invited major partners in Latin America, Africa, and Asia to use the Chinese yuan to settle their foreign trade accounts.
The US presence in the Middle East is clearly waning as the US shifts its focus to the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean. Although Washington remains the dominant power in the Middle East, countries in the region are gradually reducing their reliance on the US. Given the influence that both China and Russia now wield in the Middle East, the two nations could become rivals as the US presence in the region recedes.
In recent decades, China has become the main foreign investor in the Middle East. The Middle East is also an energy supplier for the "world’s largest energy consumer" and supplies 50 percent of China’s oil. China has been the Arab world’s leading trading partner since 2020, with more than $330 billion USD in bilateral trade as of 2021. In addition to signing a 25-year agreement with Iran in 2021, China made similar agreements with twelve Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Seventy-four percent of countries worldwide have signed onto China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as of 2022, including 94 percent of sub-Saharan African countries and 85 percent of the MENA region, according to AidData. There are a total of 43 BRI countries in sub-Saharan Africa and 18 in the MENA region.
Unlike China, which has pursued investment in and trade with the Middle East, Russia is more involved in geopolitical competition and power struggles in the region. In this regard, Moscow’s actions are not in Beijing’s interest. However, China’s failure to engage as directly and quickly as Russia and the US have done in the Middle East will reduce China’s geopolitical clout in the region.
To an extent, Russia lacks the kind of wealth and scientific and technological dynamism compared to China and the US, it has instead tried to use military interventions and power maneuvers to achieve diplomatic objectives for regional leverage. Russia’s fluid, transactional, and pragmatic style of diplomacy has worked well in context of political turmoil and the competitive environment of the Middle East.
Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015 was its first serious attempt to pursue this policy in the Middle East. Moscow’s pragmatic activities in Afghanistan, Iran, Palestine, Libya, and, to some extent, Yemen demonstrate that Russia is comfortable working with opposing sides of a conflict. By contrast, China refuses to back one country in the region against another or to offer political commitment to opposing parties.
Beijing is committed to the principle of non-intervention and to safeguarding shared interests through independent partnerships. Meanwhile, Moscow has pursued a more opportunistic strategy, and seems more interested in becoming involved in existing crises than identifying solutions. In other words, Moscow is less interested in the specifics of a given crisis than in the impact of that conflict on relations with the other parties involved. Instead of helping find solutions, Russia offers suggestions to keep itself engaged in the conversation. This is exactly the opposite of the Chinese approach: China considers peace and stability in the Middle East to be a clear priority for investment and continued economic activity.
China has recently become more politically engaged abroad as a result of its economic activities. For example, Beijing helped mediate the normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Although this move was welcomed by Russia, Moscow does not want Beijing to become either a political backer or arbiter in the region. Russia previously announced that it had was ready to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia in 2016, and repeated the offer in February of last year.
Russia unveiled the Collective Security Concept for the Gulf in July 2019 as part of its policy for the Arabian Peninsula. This demonstrates Moscow’s determination to becoming more actively engaged with countries in the region. China’s mediation highlights Beijing’s role as a non-Russian alternative to Western diplomatic powers in the Middle East. Russia is currently under sanctions from Western countries as a result of its invasion of Ukraine, and needs regional support from the Middle East to bypass those sanctions.
Through direct intervention in the Middle East and engagement with conflicting parties, Moscow has learned how to utilize various jihadist and proxy groups and militias to reduce the costs of its own presence. Only two weeks after the war began in Ukraine, Putin spoke about his readiness to employ 16,000 volunteer fighters from the Middle East in the war against Ukraine. Moscow has also used the Wagner Group, a Russian-affiliated private contractor, to support the Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Haftar.
Russia is undertaking this interventionist foreign policy in the region against China’s wishes. For China, the economy is the most important thing: War and turmoil put investment at risk. China’s approach is to support state-led anti-terrorist activities and to oppose transnational militia groups.
China seeks stability in the Middle East and considers Russia’s proxy activities to be at odds with its economic interests. For this reason, despite extensive cooperation between Beijing and Moscow in opposing the West’s military-political activities in the Middle East, China and Russia have found themselves on opposite sides of other issues. For example, while China "acquiesced" to the war in Yemen, Russia took a more critical stance and abstained from voting on United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2216 in April 2015.
China has also embraced a non-aligned approach to the conflict in Libya. Despite sharing Russia’s pro-al-Assad stance in Syria, China did not join its rival in vetoing a July 2022 UNSC resolution authorizing aid deliveries across the Syria-Turkey border at Bab al-Hawa.
The Sino-Russian rivalry over arms sales could also become a source of competition between the two countries in the future. China is the fourth largest arms exporter in the world (after the US, Russia, and France). Both Moscow and Beijing have experience exporting weapons to the Middle East, although Russia leads in this market by a large margin.
China’s arms sales policy is "predicated on economic gain [and] often complemented by development assistance." For its part, Russia uses arms exports to the Middle East to boost its economy and enhance its military and political influence in the region. Moscow sees arms sales as another means to increase buyer dependence and to strengthen diplomatic and other relations with countries that import Russian military supplies. The proliferation of Chinese arms might bring Beijing into confrontation with Moscow over the expanding Middle Eastern weapons market.
In recent decades, China and Russia have shared a common opposition to the dominant Western order in the world and in the Middle East in particular. However, Russia lacks the resources and technical know-how to develop the kind of economic presence that China has established in the region. Instead, Moscow has turned to a strategy of engagement, intervention, and direct presence in Middle Eastern countries. These divergent approaches could mark the beginning of a conflict of ideas between the two countries and could lead to heightened regional tensions between China and Russia in the future.