China’s Strategic Partnerships Are Remaking the Middle East

June 30, 2023 Topic: China Region: Middle East Tags: ChinaArab StatesIsraelGreat Power Competition

China’s Strategic Partnerships Are Remaking the Middle East

Washington cannot afford to take China's growing presence in the Middle East for granted.


In the twenty-first century, Chinese foreign policy is widely reflected in developing global partnerships and expanding interests with other countries as geopolitical instruments for power and influence. China has resorted to building a global network of strategic partnerships (flexible political cooperation based on informal political bonds) instead of broad formal alliances (which often target external enemies based on defense treaties). While traditional alliances can potentially expose Chinese diplomacy to high risk, partnerships are perceived as more flexible and interest-driven. Such partnerships denote a shared commitment to managing unavoidable conflicts so that the two countries can continue working together on vital areas of common interest. 

Building strategic partnerships worldwide is one of the most important dimensions and instruments of Chinese diplomacy to achieve geopolitical goals. In the competitive Middle East dominated by Washington, Beijing has had to build a regional presence that does not alienate the United States or any Middle East states while pursuing its geopolitical interests, even as the U.S. security umbrella offers a low-cost entry into the region. China’s partnerships with the Middle East states broadly tend to correspond to the three major categories of partnerships: comprehensive strategic partnerships (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates), strategic partnerships (Turkey, Jordan, Qatar, Iraq, Oman, and Kuwait), and innovative comprehensive partnership (Israel). Through strategic partnerships usually founded on economic interests, China has pursued its Middle Eastern geopolitical interests bilaterally without adopting region-wide or multilateral goals. It can say that Beijing's circle of friends in the Middle East is getting broader and more diverse (See Table 1).

Sources: Mordechai Chaziza, China Middle East Diplomacy: The Belt and Road Strategic Partnership. Great Britain: Sussex Academic Press, 2020.

China was among the first countries to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the State of Palestine as a sovereign state in 1988 and has since provided diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians. China has also been a vocal supporter of the Palestinians in international forums and has called for a just and lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the two-state solution. The strategic partnership agreement signed by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Chinese president Xi Jinping in June 2023 shows China's commitment to supporting the Palestinian people and the close relationship between the two countries (marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of establishing formal relations). It also signifies China's willingness to be more active in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Xi called the strategic partnership an “important milestone in the history of bilateral relations.”

The China-Palestinian Authority (PA) strategic partnership is significant for both countries. For China, it is an opportunity to deepen its engagement in the Middle East and to gain a foothold in a region that is increasingly important to its economic and strategic interests. For the PA, the agreement is a sign of China's growing support for the Palestinian cause and a potential source of much-needed economic and political support. The strategic partnership includes an economic and technological cooperation pact, a deal on mutual visa exemption for diplomatic passports, and a friendship between the Chinese city of Wuhan and Ramallah. Overall, China-Palestine relations have maintained a positive growth momentum in recent years. The two sides launched the first round of negotiations on a free trade zone and signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Belt and Road Initiative cooperation. The trade between the two countries in recent years has grown steadily and, in 2022, reached $158 million, reflecting a 23.2 percent increase compared to the previous year (see Figure 1). The China-Palestine strategic partnership is a significant development that has the potential to benefit both countries. However, it is important to note that the partnership is still in its early stages, and it remains to be seen how it will be implemented and its long-term impact.

Sources: China Customs Statistics, 2023.

The Prospects and Obstacles

China's establishment of a strategic partnership with the PA is another sign of its growing interest in the Middle East and its desire to increase its regional influence. China has been steadily increasing its economic and political engagement in the Middle East in recent years, and this partnership is another step in that direction. The strategic partnership with Palestine is the twelfth partnership China established in the Middle East (see Table 1). This shows that China is increasingly interested in the region and is looking to expand its influence there. Nevertheless, China's influence in the Middle East is still relatively limited. The United States is still the most powerful great power in the region, and it will need to do more to build its influence if it wants to become a significant player in the Middle East. Therefore, the importance of the strategic partnership between China and Palestine is mainly in the economic and bilateral spheres. The two countries have already signed several economic cooperation agreements, and the strategic partnership will likely lead to even more cooperation in the future. China is also expected to provide Palestine with financial and technical assistance, which will help to boost the Palestinian economy.

China has been a long-time supporter of Palestine and has provided economic and humanitarian assistance to the PA. China's aid has been essential in recent years as the PA has struggled to meet its financial obligations. China aided Palestine in the construction of more than forty projects, including schools and roads, the Palestinian Foreign Ministry building; sent expert teams, medical supplies, and vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic; and recently pledged a further $1 million donation to the Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. Upgrading China-Palestine relations to a strategic partnership will provide a framework for increased cooperation on various issues, benefiting both countries. It has the potential to help Palestine's economic development and humanitarian situation.

China relies on strategic partnerships to bolster its diplomatic posture in the Middle East and give large Chinese companies a leg up when negotiating infrastructure and digital deals with the local governments. China has historically shown sympathy toward the Palestinians in public. Still, it has focused more on its relations with Israel (a close ally of the United States) in practice due to technology and commercial interests, and the two sides established an innovative comprehensive partnership. China-Palestine trade is small two-way trade that only totaled $158 million in 2022, compared with $17.62 billion with Israel. China has become Israel’s third-largest trading partner. Still, it remained far behind the EU ($49.19 billion) and the United States ($22.04 billion), even though Israel trades with China more than any other European country. 

Overall, the China-Israel relationship is complex and has challenges and opportunities. China is looking to Israel for technology and commercial opportunities, while Israel is looking to China for investment and support. The increased tensions between the United States and China, however, could affect the China-Israel relationship. Therefore, Israel is forced to conduct its trade relations with China out of economic and commercial interests while considering U.S. demands and taking advantage of opportunities.

Moreover, China supported the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict to enhance its worldwide image and bolster its great power status. Over the years, China has promoted several multipoint peace plans to facilitate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process on multiple occasions, but with little success. However, China's recent success in brokering a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia could give it renewed hope of playing a more active role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

The China-Palestine strategic partnership comes when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at a standstill. The renewed hostilities, Palestinian internal divisions, increased Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, and a far-right government in Israel have all dampened sentiment toward negotiations in the near term. These longstanding obstacles in the Palestinian-Israel relationship led China to mainly be limited its diplomacy to construction, manufacturing, and other economic projects in the region. Only time will tell how the China-PA strategic partnership will ultimately impact the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

China's growing presence, through strategic partnerships, in the Middle East poses significant challenges to the United States' wide range of vital geopolitical, geostrategic, and geo-economic interests. The United States, however, still has several advantages, a long history of engagement in the region, strong ties with many Middle Eastern countries, and a strong military presence. Washington cannot afford to take China's growing presence in the Middle East for granted. It needs to continue to engage with the region, strengthen its ties and alliances with Middle Eastern countries, and be prepared to compete with China's strategic partnerships for regional influence.

Dr. Mordechai Chaziza is a senior lecturer at the Department of Politics and Governance and the Multidisciplinary Studies in Social Science division at Ashkelon Academic College (Israel) and a Research Fellow at the Asian Studies Department, University of Haifa, specializing in Chinese foreign and strategic relations.

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