China’s BRI and MENA

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A quiet shift in geopolitics has been taking place, with East Asia and the Middle East drawing closer together. Energy trade explains part of this, as Japan, South Korea, and China are consistently among the largest export markets for Middle Eastern oil and gas. As the global economic center of gravity moves east, economic relations between the two regions are becoming increasingly deep and multifaceted.  In the case of China, the relationships have moved beyond economic interests, to incorporate strategic concerns as well. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), called “the most significant and far-reaching initiative that China has ever put forward” is dramatically expanding Chinese interests and influence in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  In its relations with MENA states, China has been steadily developing several partnership agreements. Tellingly, these partnerships have not inserted China into any regional competitions. For example, in January 2016, Xi made his first visit to the Middle East as president, stopping initially in Saudi Arabia, where the two countries signed a comprehensive strategic partnership. He then flew directly to Tehran and elevated Iran to the same level. As of 2019, China has signed comprehensive strategic partnerships with five MENA states and strategic partnerships with eight others. That Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iran, Egypt, and Algeria are the only MENA states with comprehensive strategic partnerships indicates that Beijing perceives them as the most important regional states, and also demonstrates that China’s Middle East policy is more heavily weighted toward the Gulf region. This is also evident in the fact that every Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state, except Bahrain, has signed a partnership with China.

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