Alec Cadzow is Researcher to Dr Andrew Murrison MP. He previously worked for a consultancy in Jordan and specialised in Middle Eastern history at St Andrews University before that.

With Russia invading Ukraine, Indo-Pacific watchers have been debating the parallels with China’s eyeing up of Taiwan.

Indeed, Chinese meddling in the internal affairs of another country struck close to home last month, with the case of ‘Beijing Barry’ Gardiner.

As the UK formulates its China strategy to complement the tilt to the Indo-Pacific, it’s useful to look at examples of China’s efforts to intervene and gain influence elsewhere – here using the Middle East as a case study.

China’s interventionist non-interventionism

China cultivates an image of itself as a superpower which has achieved its status by taking a different route from the West’s path of liberalisation. This is a rebuke of the Whiggish narrative that liberalism (the rule of law and checks on life, liberty, and property) begets ‘progress’ – a narrative that many of Britain’s first diplomats to the east espoused.

China instead empathises with Middle Eastern autocracies – for, Victorian gunboat diplomacy was not only deployed during the Opium Wars, but also against Persians and Egyptians.

As a result, China speaks of non-interventionism. As Wang Yi, its Foreign Minister, said last year: China is “keen to work together with Arab and other regional countries to champion the policy of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs”.

But this narrative is flawed:

First, China’s argument that the answer to regional tumult lies in economic development is contradicted by the demands of protesters during the so-called Arab Spring – ‘bread, freedom, and social justice’.

Second, China is interfering. Mediation efforts have increased, with China’s five-point plan for security and stability being one example of China’s intent to amass chips in the game.

It has also used its economic leverage to persuade Muslim countries to refute the West’s assessments of human rights abuses amounting, possibly, to genocide in Xinjiang. The region’s silence on the issue has been deafening and, in Egypt, Uighurs have even deported back to China. The Comprehensive Strategic Partnership signed between the latter two countries even included the clause that ‘Taiwan is an inseparable part of China’.

It’s evident from the above and other statements – such as, “the two sides [China and the Arab states] should hold in-depth exchange on the views of governing philosophies” – that China intends to buttress authoritarian regimes, creating a network of tributary states that share common repressive structures.

China’s ‘zero enemies’ policy

Historically, as Kim Roosevelt, the CIA operative, surmised: ‘any power that has hoped to extend its domination over continents has learned that the domination of the Middle East is an essential step. And any power trying to resist continental expansion by another has learned in turn that the Middle East must be protected at all costs.’

China is conscious of this history, and iportrays itself as avoiding the zero-sum great power games of the past. Yi said on a recent visit that “the Middle East was a highland of brilliant civilizations in human history. Yet, due to protracted conflicts and turmoil in the more recent history, the region descended into a security lowland.

After all, the Middle East belongs to the people of the region. For the region to emerge from chaos and enjoy stability, it must break free from the shadows of big-power geopolitical rivalry and independently explore development paths suited to its regional realities.” Again, we can see the thinly veiled reference to western intervention – and its implied failures – with China offering a third, supposedly neutral, way.

China’s ostensible non-intervention in the Middle East is part of a careful ‘zero enemies’ policy. In a region where there are multiple opposing camps – between state and non-state actors, pro- and anti-Iran camps, Islamist and anti-Islamist supporters – China navigates by dealing with any and everyone.

Western media outlets have claimed that China has taken Iran’s Axis of Resistance side in one of these intra-regional conflicts. Evidence posited is Iran and China’s 25-year deal, signed last year and now entering ‘implementation phases’, which the New York Times claimed is worth $400 billion (this dubious figure seems to have come from a pro-Iran media outlet and is not present in the leaked agreement).

The reality is that China is siding with the traditionally western-backed status quo powers – a tacit recognition of US hegemony. The Iran-China deal is a continuation of China and Iran’s 2016 Comprehensive Strategic Partnership – the same status of deal accorded to Algeria, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt.

In 2019, China imported 17 per cent of its oil from Saudi Arabia, around 10 per cent from Iraq and only 3 per cent from Iran. This shows that Donald Trump’s maximum pressure sanctions on Iran worked: they prevented China from purchasing its oil – indicated by the 87 per cent reduction in Beijing’s purchases of Iranian crude from 2019-2020 (i.e., before and after the policy was implemented).

China’s trade with the US – despite a trade war – is worth $558 billion in total goods traded. Compare this to the $10 billion of trade done in the first five months of 2019 (which dropped to $6.4 billion in 2020) between Iran and China. China’s national oil company was even expelled from FDI-desperate Iran for not fulfilling contractual obligations.

China has therefore fudged a position which is symbolically supportive of Iran, but in reality, dependent on sanction-free western-backed countries. This might seem a clever middle way for now, as Saudi-aligned countries recognise the dichotomy and see their coffers fill at the expense of Iran; however, the sustainability of this policy will be called into question if (as expected) the US relaxes certain sanctions on Iran as it re-joins the JCPOA. In such an event, China’s policy of neutrality would be called into question, as its structural impediments to implementing the 25-year deal are removed.

Implications for policy-makers

Policy makers in Westminster have ‘lived experience’ of China’s political interference. This should be considered as we look at China’s conduct elsewhere in the world, for whilst it claims to be non-interventionist, the reality is different. Western governments should not be afraid to call this out.

Western policy makers should also be conscious of the leverage they hold. The US and the West still have influence in the Middle East – as demonstrated by the attachment which China has towards western-backed powers. China is not yet ready and cannot afford to supplant the US, and this contributes to the case for the US staying active in the region, and the UK supporting this effort.