Chinese policy in the Middle East has grown more active over the past decade. With its overriding goal of securing oil and gas to fuel China's economic growth, the Chinese government has actively cultivated its relations with the oil-rich Middle East, especially Iran and Saudi Arabia. In their dogged pursuit of this goal, Chinese policymakers have been more than willing not only to undercut U.S. nonproliferation efforts but also to work closely with governments that export Islamism—despite Beijing's concerns about China's own increasingly assertive Uighur Muslim population. Rather than distance itself from these promoters of jihad, the Chinese government has gambled that embracing Iran and Saudi Arabia in lucrative oil and weapons deals will buy it some protection from their export of political Islam.
Though Beijing has historically tried to avoid direct confrontation with Washington, China's new Middle East strategy is inimical to U.S. nonproliferation goals. Beijing may pledge to adhere to U.S. counter-proliferation policy, but its willingness to cultivate relations with Middle Eastern states, on the back of sales of both conventional weapons and materials applicable to weapons of mass destruction programs, indicates that its promises are insincere. Indeed, as China has grown more confident, it has more brazenly challenged U.S. policies. Consider two recent events: the first was an op-ed published on the eve of the U.S. presidential elections in the official China Daily and attributed to former Chinese foreign minister Qian Qichen, one of China's most distinguished diplomats. Qian blasted the Bush administration's foreign policy:
Qian's open criticism of a central tenet of Bush administration policy reflects the intensity of Beijing's concern with Washington's Middle East strategy, which it sees both as advancing the encirclement of China and creating a norm of regime change against undemocratic states. If the Chinese government perceives that Washington is serious about making democratization the centerpiece of U.S. Middle East policy, Beijing will resist it even more intensely, seeing such a policy as an implicit challenge to the Chinese communist party's legitimacy at home.
The second event came just days after Bush won reelection, when Chinese foreign minister Li Zhaoxing flew to Tehran to conclude an oil and gas deal between China's state-owned Sinopec and the Iranian oil ministry worth approximately $100 billion (US) over thirty years. The purpose of Li's visit was clearly to exploit tensions between Washington and Tehran over Iran's nuclear program. His trip came against the backdrop of delicate European Union-led negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program and U.S. threats to refer the Iranian nuclear matter to the United Nations Security Council.
After the oil deal was signed, Li announced that China would refuse to refer the issue of Iran's nuclear program to the Security Council. Li's announcement signified that decades of Sino-Iranian cooperation was bearing fruit for both parties: China would get the oil and gas its economy desperately needs while Iran would finally win the political support of a reliable and weighty friend. Beijing bet that an open challenge to U.S. policy would not result in any negative repercussions—and it won. The fact that the Chinese establishment considers its actions a victory should worry the Bush administration. If Beijing continues to view access to Middle Eastern oil as a zero-sum game and the Middle East as a playing field for great power competition, more direct confrontation between China and the United States will be not the exception but the rule.
Fueling the Dragon
Since China became an oil importer in 1993, its rulers have considered developing relations with Middle Eastern oil producers to be a diplomatic priority. China's thirst for oil shows no sign of slackening. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, China is now the second-largest consumer of petroleum products in the world. Today, China imports roughly 2 million barrels of oil per day, half of which comes from the Middle East. The International Energy Agency predicts that within a quarter-century, China will import 10 million barrels a day, the current U.S. level.
Because the Chinese government views the United States as a strategic rival, it remains concerned about becoming reliant for its oil imports upon sea lanes secured by the U.S. Navy. It has therefore embarked on a two-pronged approach. In the medium-term—perhaps for decades to come—China will have no alternative to the Middle East for the bulk of its energy supply. The core of China's energy strategy is thus to buy equity stakes in Middle Eastern development projects and to improve ties with two of its main suppliers—Iran and Saudi Arabia. Acquiescing in Tehran and Riyadh's demands for conventional and unconventional weapons systems is a price Beijing has no problem paying. As a hedge against reliance on the U.S. Navy for sea-line protection, Beijing has constructed a naval base in Gwadar, Pakistan, not far from the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, facilities in Myanmar close to the Strait of Malacca, and the Kompong-Sihanoukville Port in Cambodia. Beijing might be seeking the ability to hold U.S. tankers at risk in these waters in the case of a conflict with the United States.
In the longer-term, the Chinese government hopes that increased domestic exploration will allow China to bolster its own production. Beijing has also increased its investment in Central Asian oil and gas resources. While crude oil delivered by pipeline from Kazakhstan may be more expensive than other alternatives, Beijing believes the strategic advantage of not being reliant on the United States for oil security more than offsets the added expense. Nevertheless, despite promising developments in Central Asia such as the $700 million deal signed with the Kazakh government in 2004 to run a pipeline from Atasu in central Kazakhstan to Xinjiang, China's northwestern province, Beijing remains wary of political instability in Central Asia and the vulnerability of pipelines to terror attacks.
Russia also provides a potential alternative source of oil for China, but the countries still mistrust each other. It was only after China agreed to bankroll the de facto nationalization of Yukos' biggest oil producing unit that Moscow amended its January decision to back a Japanese plan to run a pipeline to Russia's Pacific port of Nakhodka over a Chinese plan to terminate the pipeline in the northeastern Chinese city of Daqing. Although China will now be connected with a branch from the Nakhodka trunk line, Beijing has not been reassured by the unpredictability of Russian oil politics.
Marketing to the Mullahs
While Iranian advances in its nuclear program have focused new light upon the Islamic Republic's relationship with a number of different suppliers, Beijing's relationship with Tehran is already more than two decades old. Since the mid-1980s, China has sold Iran, in whole or in parts, different variants of anti-ship cruise missiles such as the Silkworm (HY-2), the C-801, and the C-802. While Beijing was initially happy with the hard currency proceeds of such sales, the Chinese government's motivations have expanded.
Beijing considers its Achilles' heel to be a U.S. naval blockade. So far as Chinese tacticians are concerned, an Iranian anti-ship cruise missile capability able to erode U.S. naval superiority provides insurance. The naval facilities that China is constructing along the Straits of Malacca and Hormuz—and a well-equipped, compliant Iran—exploit the greatest weakness of the U.S. Navy: the challenge of operating in the littoral environment where large ships are especially vulnerable to missiles. Chinese efforts to bolster the Islamic Republic's anti-ship missile capability continue. Recently, Jane's Defence Weekly reported that China is producing several classes of tactical guided missiles – the JJ/TL-6b and 10A, the KJ/TL-10B and a new variant of the C-107 anti-ship missile, specifically for Iran.
Iran's appetite for Chinese weaponry is far from sated. The Chinese government has sold Iran surface-to-surface cruise missiles and provided assistance in the development of long-range ballistic missiles. By November 2003, a year after Iran successfully tested the Shihab-3 missile—which can carry a 1,000 kilogram payload for a distance of 1,300 kilometers—the CIA issued a report that China, along with Russia and North Korea, were the leading providers of assistance to Iran's ballistic missile programs. Repeated U.S. sanctioning of Chinese firms for proliferating missiles and missile technology to Iran have so far not stopped the practice.
Beijing has also contributed substantially to Iran's nuclear and chemical weapons programs despite assurances to Washington that it has ceased such work. Perhaps the most egregious example was the supply of a uranium conversion facility and nuclear power reactors to Iran.
In the immediate aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration showed little tolerance for Beijing's proliferating nonconventional weapons and missile technology to Iran. In January 2002, Clark Randt, the U.S. ambassador in Beijing, announced that China's proliferation practices were "a make or break issue for us." Aside from subsequent piecemeal sanctioning against Chinese businesses involved in individual cases, Washington has done little since to indicate that proliferation is indeed a "make or break issue." China's obstructionism on the Iranian nuclear issue has not elicited a strong U.S. response.
The Sino-Saudi Relationship
Energy requirements have inspired China to court the Saudis as well with a similar mix of arms, trade, and diplomatic support. The two countries share a desire to liberalize their economies but not their polities and share a common desire to undercut both U.S. global dominance and "interference" in internal affairs such as the U.S. tendency to criticize Beijing and Riyadh's human rights abuses. That China is a potential counterweight to the United States in the Arab-Israeli dispute only encourages the normally xenophobic Saudis.
Throughout the 1990s, Beijing cultivated its relationship with Saudi Arabia, culminating in the 1999 Strategic Oil Cooperation agreement signed in Riyadh by then-president Jiang Zemin. In exchange for opening their domestic market to Chinese investment, the Saudi companies have begun participating in China's downstream refining business, thereby winning a foothold in the Chinese market. Beijing hopes Saudi financing can help it upgrade Chinese refineries to handle its growing oil imports. Because the Saudis can undercut the prices of any other oil supplier, the Saudi share of Chinese oil imports, already 17 percent, is sure to grow. During the 1990s alone, Saudi oil exports to China increased more than 500 percent, to 350,000 barrels per day.
If oil is one pillar of the Sino-Saudi relationship, proliferation is the other. China has sold Saudi Arabia intermediate range (3000 km) ballistic missiles (CSS-2s) that Riyadh has had trouble acquiring from other sources. The Saudis are looking at other Chinese-made ballistic missiles, such as the newer, more advanced CSS-6s (DF-15s). With the U.S.-Saudi relationship strained by the fact that most of the 9-11 terrorists were Saudis, Riyadh has developed a valuable "China card" to play against Washington should U.S.-Saudi relations continue to deteriorate.
The Xinjiang "Problem"
While the Chinese government's pursuit of warmer relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia shows no sign of abating, its concern over its own restive domestic Muslim population remains strong. China's rhetorical if not substantive support for the U.S. war on terrorism in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, was in large part an effort to seize a strategic opportunity to defeat separatist forces in China by furthering the oppression of the 7.2 million Uighurs, a Muslim people concentrated in Xinjiang, who have preserved a distinct, non-Chinese ethnic identity. It has been only over the last decade that Uighur grievances have taken on a more Islamic flavor, partly as a response to Beijing's repressive polices toward the practice of religion and partly as a result of exposure to neighboring Central Asian nations and to international Islam. Uighur Hajj participation tripled.
Because of its concern over Uighur restiveness, Beijing jumped at the opportunity to link the 9-11 terrorist attack to its own "ethnic problem." Immediately after September 11, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao stated, "The United States has asked China to provide assistance to the fight against terrorism. China, by the same token has reasons to ask the United States to give its support and understanding in the fight against terrorism and separatists. We should not have double standards."
Soon after September 11, China intensified its "strike hard" campaign against the Uighurs. The strike hard campaign, first enacted in the late 1990s, included curtailing religious freedom and arresting and executing suspected Muslim extremists, earning Xinjiang the nickname of the "death penalty capital of the world." Chinese minister of religious affairs Zhou Guohai announced that harsh measures against Muslims were needed because the Chinese "deeply fear Islamic extremism" and "deeply distrust the Koran and what it teaches. … We will make sure that Islam is practiced in a way that is in line with Chinese culture and tradition," he declared. In January 2002, the Chinese government issued a document entitled "East Turkestan's Terrorist Forces Cannot Get away with Impunity." The document was part of a push by Beijing to have Washington view separatist movements in China as a "terrorist problem."
The Bush administration initially rejected Chinese attempts to paint all Uighurs as terrorists. General Francis Taylor, the Bush administration's special envoy on counterterrorism, refused to repatriate Chinese Uighurs captured in Afghanistan. Taylor said,
But, in December 2002, the State Department agreed to put one obscure Uighur separatist group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, on the State Department's list of global terrorist organizations. According to former Central Intelligence Agency analyst Graham Fuller and Mount Holyoke professor Jonathan Lipman, this was "catastrophic" for the Uighurs as a whole, as the Chinese government interpreted the designation as applicable to all Uighur nationalists. Many experts doubt that the Uighurs have any ties to Osama bin Laden, and some are not convinced that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement even exists.
Regardless of whether China's Islamist problem is homegrown or encouraged from abroad, the restiveness of the Uighur population is real. Following the Chinese government's harsh response to the 1997 Uighur riots in the Xinjiang city of Yinning, Saudi clerics called upon the Saudi royal family to support Chinese Muslim populations financially and diplomatically. The late Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Baz, former grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, proclaimed, "We have a moral obligation to help our Muslim brothers." A Saudi newspaper, Al-Bilad, warned China about the "suffering of Muslims whose human rights were violated." It was in response to this incident that the Chinese leadership began its charm offensive to co-opt Muslim leaders. During Iranian president Muhammad Khatami's visit to Beijing in June 2000, hosts from the Foreign Ministry took him on a tour of Beijing's Ox Street mosque and Xinjiang where he met with government-backed Muslim leaders. Khatami agreed to embrace these hand-picked officials, declaring that Xinjiang could serve as a "bridge connecting greater China … with the Muslim world." So far, the Chinese strategy appears to be working. Both Riyadh and Tehran have been largely silent about the Chinese government's post-9-11 crackdown on the Uighurs. For both Iran and Saudi Arabia, the financial and military deals trump the plight of Chinese Muslims.
China's Israel Card
China's new Middle East policy is not exclusivist. Whereas Beijing views Iran and the Arab world through the prism of its oil needs, the Chinese government continues to cultivate relations with Israel in order to acquire Western technology necessary for China's military modernization program. After Russia, Israel is China's second largest supplier of weaponry. The Sino-Israeli military relationship is more than a decade old. In the mid-1990s, Israel reportedly sold "Harpy" anti-radar drones that can loiter over enemy territory for hours and drop munitions on radar turned on to guide air and missile defense systems. Given the threat China's missile buildup poses to Taiwan, this sale has particularly upset both Washington and Taipei. Israel has also sold Python-3 air-to-air missiles to China. China's new Jiang-10 jetfighter is, by many accounts, a knock off of the abandoned Israeli Lavi fighter. These systems have unquestionably helped China gain the military advantage over Taiwan.
Israeli arms sales to China have been a source of tension between Jerusalem and Washington. Should China decide to attack Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province, by force, then U.S. troops sent to defend Taiwan might end up facing a Chinese military equipped with Israeli-made or Israeli-modified U.S. systems. This tension reached a boiling point in July 2000 when Washington learned of Israeli plans to sell China four Phalcon early warning aircraft for $1 billion. The United States intervened to block the sale, forcing Israel to compensate Beijing financially for having voided its agreement.
After the Phalcon affair, Israeli officials promised their U.S. counterparts that they would consult with Washington about future arms sales. For a short period, Israeli officials kept their word. But in March 2004, Israel and China reportedly restarted high-level talks regarding a possible Israeli sale of the Tavor assault weapon, pilot training systems, advanced communication and surveillance gear, and a range of unmanned aerial vehicles.
Tensions have resurfaced at the U.S. Department of Defense over Israel's recent agreement with China to upgrade the Harpys. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith have both protested to Israel's Ministry of Defense, and U.S. Air Force chief of staff John Jumper cancelled a planned trip to Israel in December.
The dispute over arms sales to China is sure to get worse if the European Union lifts the arms embargo it imposed on China in 1989 after the massacre of Chinese students at Tiananmen Square. The United States will be hard-pressed to stop Israeli sales once the Europeans enter the Chinese defense market in force.
Israel's primary motivation for selling weaponry to China is financial. Some in Israel, however, suggest that it can leverage its arms relationship with Israel to convince the Chinese government to stop proliferating to Israel's enemies. Such a belief is self-deception and contrary to all evidence. Jerusalem has little leverage over Beijing. As China pockets Israeli weapons systems, there has been no decrease in Chinese proliferation to Iran. The strategic costs to Israel will be increasingly high.
The Chinese government's Middle East policy is a winning gambit for Beijing. China can not only quench its thirst for oil but, at least in the short-term, also undercut external Islamist incitement aimed at its own Muslim population. By cultivating ties with Middle Eastern countries that have antagonistic relations with Washington, Beijing can undermine U.S. policy in the region. The more countries such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Syria have ballistic missile capability and weapons of mass destruction, the more difficult it becomes for Washington to intervene in the Middle East in support of U.S. goals or in defense of its allies.
While the Chinese government lends rhetorical support for the war on terrorism, its backing is more circumscribed. Beijing argues that any U.S. military response should be conducted only in close consultation with the United Nations and should "avoid civilian casualties." While other Asian nations have swapped information to fight terrorism more effectively, Chinese security officials remain less than forthcoming. In 2002, Dennis Blair, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, lamented, "With other governments that we're operating with more closely, like the Philippines or Singapore and Malaysia, it's very detailed, tactical information of the type you need to take action … I think we need to get that level with Beijing, and it's not quite there."
Despite the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the Chinese government remains unconvinced of U.S. sincerity about defeating terrorism and instead sees the war on terrorism as a mechanism for further encirclement of China. The quick U.S. victory over Afghanistan provided a rude awakening for Chinese officials who had predicted otherwise. The subsequent establishment of a U.S. basing structure in Central Asia upset Chinese strategists who had been working to bring the region within their own sphere of influence. Fu Quanyou, then chief of the Chinese general staff, stated pointedly, "Counterterrorism should not be used to practice hegemony." Zhai Kun, a strategist at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, expressed Beijing's fears:
Washington may have identified terrorism as its primary enemy, but Chinese decisionmakers continue to view the United States as China's primary challenge.
Beijing's diplomatic and economic offensive in the Middle East is thus part of a counter-encirclement strategy. In the run-up to U.S. military intervention in Iraq, then-president Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji included Iran and Libya on their tour of the Middle East, labeling the two State Department-defined terror sponsors as "friendly countries." Jiang's trip to Iran was the first by a Chinese head of state since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979.
Jiang and Zhu sought to present China as an alternative to the heavy-handed, pro-Israel, democracy-promoting United States. While in Iran, Jiang stated that "Beijing's policy is against strategies of force and the U.S. military presence in Central Asia and the Middle East." He lambasted U.S. bias toward Israel and accused Israel of failing to implement United Nations resolutions. While in Egypt, Zhu joked about the 9-11 attacks with his hosts and demanded an immediate pullout of Israeli forces from Palestinian territories. When Iranian Majlis speaker Mehdi Karrubi visited Beijing in December 2002, Jiang stated that "both states share almost similar stances on most issues."
U.S. difficulties in Iraq have emboldened the Chinese government to cultivate more aggressively its ties to Iran and Arab regimes. So long as the oil flows, Chinese strategists believe that having Washington bogged down in Iraq may not be such a bad thing. Such an assessment would explain recent Chinese brazenness brushing off U.S. concerns about Iranian nuclear ambitions. With the U.S. military sidetracked in Iraq, Beijing can directly challenge the White House's other Middle East interests without fear of retaliation. More salient for Chinese strategists, an America preoccupied with Iraq may not have the will or resources to be firm on the Taiwan issue.
Since 9-11, China has become bolder in advancing its goals in the Middle East. Taking advantage of hostile U.S.-Iranian relations and uneasy U.S.-Saudi relations, China is securing needed energy supplies, gaining advantage in its strategic rivalry with the United States, and muting criticism of its treatment of the Uighurs. A muscular Chinese Middle East policy will continue if the United States remains bogged down in Iraq. If China continues to incur no costs for challenging Washington's Middle East policy, more such challenges will follow.
On the other hand, China will be sobered if U.S. efforts to develop a democratic Iraq are successful. That outcome not only would allow the United States to maintain long-term military and political preeminence in the region, but it would also directly challenge China's one-party dictatorship. The Bush administration may not consider China relevant to its Broader Middle East Initiative, but the Chinese government considers U.S. Middle East policy to pose a political threat. China will use its new foothold within the Middle East to try to undercut this bedrock of U.S. policy. So far, China's Middle East gambit has paid off. For how much longer the United States can tolerate the fruits of Chinese success—working against the president's commitment to "not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons"—is another question entirely.
 China Daily, Nov. 1, 2004.