China and the Middle East – Update up to 13/06/2024

The files we follow: China in the Indo-Pacific; Chinese Defence and Taiwan Strait; China-Russia Relations; China and the Middle East; Chinese economic strategies and tendencies; Dynamics and challenges of Chinese international tourism…     


Dear EurasiaPeace readers,

Welcome to our watch on “China’s engagement in the Middle East“! This watch will both be focusing on China’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of which you can find a more complete analysis in our first watch on China and the Middle East, but also explore less discussed signs of China’s growing influence in the region. Enjoy your reading!

– China supports UNSC resolution on Gaza truce plan

On June 10, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) approved a resolution on a truce in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of the 15 members of the Council, 14 voted in favor, with only one abstention, that of Russia. The plan approved comprises three phases (1), beginning with the establishment of an “immediate, full and complete” ceasefire.

The approval of this vote by the UNSC was not a matter of course after the serial failures of votes on a ceasefire in Gaza, imputed sometimes to the United States, sometimes to China and Russia. Negotiations on resolution 2735, launched after Joe Biden’s announcement of Israel’s acceptance of a truce plan, also had little chance of success: in the days leading up to the vote, China, Russia and Algeria had expressed skepticism about the viability of the American proposal (2).

Fu Cong, China’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, indicated that while he had expressed support for the resolution, he considered above all that “there must be a permanent ceasefire” – which, if not provided for in the first phase, is the object of the second phase of the truce plan. Ahead of the vote, he regretted the “numerous ambiguities” in the text.

In addition, China is using mediation and peace-building efforts as a lever to draw closer to regional players. Its discourse on the defense of Palestinian independence and the need for humanitarian aid places it on the “right side” of history in the eyes of its Gulf partners, and gives a positive dynamic to bilateral relations, as emerged from the Sino-Arab summit on May 30 and the interviews that followed (3).

This time, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provided an opportunity to demonstrate the closeness between China and Turkey, following the visit of Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan to Beijing. On June 4, Mr. Fidan declared that Turkey “appreciates China’s solidarity with the Palestinians” and affirmed that it “will continue to work with China for [the establishment of] a ceasefire in Gaza […]”. It should be noted that Turkey is not a member of the Security Council, and has a limited role in mediation between Israel and Hamas

– Publication of a joint China-United Arab Emirates statement provokes Iranian anger

On Sunday June 2, the Chinese Foreign Ministry published a Sino-Emirati joint declaration drafted on the occasion of the 10th summit of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, held in Beijing at the end of May. Co-signed by UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed, the declaration promises to deepen exchanges in trade, energy and defense.

In the field of defense, the two sides express their “fervent wish to intensify exchanges of experience [and] conduct new bilateral exercises“, in reference to the first joint air exercise to be held in August 2023.

On the energy front, China and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) pledge to strengthen their cooperation on fossil energies, renewable energies, future energies (hydrogen, ammonia) and energy storage, encouraging initiatives in the private sector in particular. Beijing and Abu Dhabi also state that they support the opening of new operations, while promoting environmental protection (4). Last but not least, the two states announce their intention to strengthen cooperation in the field of civil nuclear power.

Although not a priori aimed at any third-party state, this Sino-Emirati declaration was not to the liking of all regional players. The very day it was published, the Iranian government summoned the Chinese ambassador to Tehran, demanding that he explain article 26 of the joint communiqué. This states that “China supports the efforts of the United Arab Emirates to peacefully resolve the issue of the three islands […]”. The three islands referred to in the text – Lesser Tunb, Greater Tunb and Abu Musa – have been the subject of a sovereignty dispute between Iran and the UAE ever since the Iranian government imposed its presence there in 1971. Ali Bak, a representative of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, said that “Iran rejects any claim” that the three islands are not under Iranian sovereignty.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded the next day at its daily press conference, stating that “China’s position on the three islands issue is consistent” and calling on “the parties concerned to resolve their differences peacefully through dialogue and consultation“. He took care to defuse tensions by recalling that “China values its comprehensive strategic partnership with Iran“.

– China wins contract to develop key gas field in Iraq

At the end of May 2024, the Jereh Group and Petro Iraq consortium was awarded a 25-year exploration and production contract for Iraq’s Mansuriyah gas field. The Jereh Group, a Chinese company, has joined forces with the nebulous Petro Iraq, an umbrella organisation linked to the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and the Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters (controlled by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps – IRGC). The conclusion of this contract is significant for China on several levels: firstly, of course, for its energy security; but also for its political weight and presence in the region. 

With an estimated total capacity of 127.5 Gm3 (billion m3) of gas, the operation should be able to produce up to 8.5 Mm3 (million m3) per day. According to official statistics published by China, the country produced 229.7 Gm3 of gas in 2023, but Chinese gas consumption reached 394.5 Gm3 in the same year. Mansuriyah’s contribution of up to 3 Gm3 of gas over a year at full production is relative, but crucial to make up for the shortfall of almost 165 Gm3 of gas.

In addition, the Mansuriyah gas field, south of Lake Hamrin, is advantageously located for China: it lies around a hundred kilometers from a branch of the IGAT 6 pipeline that opens out near the town of Souleimane Bek. This pipeline, owned and operated by the National Iran Gas Company, runs to the port of Assaluyeh on the Iranian coast, where at least five LNG terminals have been built.

Beyond that, this new Chinese presence is symptomatic of a much broader expansion of its presence on Iraqi soil: Chinese state-owned companies, particularly in the energy and construction sectors, are multiplying their contracts to build infrastructure and exploit the country’s resources. Recent examples include the vast Halfaya hydrocarbon exploitation and processing complex, whose construction by PetroChina and the China Petroleum Engineering and Construction Corporation (CPECC) was completed in autumn 2023. Journalist Simon Watkins estimates that two-thirds of Iraq’s oil and gas production is operated by Chinese companies.

Alongside its growing economic presence, China is strengthening its political hold on the Iraqi government. Its weight in the national oil and gas industry, which represents the majority source of government revenue, is in itself a powerful lever. It enables it to make demands that feed its influence: the Nassiriya airport construction project, located near two large oil fields further south, was awarded to Chinese companies in 2021. Originally designed as a civilian airport, it was later agreed that it could also accommodate Chinese military aircraft, without the need for prior authorization by the Iraqi authorities.

(1) The plan approved following the vote on June 10 comprises three phases: firstly, the establishment of an “immediate, full and complete” ceasefire, involving the withdrawal of Israeli forces from “densely populated” areas of Gaza and the restoration of humanitarian aid. Secondly, a declaration of the definitive end to the conflict, involving the complete withdrawal of Israeli troops in exchange for the release of all hostages held by Hamas. Finally, the start of the reconstruction phase, following the return of the remains of the Israeli hostages still in Gaza. 

(2) Indeed, there are doubts about the real will of the two warring parties to put an end to the conflict. The New York Times sums up this tension in an article published after Hamas submitted its amendments on the evening of June 11: “Each side makes positive but vague statements about the cease-fire plan and accuses the other of prolonging a war that has devastated Gaza. But neither side has yet declared that it will formally adopt [the American truce proposal]”.

(3) China initiated the Sino-Arab summit in Beijing, which was attended by four Maghreb heads of state (the presidents of Egypt, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the king of Bahrain), the secretary-general of the Arab League, and representatives of 22 other governments. In his introductory remarks at the opening ceremony, Xi Jinping emphasized the ambition to create a “Sino-Arab community with a shared destiny”. Nonetheless, he is taking care not to create a bloc against it, and is stepping up bilateral talks on the sidelines of the forum (with representatives of the foreign ministries of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, etc.).

(4) Article 35 of the declaration refers to the “encouragement” given to “the sustainable exploration, exploitation, transformation and transportation of energy”.

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