Jonathan Fulton (ed.), Routledge Handbook of China-Middle East Relations (Routledge, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?

Jonathan Fulton (JF): China’s relations with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is the focus of my research, and as a political scientist who works in the international relations subfield there is a lot to explore. Regional and international order, the role of extra-regional powers, alliances and partnerships, political economy, international organizations—there is just a tremendous wealth of ways to consider the subject. I was mapping out a long-term research agenda in 2019 and the list of topics I wanted to understand better was considerable. The Handbook came about that way: me thinking about who could best answer the questions I had about China in the Middle East. I was very fortunate with the people who contributed chapters. I am obviously biased but I believe this is the best and most comprehensive set of studies on the topic in English to date, and that is a largely a result of the superb group of scholars who worked with me on this book.

I was also fortunate with the timing. A few years ago, say in 2018, most people would have thought of this as an unusual book, but over the past few years it has become quite clear that China is an important actor in the region. With strategic competition between China and the United States dominating the way political leaders in those two countries perceive international politics, regions like MENA are increasingly considered as theaters of competition. As a result, a lot of analysis and punditry about China in MENA is highly politicized, which I think leads to a misinterpretation of events. Local agency is simplified or ignored, Chinese actors are reduced to Cold Warriors, and motivations of engagement for both sides is often described as a response to some third party, usually the United States. Serious analysts know that there is more going on here; Eurasian countries, societies, and markets are becoming more and more integrated and China’s increasing presence and influence in MENA is one manifestation of this. With this book my goal was to present a rigorous and balanced analysis based on empirical data, with the hope that it would inform the work of researchers and policymakers.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

JF: The book has twenty-six chapters divided into four sections. It starts with more of a macro approach, giving the big picture. The second section is a set of ten sub-regional and country specific case studies. The last two sections are issue-specific rather than country-specific. One focuses on issues of trade and development, and the other security, diplomacy, and international relations. Taken together, it makes for as close to a comprehensive look as can be achieved in one book. Given the fact that it was written during the worst of Covid-19, a few people had to drop out of the project and some chapters I was hoping for could not be included, but this gives me something to look forward to for a later project.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

JF: My first book, China’s Relations with the Gulf Monarchies (Routledge, 2019), focused on China-GCC relations. Shortly after it was published, I was asked to write a report for the Atlantic Council, where I am now a nonresident senior follow, that had a broader scope. As I wrote that report, “China’s Changing Role in the Middle East,” I started to see more directions for my research. This book feels like a bridge, taking the work from all the great scholars who contributed to help me develop ideas and knowledge for future research projects.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sore of impact would you like it to have?

JF: Given the broad range of countries and topics covered in this book, I think it is relevant for a lot of people who specialize in China or any country or subregion in MENA. The subject matter crosses disciplines as well, so while I see it primarily for political scientists, historians, sociologists, and economists will find it useful as well. I also think it is a very policy-relevant book—several friends and acquaintances in government have been enthusiastic about it, saying it helps them understand trends that are important for their work. The same is also likely true of people working in business in the Middle East; Chinese companies have made tremendous strides in the region over the past decade and nearly every sector needs to understand what Beijing is doing here.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JF: One project that is a bit of a departure for me is The China-MENA Podcast, which I am doing with the Atlantic Council. I interview people either from China or the Middle East to give a deep dive into relevant issues. The first episode featured Anoush Ehteshami on Sino-Iranian relations, and for the second I spoke with Yuting Wang about the Chinese community in Dubai. It is a fun project and hopefully it reaches a broader audience than typical academic work—the goal is to get beyond the headlines so our listeners get a better understanding of these issues.

Right now I am wrapping up work on a co-edited book that is expected to be published with Routledge later this year. The title is still being hammered out, but the theme is how Asian countries with interests in the Gulf are thinking about regional security issues. The US-centered security architecture has allowed a lot of countries to develop significant economic presences here, especially with the GCC countries, but without playing much of a role in security issues. The widespread perception that the United States will not be playing the same role, or at least to the same degree, means these countries will have to recalibrate their regional policies—will they leave altogether or develop more robust presences? Over the post-Cold War era most Asian countries have bandwagoned with the United States but that might not be feasible for much longer, so this book explores that question—how do Asian countries see Gulf security affecting their interests? I am co-editing this with Li-Chen Sim, a friend who I collaborate with frequently, and we have chapters from scholars in each of the countries we look at: China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, India, and Pakistan. This has been an interesting project and I think it will be a useful book for a lot of people who are working on international relations of the Gulf.

Another book I am currently working on is a single-authored one analyzing China’s approach to developing a sustainable presence in MENA. I think this will be out in early 2023.


Excerpt from the book (from “China’s Emergence as a Middle East Power,” Jonathan Fulton, pp. 3-5)

China’s emergence as an important actor in the Middle East – North Africa (MENA) brings to mind a piece of dialogue from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. When asked how he went bankrupt, a character replied, “Gradually, then suddenly.” Those of us watching China’s growing presence in the region have seen a gradual expansion of China’s influence and interests over the past decade, but those not paying attention would understandably be surprised by the seemingly sudden depth and breadth of its presence. When I started my PhD analyzing China’s relations with the Gulf monarchies in 2011 it was still possible to stay on top of the existing literature on China-MENA; now it is a constant challenge, with new work constantly being churned out, including excellent recent ones by contributors to this volume. This book is meant to describe and explain how and why China has made this transition from a far-off country of marginal influence to an important extra-regional power, and offer insights into what we can expect to see in China-MENA relations in the future.

Not long ago China was seen as a potentially important actor in the MENA, but one with limited aims. In their 2008 book Vital Triangle: China, the United States, and the Middle East, Garver and Alterman described China’s MENA role as “simple” and “shallow” with a regional policy guided by its need for energy, “with other commercial, military and diplomatic interests playing a subsidiary role.” This was an accurate description of the limitations on China’s power and influence in the region, and could have been applied to many other regions as well. Even as recently as 2013 Shambaugh described China as a “partial power”: a global trading superpower that had a broad yet shallow footprint in other indicators of international power such as global governance, security, economics, culture, and diplomacy. Writing this chapter in early 2021 there are few if any global issues where China’s interests are not an important consideration, and the Middle East is no exception. While China is not interested in challenging the U.S. as the preeminent extra-regional power in MENA, its influence has increased significantly over the past decade and this will likely continue to be the case.

China’s previously modest foreign policy was influenced by a combination of systemic opportunity and domestic pressures. American post-Cold War preponderance shaped China’s international role, as the US-led international order provided a relatively stable environment in which China could focus on internal issues while building a positive global presence. This was especially important given the myriad domestic considerations demanding the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) attention. While speaking with President Bush in 2006 President Hu reportedly told him that “fighting corruption, rural unrest, the widening wealth gap, and severe pollution consumes nearly all his time and puts China in a position in which it has neither the will nor the means to challenge American dominance in world affairs.” These problems, combined with a constant need to deliver growth and jobs in order to justify a closed political system, largely explain China’s predominantly inward focus of the Reform Era.

Given the opportunity to focus on development, China pursued a set of priorities that Nathan and Scobell described as a set of concentric circles. The first circle, China’s sovereign territory, is the dominant security concern for the CCP, evident in the fact that it consistently budgets more for domestic than external security. The next circle is those 20 states that share borders and maritime boundaries with China. The third circle consists of six regional orders (North-East Asia, continental South-East Asia, maritime South-East Asia, Oceania, South Asia, and Central Asia) that are home to direct Chinese security-related interests. It is only when we get to the fourth circle – the rest of the world – that we find the Middle East. In this model, the Middle East is not at – or near – the core of Beijing’s primary interests, a point that many have made and that Shichor and Niblock continue to press in their contributions to this volume.

While China remains in the second tier of external powers in MENA, its international role has moved beyond the confines of the Reform Era’s “hide and bide” dictum, embracing President Xi Jinping’s exhortation to “be proactive in seeking achievements.” This begs the question: what changed? Why did China leave the relative ease of a partial power to develop a greater international role and the increased scrutiny and expectations that accompanies it? Its changing relationship with the U.S. and a resulting reconceptualization of global order was one factor. Successive U.S. administrations’ policies contributed to a perception that China’s rise would be challenged. The George W. Bush years signaled a dramatic recalibration of U.S. foreign policy with the Iraq War and global war on terror shattering norms that underpinned global order. China’s resilience in the face of the global financial crisis also contributed to China’s “new assertiveness,” a period that began during the second half of Hu’s administration. The Obama administration’s plan to pivot or rebalance to Asia also played a part. Strategically sensible from an American perspective, it looked like a containment policy in Beijing and confirmed suspicions that the U.S was trying to slow China’s path to power.

While this was taking place, Chinese leaders began adopting a more confident rhetoric of China’s place in the world. In a 2012 speech President Xi Jinping articulated the China Dream: “Our struggles in the over 170 years since the Opium War have created bright prospects for achieving the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. We are now closer to this goal, and we are more confident and capable of achieving it than at any other time in history.” While long in platitudes, the confidence Chinese leaders have been displaying over the past decade while describing China’s achievements are indicative of a country that sees itself as having lessons in governance and development to share with the much of the world, including the Middle East.

For the purposes of analyzing its relations with the Middle East within the context of this more activist foreign policy, however, one of the most significant factors was the introduction in 2013 of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI began as a series of infrastructure construction and investment projects crossing Eurasia and the Indian Ocean region under two large umbrellas: the overland Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and the Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI). Since then it has come to include the Digital Silk Road Initiative, the Space Silk Road, and the Health Silk Road. To emphasize the importance of the BRI in China’s foreign policy ambitions, the CCP enshrined it in its constitution in 2017. The SREB and MSRI components began as an extension of China’s Going Out policy of the 1990s, when the PRC determined that its state-owned enterprises (SOEs) would have to transition from domestic to international markets and as a result, SOEs began to develop a presence in states and regions where they previously did not operate. The Middle East is one such region; trade between China and the GCC countries alone has grown from just under $10 billion in 2000 to nearly $180 billion in 2019. Not surprisingly, this deeper commercial engagement has led to an increased political presence, as discussed below. In terms of the BRI, the Middle East is geopolitically situated, linking states and markets from South Asia to Africa and Europe, making its stability and prosperity a Chinese concern.