According to much conventional wisdom, Beijing’s involvement in North Africa and the Middle East revolves primarily around the economic goals of purchasing oil and engaging in trade. Tuvia Gering argues that Chinese aims are in fact political and military as well as economic, and include the provision of “limited security alternatives that directly and indirectly undermine U.S. dominance even without displacing it.” Moreover, writes Gering, China’s actual policies do “a disservice to its stated objectives of regional peace and security.”
In 2017, the PLA set up its first overseas military base in Djibouti, a stone’s throw away from the U.S. military’s Camp Lemonnier, the nerve center of its Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa. With a maximum capacity of 7,000 people, the soi-disant “logistical support base” has been working nonstop throughout the pandemic to expand its facilities and deep-water berths to accommodate power-projection aircrafts and vessels.
Military visits and exercises have also increased in the last ten years, albeit still on a much smaller scale than those of the United States. In November 2019, the Chinese military held a three-week joint naval drill with its alternate top oil supplier, Saudi Arabia, which was quickly followed by a trilateral training with Iran and Russia. Another naval exercise with Moscow and Tehran was held in the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean in early 2022.
And despite its supposedly good relations with Jerusalem, Beijing has hardly been neutral on the Israel-Palestinian question:
Chinese policymakers, all the way up to Xi Jinping, insist that [the conflict] is the “core” issue affecting Middle East peace and stability, and Beijing’s UN representative, Zhang Jun, has been raising the issue every month of the year like clockwork. The problems with China’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are threefold, beginning with its detachment from regional trends [which] suggest that a two-state solution is not a prerequisite for regional prosperity and that the “core” issue in the minds of regional leaders is ensuring their own peace and prosperity, which Iran and its proxies jeopardize.
China, meanwhile, seems to be stuck in the Zeitgeist of the anti-Zionist [rhetoric of the cold-war era], as evidenced by its biased support of Ramallah and its relentless votes against Israel in international forums, as well as its constant whitewashing of Palestinian and Iranian terrorism and incitement. Second, Beijing’s strategy relies mostly on empty rhetoric and ham-fisted diplomacy.