January 11, 2023 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1677

Beijing Is Adjusting Its Middle East Policy And Distancing Itself From The Iran-Russia Axis

January 11, 2023 | By Chris King*
Iran, Russia, China | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1677

On December 7, 2022, just after the end of the "White Paper Protests" across China, Xi Jinping flew to Riyadh and attended the first China-Arab States Summit and the first China-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit. This was Xi's second visit to Saudi Arabia; his previous trip was in 2016.

Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman greeting Xi Jinping in Riyadh on December 9, 2022.

Following the China-GCC Summit, a joint statement was issued regarding the Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa islands, whose ownership is disputed by the UAE and Iran. The statement expressed China-GCC support for the UAE's efforts to peacefully resolve the dispute through bilateral negotiations and in accordance with international law.

The pro-UAE statement, along with Xi's visit to Riyadh, reveals a subtle shift in relations between China and Iran, the latest sign of Beijing's adjustment and evolution of its "balance strategy" in the Middle East. The shift in strategy shows Beijing's intentions to continue quietly distancing itself from the Moscow-Tehran axis. This article will provide further evidence of this pattern by analyzing Xi's recent official visits, his eagerness to revive China's economy, and the deterioration of U.S.-Saudi relations.

What Xi's Official Visits Reveal About China's Diplomatic Stance

In January 2016, Xi Jinping paid state visits to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran, in that order. At that point, a Chinese head of state had not visited Saudi Arabia in seven years, Egypt in 12 years, and Iran in 14 years.

The CCP's longstanding Middle East diplomatic agenda and priorities have placed more emphasis on the Sunni-dominated Arab world than on Shia powers such as Iran, and this was reflected in the fact that Iran was the last stop in Xi's trip. This is not only due to geographical and economic factors, but also has its historical origin – the Ispah Rebellion several hundred years ago left a permanent mark on China's relations with the Persians, and it also led to Shi'ite Islam losing all influence in China (see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis 1676 – The Fall of Quanzhou: Xi Jinping's History Lesson About Muslims).

However, on his recent Middle East trip, Xi only visited Saudi Arabia. This was his third overseas trip since September 2022 – his first was to Central Asia for a Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the second was to ASEAN countries and featured a meeting with President Biden. The fact that Xi's next trip was to Saudi Arabia, the regional power in the Middle East, is an indication of a shift in the CCP's diplomatic priorities.[1]

With regard to Russia, although in February 2022 Xi said that the relationship between China and Russia "has no limits" and "no forbidden areas of cooperation," he nevertheless has not visited that country. This is despite Putin's presence at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics.

There is no doubt that Xi is interested in a quasi-alliance with Russia, since this relieves some of the pressure from the U.S. and the West. In addition, Beijing needs Russia's strategic cooperation in resolving the Taiwan issue, and the annual China-Russia Maritime Cooperation 2022 military exercise took place this year for the 11th consecutive year.

However, he is wary of Putin's activity in Kazakhstan and Ukraine over the past two years, and his alliance with Putin is one of mutual exploitation – that is, not rooted in strong values or economic ties – and it is far from a full embrace of Russia instead of the U.S. Both China and Russia hope that their quasi-alliance will strengthen them both and advance their respective strategic breakthroughs, although changes in either country's strategic circumstances could lead them to clash.

Xi Is Eager to Revive China's Economy

In Xi's eyes, reviving China's moribund economy, along with his "Belt and Road" policy, is the CCP's current diplomatic priority. To this end, diplomatic ties with Central Asia to China's west, ASEAN to China's south, and further afield in the Middle East are necessary and must be maintained. In addition, the fact that Xi did not visit Russia or Iran may be an indication that for its own economic interests, Beijing does not want to displease the West too much.

The annual Central Economic Work Conference of the Communist Party, held in Beijing on December 15-16 after Xi's return from his Saudi visit, emphasized the need to "make greater efforts to attract and utilize foreign investment, promote opening-up at a high level, and raise the quality and level of trade and investment cooperation." At the meeting, it was stated that China aims to widen market access, promote the development of modern service industries, and grant foreign-funded enterprises national treatment. Clearly, foreign investment comes mainly from the West, and too-close relations with Iran and Russia would not be conducive to this.

Moreover, trade with the West is much more beneficial for China, which has a deficit with Russia and a surplus with the U.S. (China's trade volume with Iran is negligible). According to official Chinese statistics, from January to June 2022, China's top five trading partners were ASEAN, the EU, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan.[2]

China also hopes to attract the oil-rich Gulf countries in order to ensure the diversification of its energy supply. It should be noted that in the first of half of 2022, Saudi Arabia was China's top importer of oil, followed by Russia. (Iran, for its part, comes in 22nd.)[3]

The Deterioration of U.S.-Saudi Relations

Xi's visit to the Middle East is also an attempt to fill the void left by the deterioration of U.S.-Saudi relations.

On this subject, Liu Zhongmin, professor at the Institute of Middle East Studies and Shanghai International Studies University and Vice President of the Chinese Middle East Society, wrote: "As the United States' ability and willingness to invest in the Middle East has declined, so has its relative influence in the region... The United States wants Middle Eastern countries to obey its strategy in energy prices, in cooperation with sanctions against Russia, and in other aspects, but countries in the Middle East are now more interested in protecting their own interests, balancing among the big powers, and avoiding taking sides. Meanwhile, China's rising status and expanding influence in the Middle East is an objective reality."

Predicting that Russia's influence in the Middle East is also bound to decline, he noted: "Russia's return to the Middle East over the past decade has achieved great success. Middle East countries share many common interests with Russia in energy, security, arms purchase and other areas. The fact that regional countries do not take sides between the United States and Russia has a lot to do with Russia's operations. But the Russia-Ukraine conflict will limit Russia's influence in the Middle East in the future, partly because of Russia's limited national strength and partly because Russia's major future investment in power is likely to be in Ukraine. Therefore, the current pattern changes of the Middle East great power relations are: the status of the United States is declining; Due to the constraints of many factors, Russia will also go down in the future. China is on the rise."[4]

Sun Degang, a researcher at the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, wrote: "Under the new international situation, a major feature of Arab diplomacy is the policy of great power balance. They have changed from looking up to the world in the past to looking down at the world now. They hope to win the respect of the world powers. On the one hand, they will continue to cooperate with the United States and the West in security; On the other hand, they hope to strengthen cooperation with emerging economies such as China, India and Russia."[5]

*Chris King is Senior Research Fellow for the MEMRI Chinese Media Studies Project. King was an active participant in the student protests in China in 1989.


[1] Although Xi did meet with Iranian President Raisi in Samarkand on September 16, 2022, the significance of a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of a multilateral conference is clearly different from that of an official visit.

[2], August 11, 2022.

[3], July 22, 2022.

[4] "Arab Countries Look East - Why is the West Nervous?",, December 11, 2022.

[5] "Arab Countries Look East - Why is the West Nervous?",, December 11, 2022.

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