China has long mastered the art of casually sitting on the sidelines while regional and global economic and political forces clash, then deliberately and swiftly swooping in to scoop up the spoils. That was best exemplified when Chinese oil companies won a variety of contracts from the Iraqi government following the end of the Iraq War. The precipitous fall in the price of oil has presented China with no less of an opportunity to do so. As President Xi’s tour through the Middle East has once again demonstrated, China has carefully chosen the right time to re-embrace the region, with special emphasis this time on Iran.
China’s relationship with the Middle East dates back to the Rashidun Caliphate, following the death of Muhammad in 632, and China has had diplomatic and trade relations with the region in one form or another since that time. More recently, Jiang Zemin became the first Chinese leader to visit the Arab League in 1996, and the Sino-Arab Cooperation Forum was first established in 2004. Chinese leaders have regularly visited the region’s capitals for many years. President Xi made his first visit to the Middle East and Pakistan in 2015, setting the stage for this current tour through the region. China clearly sees the region’s shifting political sands as an opportunity to enhance its economic and political role, particularly as America’s power and influence continues to decline.
Xi’s visit to Tehran came just days after global sanctions were officially lifted (Beijing literally is not wasting a single day in attempting to establish a foothold with Iran) which apparently resulted in some $600 billion worth of contracts for Chinese firms.
China has already become Iran’s number one export partner. By visiting both Iran and Saudi Arabia in the same trip, Xi is attempting to play off of both countries’ proxy regional conflicts for its own benefit, keeping both sides in its camp.