Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 01/2012

The Emergence of China in the Middle East

James Chen

January 2012

Institute for National Strategic Studies


During the 9th century, Arab traders regularly plied lucrative maritime routes that connected the Persian Gulf to southern China by way of the Indian Ocean. This commercial activity, which mostly involved jade, silk, and other luxury goods, went on for centuries and became part of what is now known as the Silk Road. In some ways, the world is now witnessing a restoration of that ancient trading relationship between two civilizations—except that oil and consumer goods have replaced jade and silk. Whether measured in terms of economics, security, diplomacy, or soft power, China has become increasingly active in the Middle East over the last decade. Activity and increased presence do not automatically translate into actual influence (especially if defined in terms of getting other countries to take costly actions they would not otherwise undertake). However, China’s expanding interactions with Middle Eastern countries may eventually expand common interests or create dependent relations that increase Beijing’s regional influence.