The Middle Kingdom in the Middle East: No Longer “Business as Usual”?

The Middle Kingdom in the Middle East: No Longer “Business as Usual”?

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By ZongXian Eugene Ang

Contingent of soldiers from the People's Liberation Army of China. Source: Kremlin.ru/Wikimedia.

Last Wednesday, China issued its first policy paper on the Arab world. The document outlines China’s blueprint for strengthening cooperation between China and the Arab states. The release of this policy paper comes just a week before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first official visit to the Middle East. Xi is scheduled to visit Egypt from January 20 to 22, as well Iran and Saudi Arabia subsequently. The last time a Chinese president visited the Middle East was in 2006, when then President Hu Jintao visited Saudi Arabia.

The combination of these two “firsts” for China with regard to the Middle East is a definite sign of increasing Chinese engagement with the region. The central driving force of this trend lies in China’s burgeoning energy needs: its demand for oil has consistently surpassed domestic oil production since 1993 and has been steadily growing ever since. Given its ample oil reserves and relative proximity to China, the Middle East has become the largest source of crude oil imports for the country. In 2014, the region as a whole supplied China with 3.2 million barrels of oil per day, accounting for 52% of its total oil imports.

Not surprisingly, Chinese interest in the Middle East’s energy resources forms the bedrock of Chinese-Middle Eastern relations. In fact, China’s Arab Policy Paper cites a “1+2+3” cooperation framework, with energy cooperation as the core—the “1” in the framework. It is only with a secured energy supply that China can then facilitate the “2” and “3” of the framework: “infrastructure construction and trade and investment facilitation as the two wings,” and the “three high and new tech fields of nuclear energy, space satellite and new energy as the three breakthroughs.”

The “1+2+3” cooperation framework ties in with China’s “Silk Road Economic Belt” and “Twenty-First Century Maritime Silk Road” (“Belt and Road”) projects, which were also mentioned in the policy paper. This “Belt and Road” initiative effectively envisions a modern-day reincarnation of China’s past overland and maritime trade routes, with “a series of transcontinental railroads, pipelines, ports, airports, and other infrastructure projects” slated to connect China with Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. To bring this idea into fruition, China has provided massive financing to countries along the “Belt and Road” for various infrastructure projects.

If successful, the economic benefits to China and the regions that the “Belt and Road” passes will be immense. Chinese firms will have easier access to key markets and commodities, while the Chinese-financed infrastructure can provide a huge stimulant for the economies of the developing countries in those regions.

Indeed, the engagement of China with the Middle East has largely been in the realm of economics. China has always focused on improving trade and investment ties with the Middle East, while refraining from being a major stakeholder in the region’s political entanglements. In this regard, China’s new Arab Policy Paper represents more of a continuity of, rather than a departure from, prevailing trends in Chinese-Middle Eastern relations. The fact that the section on “Investment and Trade Cooperation” in the policy paper is around twice as long as the other sections is especially telling.

Nevertheless, economic processes do not occur in a vacuum. China definitely needs to consider other policy aspects in its relation with the Middle East, i.e. politics, security, social development, and culture—all of which are also mentioned in the Arab Policy Paper. Of these, the most crucial now are probably politics and security, since they can have direct impacts on Chinese economic involvement in the Middle East.

The escalation of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran recently, in light of Iranians protesters ransacking the Saudi embassy in Tehran on 2 January after Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shia cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, should be a worrying development for China. After all, both Saudi Arabia and Iran are major suppliers of crude oil to China and their regional conflict will definitely threaten its energy security.

At the same time, the Saudi-Iranian conflict has complicated international efforts to address the ongoing civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. These sectarian disputes in the Middle East can have spillover effects for China’s own conflict with Uighur separatists, who are fighting for the independence of the predominantly Uighur region of Xinjiang from China. Given that the Uighurs are Sunni Muslims, they may be susceptible to extremist Sunni ideology emanating from the conflicts in the Middle East.

In fact, just last month, the Islamic State released a four-minute song in Mandarin that called upon Muslims in China to take up arms and join its fight against non-Muslims. Moreover, in 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State, named China as one of the countries in which “Muslims’ rights are forcibly seized” and called upon his fighters to attack those countries.

Hence, whether it likes it or not, China is now drawn into the quagmire of conflicts in the Middle East. It has to chart its growing economic ambitions in the region alongside real political and security threats. Just last year, the Islamic State executed Fan Jinghui, who is the first known Chinese national to be killed by the group. In response, the Chinese government committed itself to “enhance anti-terrorism cooperation with the international community.”

That said, whether China will move from the sidelines to become an active participant in the fight against the Islamic State is still an open question. Many experts doubt that China will depart from its “decades-old policy of nonintervention” by providing direct Chinese military support to combat the Islamic State. Yet, if its strategy in combating terrorism in the African continent is any example, China will probably choose to pursue its own anti-terrorism strategy: a reliance on “financial aid and capacity building support for regional militaries” over direct military intervention. In other words, China prefers to help the affected states to fight their own battles against terrorist groups through the provision of economic resources and technical expertise, rather than increasing its military presence in the region.

On the whole, as China becomes more cognizant of the political and security threats facing its economic interests in the Middle East, it will have to recalibrate the nature of its engagement in the region. As the Saudi-Iranian geopolitical rivalry and the threat of the Islamic State intensify, China cannot afford to maintain the status quo. After all, its economic interests are at stake. Nevertheless, it is still unlikely to pursue an activist foreign policy vis-à-vis the Middle East for now. Rather than depart from its noninterventionist policy, it probably will choose to capitalize on what it does best: marshaling its enormous economic resources to effect gradual change. Perhaps, China’s answer to the varied problems of the Middle East is not a turn to political-military activism, but an increased economic assertiveness.

The trade-centric nature of China’s new Arab Policy Paper, as seen earlier, may be one indication of this continuity. If there is to be any change in the status quo of Chinese-Middle Eastern relations in light of President Xi’s upcoming visit to the Middle East, my take will be the following: while it is no longer tenable for China to remain “business as usual” with regard to the Middle East, the only change we might see in the near future may simply be “more business.”

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