China's friendly diplomatic links with Middle Eastern countries are not a new phenomenon. Some would argue that they go back centuries to the era of previous imperial trade links, and the Silk Road routes that carried spices, resources and precious metals between the two regions. In modern times, however, China has forged a unique relationship, one in which it has been able to enjoy positive connections with every player across the region, despite the turmoil that has been experienced there.
Chinese President Xi Jinping's first overseas visit this year embraced Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran one after another. Speaking to the 22 members of the Arab League in Cairo, Egypt, on January 21, Xi announced a $20-billion investment fund for the region, and possible major humanitarian assistance for Syria, Jordan and others struggling to cope with the refugee crisis brought on by the war in Syria. To coincide with his visit, the Chinese Government also issued a white paper addressing links with the Arab world, speaking in terms of them being strategic partners.
Points of common interest
Egypt, the second country Xi went to, is a well-established partner for China, having been the first in Africa or the Middle East to recognize in 1956 the People's Republic after its founding in 1949. But Saudi Arabia and Iran matter to China because of the more recent phenomenon that they are important suppliers of petroleum. Of China's energy profile, a tenth comes from the Middle East region, with Saudi Arabia accounting for the largest amount, followed by Iran. This supplies a very tangible common interest. With global oil prices falling, the United States using more domestically sourced natural gas, and other markets diminishing, China really matters as never before as an export user for Middle Eastern powers who are highly dependent on oil revenue.
Yet it is clear that the last thing China wants is to be drawn into burgeoning commitments and binding diplomatic dependencies in an area that has some of the most volatile and complex politics in the world. China did not veto the 2011 UN Security Council resolution on NATO involvement in Libya when the regime there was collapsing: It simply abstained. But it felt the subsequent "mission creep" of the NATO-led alliance went beyond what had been mandated, and this caused it to be especially cautious later when a similar resolution was brought forward involving the Syrian civil war, one it did, with Russia, veto on the UN Security Council, despite pressure from the United States.
Four years later the Syrian situation remains poor. But with the rise of the so-called "Islamic State" extremist group, or Daesh, who have annexed large parts of territory across Syria and into Iraq, with their murderous form of radical politics, and their killing of civilians and hostages--along with support for acts of sickening violence in France, Turkey, and across the rest of the region--things have changed.
The focus has now become one of trying to contain, and then defeat the extremist group who so far has over 60 countries opposing them. China itself tragically lost a hostage to Daesh operatives in late 2015. If the world does not deal with Daesh, the extremist group is evidently keen to come out and unleash violence on it. In this context, China has not remained neutral, but expressed clear solidarity with France and other victims of terrorist attacks.
The negotiations over the nuclear deal between Iran and P5+1 nations (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, plus Germany) in 2015 also showed China starting to play a different role, moving away from pure neutrality and making commitments to non-proliferation and involvement in negotiations. Its mediation role here was a sign of the sort of impact it could have in Middle Eastern politics.
In the new complex and evolving situation, one which is highly unpredictable, China's strategy is likely to be played out on two tracks. On the one hand, it has increasing investments and assets in the region, and it needs to protect these. During Xi's visit, oil deals with Chinese companies were announced, along with new investments in the energy sector in both Iran and Saudi Arabia.
On the other hand, it does not want to raise expectations of a more unilateral, significant diplomatic role that might cause it to be dragged into conflicts and arguments between, in particular, the United States and partners in the Middle East. China does not want the Middle Eastern region to become a new kind of front line in which it faces American interests and aspirations. It would prefer to maintain its hard-won neutrality, and where it acts, do so in concert with other players. Avoiding exposure is its main diplomatic objective.
|Chinese Ambassador to Syria Wang Kejian (left) presents humanitarian aid from China to President Abdul Rahman Attar of the Syrian Red Crescent in Damascus on August 19, 2014 (XINHUA)
The combination of Iran and Saudi Arabia on this visit is a good illustration of how hard this is going to be. Both have been engaged in a fractious war of words since the Saudi execution in early January of a Shia cleric who was supported by Iran.
To add to the complexity, Saudi Arabia has come under increasing pressure from the United States over reigning in Islamic fanatics and fighting against Daesh. At the same time, the signing of the nuclear freeze deal with Iran means that UN sanctions have finally been lifted, and Western ties with Tehran have actually warmed. This illustrates how the dynamics of alliances in the region is changing. Those who were friends yesterday are cool to each other today, at the same time as diehard foes of yesteryear are suddenly talking to each other more harmoniously.
Xi's visit to both countries, despite tensions between them, shows the ways in which they have factored good relations with China into their global thinking and how important China's influence now is. But Xi's words toward the leaders of both were careful, largely focused on trade and investment, and kept away from any overt commitment to the side of one against the other.
The same can be said for the Chinese government white paper referred to above. It stressed commitment across the region, avoiding indications of any specific favoritism or bias.
This is something the outside world will probably see value in. Factoring in China taking a more interventionist, unilateralist role would only create risk and new complexity. They too prefer its neutrality; and this neutrality might soon become even more significant.
The Syrian conflict is still far from any likely resolution. But if and when that day comes, there is a monumental job of reconstructing the economies of both Syria and adjoining countries. Having decent trade links into the market opportunities of China will figure hugely here, as will the ability to receive Chinese aid.
China is best placed to contribute to the rebuilding of the Middle East, because of the clear complementarities between its needs and those across the Middle East. For this reason alone, China's voice has a different authority in the region, and one that is listened to more widely than perhaps any other.
Xi's visit therefore is not just an economic but a diplomatic investment. It sets the basis for something that will play out into the next decade, rather than delivering big returns immediately.
Of all the regions linked to the China-proposed Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road, it is probably the Middle East that might eventually play the strongest role. Their resources matter, and will continue to matter, for China--their need for reconstruction will be an area China can help tremendously. And Middle Eastern leaders will see China as a place that has more benign historic and political links across the region, unlike in particular the United States, who has been a long-term player, but one that is regarded in sharply different ways depending on who one asks.
The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review and director of the Lau China Institute at King's College, London
Copyedited by Mara Lee Durrell
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