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Opinion: China’s Baby Steps in the Middle East | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, walk at the Annenberg Retreat of the Sunnylands estate Saturday, June 8, 2013, in Rancho Mirage, California. Source: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

With the United States under President Barack Obama apparently determined to relinquish its global leadership, could China fill the gap that might emerge in the Middle East?

Obama’s recent appeal to China’s new President Xi Jinping to play “an active role” in brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinians gave the question added impetus. In Beijing last week, there was talk of hosting a meeting between Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. China would act as “honest broker,” in contrast with the US, which is “too committed to Israel.”

Speculation about China’s role in the Middle East has also been fanned by the entourage of Iran’s president-elect Hassan Rouhani claiming that he is to visit Beijing soon with “new ideas” for solving the stand-off on Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions.

But is China ready for a leadership role in the Middle East? I believe the answer is still “no.”

To be sure, over the past three decades, China has heightened its profile in the region. Having developed a capitalist economy based on foreign trade, China has become dependent on the outside world for energy and other raw materials, as well as for markets for its manufactured goods. That dependence inspired the so-called “reaching out” doctrine that, in turn, forced Beijing to develop an active foreign policy.

In the Middle East, the results are impressive. Last year, China became the region’s number-one trading partner. It also became the biggest importer of oil from the region, while the United States’ imports from the region fell by 50 percent.

China has become the biggest foreign investor in Iran and Iraq. It is also a key player in Iran’s growing arms industry. Last year, a Chinese-built missile factory, one of the largest in the world, started production in Iran. China is also engaged in major civil engineering projects in a dozen countries, from Saudi Arabia to Algeria.

Over the past two years, the Chinese navy, keen to establish its “blue-water” credentials, has made friendly visits to seven countries—from the Gulf of Oman to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. This was the first time since the 15th century that a Chinese navy visited the region showing the flag.

China has also beefed up its presence in the United Nations’ interim force in Lebanon, as well as building up its position as a major supplier of arms to the region. Last year, it sold USD 1 billion in weapons to six countries. More importantly, perhaps, the Chinese navy and air force are establishing ties with the armed forces of several countries, including Iran, Iraq and even NATO member Turkey, conducting joint exercises and exchanging information.

China’s Special Envoy to the Middle East, Wu Sike, has visited several capitals to talk up Beijing’s potential for leadership in the region.

Over the past decades, China has greatly improved its knowledge of the Middle East. In 1970, when we first visited China, there were a total of 120 Persian speakers in the People’s Republic, all trained in Afghanistan. The number of Arabic speakers was a few dozen, all trained in South Yemen, then under Communist rule. Today, the number of Chinese who master the languages of the Middle East runs into the thousands. China has created a number of institutes specializing in the study of the Middle East’s politics, history and culture. Ordinary Chinese citizens are also getting to know the Middle East for the first time. Thousands have had some experience working in the region, while many more are coming as tourists.

And, yet, talk of China’s leadership role may be premature, if not totally misplaced.

To understand the way Chinese foreign policy is shaped, we would do well to remember one word: caution. The ruling elite in Beijing claim a revolutionary history as the cornerstone of their legitimacy. This is for two reasons.

First, the outside world is often seen as source of danger. For much of its history, China was ruled by foreign invaders. The second reason is that China had a “continental” economic system, in the sense that it could produce almost everything it needed, thus avoiding dependence on foreign trade. Even the Silk Route that, for a century or so, became a channel for international trade never played a vital role in the overall Chinese economy.

The principle of caution dictates two imperatives. The first is not to become too dependent on any foreign source of energy and raw materials. This is why China is heavily investing in developing its own oil and natural gas resources, especially in the province of Xinjiang.

Beijing is also present in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan’s bustling energy industries and has helped construct the longest oil pipeline from Central Asia. An ambitious plan to drastically expand the production of hydro-electric and nuclear power is also part of the strategy to avoid dependence on the Middle East. China is also seeking a foothold in other oil-rich regions, such as the Gulf of Guinea and the Gulf of Mexico.

The second imperative dictated by caution is not becoming involved in conflicts inside or around any region. Thus, to cite one example, China has managed to transform North Korea into an American problem, reserving the role of “honest broker” for itself.

In the Middle East, China has refused involvement in the dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates regarding the ownership of three islands in the Strait of Hormuz. On Syria, it has tried to hedge its bets.

China’s approach to Iran is especially instructive. Beijing has voted for all UN resolutions imposing sanctions, but remains in Tehran’s good books by claiming to have watered down punitive measures demanded by the US. The Americans are happy that China has not vetoed any UN resolution on Iran. The Iranians are happy because China has quietly allowed some sanctions to be ignored by is state-owned companies.

Overall, China appears anxious to reduce the risks in relations with Iran. China’s oil imports from Iran have fallen from 16 percent in 2009 to under six percent in 2012. It also seems that the much-talked of project under which the Chinese were to build 22 nuclear power stations in Iran has been kicked into the long grass. In the past two years, trade between Iran and China has shrunk by almost 30 percent, partly due to the fall in the value of Iranian rial, which has made imports more costly and encouraged domestic production.

For the time being, China is reluctant to enter any dance in the Middle East, content with watching from the sidelines, although it may occasionally put a foot in and tap a few steps.