It has been more than a decade that the region of the Middle East and North Africa has been through massive political upheavals. Of late, China has been relying on its traditional non-interference policy based on the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence”, which were developed during the Mao period. However, more recently, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership has progressively adopted a more forward-looking policy toward the Middle East, making its role as a responsible and emerging power. Now Beijing has a broad range of interests in the Middle East.
There are at least four reasons for China to adopt a pro-active policy in the Middle East. There is no doubt that the Middle East region as a whole is significant for China primarily because of its copious energy resources, its position as a geostrategic junction, and its budding role in the westward rebalancing of the Chinese economy within the framework of the One Belt, One Road. Chief among these reasons is having sustained access to the region’s energy capital.
Simultaneously, China’s mercantile interests in the region also include developing new investment opportunities and contracts for infrastructure projects for Chinese firms as well as gaining market share for their products.
China’s second key interest in the Middle East is developing relationships and building influence with regional powers beyond the comfort of its proximate Asia-Pacific neighbourhood. Here, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt figure illustriously in Beijing’s plans.
A third advantage for China is preserving its domestic security by preventing radical ideologies having roots in the Middle East that also affect China.
Fourth, it can be said that China has a general interest in the Middle East, as it does in other regions, as a stage for attaining acknowledgment as a genuine great power.
There is also a growing equity stake for China since it imports more than half of its oil from the Gulf, as well as a third of its natural gas. Chinese major energy companies have already established supply anchorages in the Middle East including in Iraq, and most recently in Abu Dhabi. The Sino-Arab partnerships encompass petrochemical and natural gas projects in the region as well as refinery projects in China itself.
The Middle East is a growth market for reasonably priced consumer merchandise, and China is now the largest source of the region’s imports. Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia import more from China than from any other country. Chinese firms are winning contracts for engineering, construction, and infrastructure development projects. In recent years, Chinese investment in the region particularly in Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia has also increased and China is actively seeking collaboration in new domains including nuclear and renewable energy and aerospace technology.
Moreover, there is a sentiment of heightened susceptibility because until recently, Beijing had not considered conflicts in the region as having a direct impact on its interests. However, China’s heavy reliance on Middle East energy, and on the Gulf in particular, has made it extremely vulnerable to possible supply disruptions and price spikes resulting from unrest and conflict in the region.
Chaos in the Middle East has raised Chinese policy-makers’ concerns about the spread of aggressive ideologies, the prospect of Chinese foreign fighters returning to commit acts of terrorism as well as the possible desertion of profitable contracts, damage to or destruction of investment assets, and endangerment of Chinese workers and expatriates. Elevated exposure to these diverse threats has made it imperative for Beijing to develop and dexterously utilise diplomatic and military tools to respond.
China’s deepening involvement in the Middle East and its attendant risks has generated a great deal of conjecture about whether Beijing has a long-term strategy. If indeed such a strategy exists, the Chinese leadership has yet to articulate it openly. Nevertheless, one can garner evidence from Chinese official statements and conduct three interrelated directives that guide its approach to the region: (1) buy what you need and sell what you can; (2) do not interfere either in domestic or inter-state political affairs; and (3) emphasise dialogue and development as opposed to the use of force, as the solution to the Middle East’s problems, and thereby distinguish China from other powers in the region.
Beijing’s obedience to non-interference in the Middle East is intended to avoid direct involvement in conflicts or crises, and to avoid clear-cut positions on contentious issues. It’s obvious that China is not keen to play a central role as peace-maker. China’s first “Arab Policy Paper,” issued in January 2016, carefully addressed the Middle East issues. Tentative forays such as Beijing’s Four-Point Plan for Syria gained little traction and was evidence enough for many observers to characterise China’s policy as “cautious, wary, and risk averse.”
Nevertheless, China’s policy in the Middle East has been more pragmatic. As events have been occurring, Beijing has become more active on diplomatic fronts mainly through participation in multilateral institutions such as the Arab League, the China-Gulf Forum, and in the recruitment of nine Middle East and North African countries as members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
China has also played a more visible role in the security of the region in recent years, most notably in its deployment of combat troops for peacekeeping in South Sudan, in addition to the construction of its first overseas naval base, in Djibouti. Moreover, authorising more expansive counter-terrorism operations beyond China’s borders, demonstrates that it is willing to secure its interests around the world, and by force if needed.
China’s “new activism” in the Middle East is on the rise and is not just confined to the old wisdom of commercialism as was in the past. Yet China is still not pursuing a dominant policy in the region but carefully responding to crises. Strategic caution remains the hallmark of the Chinese approach to the Middle East and would continue to be a topic of vibrant debate.
By Arhama Siddiqa
— The writer is Research Fellow, Institute of Strategic Studies, a think-bank based in Islamabad.