By Yifan Xia
Correspondent, International Relations Undergraduate
Chinese President Xi Jinping, the busiest state leader of the world in terms of diplomatic visits in 2015, started 2016 with a five-day visit to the Middle East in late January, including key countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran. It has been six years since the last Chinese Presidential visit in 2009. Since then, China’s economy slowed while the Middle East has become increasingly politically and economically unstable.
The New York Times described the visit as all business. What does this mean for Chinese/Middle Eastern Relations? And what are Xi’s aims in the region?
Xi’s visit comes a critical moment — European Union and American sanctions on Iran were lifted last year and tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are even higher than usual. As a the leader of global power, Xi’s visit set the tone of China’s growing interest in the region.
With the launch of the “One belt, one road” policy and the establishment of Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the cooperation between China and Middle Eastern states welcomes more economic opportunities in more fields of growth. “One belt, one road” policy was launched during Xi’s administration, aiming to strengthen infrastructure both in the westward land route from China through Central Asia and in the crucial maritime shipping routes from China through Southeast Asia and on to South Asia, Africa, and Europe.
As a the leader of global power, Xi’s visit set the tone of China’s growing interest in the region.
It is clear that the Chinese government invested time and thought in the carefully conducted visit. A week before Xi’s trip, the administration released the detailed policy report “China’s Arab Policy Paper” which included promoting cultural communication as an important part of a relationship beyond economic exchange. Unlike other global powers like United States and the European Union, China security forces have not been involved in the myriad of regional conflicts dividing the Middle East in the past.
The policy paper, however included a section on“Cooperation in the Field of Peace and Security” which stated Chinese commitment to “deepen China-Arab military cooperation and exchange.” It is extremely unlikely we will see Chinese “boots on the ground” anytime in the future as the country has attempted portray itself the champion of non-interference and peace to the global community. In a speech to the Arab League, Xi emphasized that China did “not seek proxies or spheres.” On the surface, at least, economics and culture are the main focus.
In recent years, China has increasingly poured direct investment into the Middle East, demonstrating stronger influence by participating a large number of infrastructure projects. Saudi Arabia is a reliable partner to China for importing petroleum and gas. Meanwhile, the weaknesses of the mono-dimensional nature of the their economic cooperation (which rests mainly on natural resources and raw materials) becomes more obvious in the light of globalization.
Saudi Arabia and China have a similar trait common: transformation. The 2007/2008 financial crisis, the Chinese economic slowdown and plummeting price of petroleum would damage the economic interest of both states. Faced with global economic instability, strong cooperation is required by both sides for true, long-term benefits.
Saudi Arabia and China have a similar trait common: transformation.
In Saudi’s newspaper Al Riyadh, articles written by Saudi’s scholars and officers indicate how the cooperation could possibly be improved, which may have spurred Xi’s visit. In one piece by a Saudi scholar, the author was excited by the prospect of Xi’s visit, expressing that the strategic position of the Middle East was undervalued by China, which plays less active role in the region compared to other global players. Another Saudi article preceding Xi’s visit suggested that China is a friend with which they needed to become familiar.
The cultural bridge between the two great and ancient civilizations is still a work in progress. The economic link should be diversified in the coming years into alternative resources and high-technology. In a strategic sense, counter-terrorism is an emerging and serious issue, making further cooperation a important goal to work towards.
Another Saudi article preceding Xi’s visit suggested that China is a friend with which they needed to become familiar.
Chinese economic partnerships with Egypt and Iran are also significant. Although political instability often deters other clients, China conducts business without disturbance in Egypt. As China celebrates 60 years of diplomatic relations with Egpyt (seen as the start of Chinese-Arab relations), Chinese investors have been taking a more active role in the infrastructure construction in Egypt in recent ten years, particularly with the new Suez Canal Project.
Chinese relations with Iran are more complicated and subtle due to Iran’s position in international society. As the largest trading partner to Iran during the sanction, China imported a large amount of petroleum as part of its petroleum security strategy. Additionally, China was a major supplier of arms to Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s when United States and European-imposed embargo was in place.
Xi’s visit to Iran shows high Chinese interest in economic cooperation, looking to be an attractive alternative to Western economics. To avoid annoying Iran’s rival Saudi Arabia, Xi emphasized that China is not interested in interfering with Sunni/Shia regional rivalries. Iranian support was enthusiastic as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s thanked China for its “enduring support” and assured China that “Iranians had never trusted the west.”
Chinese relations with Iran are more complicated and subtle due to Iran’s position in international society.
Despite assurances to avoid becoming involved in regional issues, The Economist pointed out that China has already made the choice in Syria. Government officials met with both the Syrian government and opposition groups but vetoed US resolutions on intervention, showing a favourable stance with the Syrian government.
Scholars have warned China that the Middle East is so-called the graveyard of great powers and that China should avoid interfering or meddling the issues in the region. The Chinese government has already defined itself as a business friend to the region, with an agenda for mutual interest rather to act as policeman. The government has also expressed its willingness to be the mediator in certain circumstances, such as in 2015 when Beijing invited the Syrian government and representatives of opposition groups to meet in for peace talks.
In Xi’s visit, the schedule is sophisticatedly designed for political purposes as demonstrated by the dual Iran-Saudi visit. Saudi Arabia expects China to encourage Iran follow international law and regional order. Xi takes Egypt as the stop between Iran and Saudi Arabia as direct travel from Saudi Arabia to Iran is impossible. Given that Egypt is in the traditional leading position in Arabic world and the mild position Egypt takes in Syria, Xi makes a calculated move.
Scholars and officers have warned China that the Middle East is so-called the graveyard of the great power and that China should avoid interfering or meddling the issues in the region.
It is hard to say how China could be able to sustain its stance of non-interference in the long term. In the perspective of counter-terrorism and increasingly dependent economic interest, China is very likely to have to pick sides as its stake in the region grows. Given that most of the conflicts in the Middle East are rooted in religion, China should develop its own strategy and doctrine of solutions.
Featured image by APEC 2013