Amidst the US led chaos in the Middle East, China continues to expand its geo-economic stretch, exporting a reasonable chunk of its products to it and importing a vast quantity of oil. As a matter of fact, China has already become the biggest importer of oil, overtaking the US itself. In no less remarkable a manner, Chinese trade with the Middle East has risen from around 20 billion USD a decade ago to an estimated 230 billion USD last year, with the trade volume expected to exceed 500 billion USD by 2020. The era of an economic focus of oil-rich Gulf States on the United States and Europe ended last year when China replaced the European Union as the region’s foremost trading partner, pushing the US to second place.
Around 70 percent of the total Chinese trade is currently conducted with the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries of the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the latter of which is China’s largest source of imported oil, ahead of Iran. On the other hand, the GCC together accounts for around one-third of Chinese oil imports. Given the scale of the economic interests involved, China has stepped up its involvement in the Middle East in a number of areas. Just recently, Beijing announced that it would speed up free trade talks with the GCC in a bid to cut costs of fuel imports, which are key for the country’s energy security.
China’s emerging Middle East strategy is being shaped as much by contemporary US predicaments in the Middle East as it is by a set of foreign policy principles that contrast starkly with those of the US, with a determination not to repeat what China views as US’s strategic miscalculation and mistakes. Nor does China aim to embroil itself in the chaotic geo-politics of the ME. Chinese strategy, as it has evolved, requires Chinese economic interests to be secured without igniting political tensions in the region. Unlike the US, which does ignite political and ethnic tensions in the region as a part of its classic divide and rule stratagem, China tends to overlook these tensions from a distance and tactility reduces their significance when it comes to securing a bi-lateral trade deal. That is to say, China’s policy considerations are not driven by the so-called “ground realities.” It is rather based upon reconciling those realities, whatever they may be, with its own national interest and finding the most suitable way to accomplish the given objectives.
This can be elaborated with reference to the on-going crisis in Syria. China’s policy towards Syria, or Assad, is framed by an emphasis on external rather than domestic drivers of crisis, and the importance attached to the formal aspects of political processes such as Chinese official statements and outcomes of elections. For instance, regardless of whether Assad’s re-election was free and fair, Chinese government went ahead with its quest for securing its national interest rather than waiting for a ‘real and democratic’ government to come in place. As such, while the world was clamoring against the “unfairness” of Assad’s re-elections, Chinese were busy making trade deals with the same government. Such a policy consideration, although it is in perfect logical connection with the principle of non-interference in internal affairs of any state, ironically means potentially supporting the incumbent government, regardless of the way it might have come into existence. Notwithstanding the rhetoric of non-intervention, this policy does result sometimes in indirect and unwitting ‘support.’
In light of such peculiar policy considerations almost every state in the region has sought to benefit from enhanced trade and investment with China, while attempting to leverage Beijing’s geopolitical heft – whether through support in the UN Security Council or a direct security relationship. As a matter of fact, even some US-friendly states, disillusioned with Washington’s handling of the politics in the region, have started to turn to China as a potential long-term alternative force in the region, however modest it may be for now in political and security terms. Not only is China being viewed as an alternative force, but also as an alternative provider of arms and weapons to the Gulf States which are always looking for advanced weaponry to keep their masses in a state of perennial subjugation. According to some reports, China has already become a marginal, though an attractive, arms seller in the region and one of the leading proliferators of small arms in the world, with Middle Eastern countries as top recipients of Chinese weapons.
Not only this; the Middle East has come to acquire central position in China’s Silk Road project that focuses on integrating the enormous swathe of territories between China and the Middle East by concentrating on infrastructure, transportation, energy, telecommunications, technology and security. On the other hand, China’s insistence on multi-polarity as opposed to the US dominance in the Middle East implicitly means that the status of the US in the region would have to deteriorate further significantly before Washington, despite Obama’s willingness to consult with others in contrast to his predecessor, George W. Bush, would be willing to entertain the Chinese approach. One or the other way, however, Chinese and the US approach to the region is not only diametrically opposed but also has the potential to lock both the states into an unhappy and uneasy conflicting relationship. Although the US and China are also competing for hegemony in Africa, they are unlikely to engage in an intense geo-economic conflict there. However, the Middle East is different, primarily because of, apart from its huge oil reservoirs, its geographic proximity to the US’ arch strategic competitors in the world: Russia and China itself.
Secondly, the Middle East can be a potential flashpoint between China and the US because of its importance in the completion of China’s ambitious Silk Road project. Chinese President Xi Jinping outlined his country’s policy framework towards the region when he called, in June 2013, for the revival of the Silk Road under the motto of “One Belt, One Road.” There is no denying the fact the Silk Road is an important guide for China’s Middle East diplomacy because Arab countries are at the western intersection of one road, one belt grand policy.
Notwithstanding China’s ambitious project and its potential to trigger development in the region, China cannot simply ‘replace’ the US in the region; for, China cannot hope to take full advantage of its project in such a chaotic situation as it is today, nor can China itself hope to bring peace because of its strict adherence to the principle of non-intervention. Although non-intervention coupled with economic incentives has so far allowed China to tread on slowly; however, it is likely to be more difficult to maintain this path as the crisis in the Middle East escalates and potentially spills out of the region. Because of China’s lack of interest in the politics of the Middle East, China needs the US, at least for the time being, to manage crisis; and, this is exactly where China’s greatest policy dilemma lies. It can neither afford the US’ overwhelming influence in the region, nor can it afford to manage the crisis on its own. It is this very dilemma that can lock China and the US in an uneasy relationship, having the potential of escalation into a tug of war, if not a fully-fledged armed conflict managed through proxy groups.
To overcome this policy dilemma, Chinese have sought a multi-pronged and multi-faceted approach which is based upon the principle of talking to everyone in the region and annoying none. However, this policy, too, has its limitations. Notwithstanding that China has become what some would describe as an “economic juggernaut” in the region, its political influence still remains minimal because of its very policy of “talking to everyone.” Although China aims to keep its relations balanced in the region, this balancing act is especially hard to pull off in a region where politics too often trumps all, and where there is no shortage of sworn political enemies, always willing and ready to engage in leg-pulling. It is therefore essential for China to design and follow policy that takes into cognizance real ground political realities of the Middle East, and is flexible enough also to enable China to do politics as and when necessary. An apolitical approach to the Middle East is likely to cause constraints rather than facilitation. Conversely, a purely economic relationship is likely to result in long-term loses for China because of deep inter-relations of the region’s politics and economy.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”