China’s foreign policy, especially towards the Middle East and Africa, is being shaped by its increasing requirements for Oil and other natural resources, leading to a situation that can be summarized as such: the greater the demand, the more politically involved it gets in the Middle East and the countries it usually imports oil from. In just a single generation, thanks to unprecedented economic growth, China went from being self-sufficient in crude oil (producing what it consumed) to nearly displacing the US as the fuel’s biggest importer. In 2014, China imported about 6.2 million barrels per day on average; and, it is more than a mere coincidence that most of the oil China imports comes from one of the most volatile regions in the world: the Middle East. Again, it is not just a mere coincidence that the US—China’s main strategic competitor— is the most domineering force there. Therefore, China’s ‘new’ foreign policy outlook is being shaped not only by its own political economy but also by global geo-strategic considerations.
This highly increased reliance on unstable/volatile countries has spurred China to undertake its first-ever overseas deployment of combat forces in a peacekeeping role in Africa, which has since then been followed by an increased role in resolving conflict in Afghanistan. Although China does not import oil from Afghanistan, the country has enough resources for China to exploit in the future. As far as Africa is concerned, in 2013, Beijing sent 170 troops to Mali to help prevent the country’s tumult from spilling into its oil-rich neighbors, such as Algeria and Libya. A year later, in another ‘fist of aggressive diplomacy’, China leaped into peace talks between warring factions in South Sudan.
And, as far as the Middle East is concerned, in December 2014, China offered Iraq military support in the form of airstrikes for combating the Islamic State. China’s new oil-fueled engagements saw a definitive shift toward the Middle East when, in November 2014, Beijing offered Washington money (some $10 million) to aid displaced persons in Iraq. Coming from a country that has long viewed the US led military interventions as the sharp end of nefarious Western plots, these offers were absolutely startling for many who have long viewed China as a politically ‘disinterested’ State. However, as China’s demand for oil and other resources has increased exponentially over the last few years, and as the regions providing China with adequate supply of resources become more volatile and disrupt into chaos, China, too, is forced to make necessary policy adjustments in order for ensuring an uninterrupted supply of resources so that it can keep its industry running. The Chinese case, in other words, is a classic example of a ‘super power’ being falling into the ‘trap’, as some like to call it, set by another super power, the USA; for, nothing would have benefitted the USA more than having China involved in the Middle East militarily, thus shattering China’s image as a non-interfering State.
However, it would be an oversimplification to state that China simply fell into the trap of the USA. China’s decision to send troops is a very calculated move on her part and a result of some serious policy debates that went on in the ruling circles during last few years. This major shift in diplomacy and foreign policy is, as such, in perfect line with open discussions by top officials, especially including Foreign Minister Wang Yi, about an increasingly prominent Chinese role in the above mentioned regions. Although China is operating or offering to operate in the region without having any formal defence or security alliances/treaties, the fact that it is willing to operate is a development worth taking into consideration, leaving a very critical question behind: Is China going to replace the United States in the Middle East? We cannot find a categorical answer to this question; however, signs are quite clear that China is slowly, and in a very calculated manner, entering the political arena; for, without doing it, she may not find it that easy to pull the required quantity of oil she needs to keep its economy ‘functional.’
But securing oil production isn’t China’s only worry; shipping, of course, is also a key concern. More than 80 percent of Beijing’s imported oil has to wind its way through a global choke point, the Strait of Malacca—a channel near Singapore that shrinks to less than two miles wide and handles more than 15 million barrels of oil shipments a day. In a 2003 speech, Hu Jintao, then China’s president, articulated the “Malacca dilemma”: the fear that “certain major powers”—code for the United States—could cut China’s energy lifeline in this narrow passage, mirroring what America did to Japan during World War II. In turn, Hu accelerated a naval modernization program, which has continued under President Xi Jinping, with the launch of China’s first aircraft carrier, the introduction of its first anti-ship ballistic missile, and a tripling of its destroyers, frigates, and attack submarines. Some of this progress has been on display since 2008, when China deployed long-term anti-piracy patrols in the sea lanes off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden—its first overseas naval mission in 600 years. And in a step intended to eliminate its seaborne vulnerabilities, China opened a gas and oil pipeline across Myanmar in late January 2015.
The change in China’s foreign policy comes just as the United States is trying to detangle itself from a decade of troubled wars. A full withdrawal from the Middle East will be impossible, given the eruption of the Islamic State and a long-standing promise to protect energy supplies for the US allies. Consequently, the United States will need to figure out how to work with a confident China—not just in Washington’s pivot to Asia, but in Beijing’s pivot to the west.
A cardinal point of China’s “pivot” to the West is the extensive modernization programme that it aims to use to halt the US pivot to Asia. The report from the 18th Party Congress states that in the near future China has to “increase its exploitation of water resources, develop a maritime economy, protect the water/oceanic ecosystem, persist in protecting the national maritime interests, build up maritime power.” In other words, the new leadership formally included the establishment of maritime power into its national strategy. This goal generally includes three aspects: a) effective management, control, and protection of previously neglected maritime space (for instance, parts of the South China Sea and East China Sea); b) use of assertive maritime diplomacy to exert significant influence on regional and international maritime regulations and practices; c) the effective and rational use of maritime resources within and outside of China’s sovereign space to become one of the world’s most powerful maritime economies. Guided by these principles, the Chinese government and armed forces have recently enacted a number of firm steps to protect China’s maritime and air or space interests. On the other hand, these developments are meant to reinforce Chinese capacity to act beyond its borders, mainly in Africa and the Middle East.
These developments in the maritime aspects of power are to be compounded by a rigorous, but calculated, application in the Middle East and other regions. China’s policy approach to the Middle East is reinforced by its conclusion from the US predicament in the region that no one power can single handedly help the region restore stability and embark on a road of equitable and sustainable development. In a way, Washington has been asking for this. The US officials have long pushed China to pull its weight internationally; President Barack Obama complains that China has been a “free rider” for decades, benefiting immensely from global trade and energy flows made possible by the US Navy. In that sense, Chinese peacekeepers in Africa and China’s anti-piracy patrols have been welcomed as a sign that Beijing is becoming, in the words of former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system.
However, China is fully aware of the consequences that are likely to follow this changing or perhaps already changed foreign policy and its application. “Replacing the US is a trap China should not fall into,” Wang Jian said. At the same time, he justified Chinese non-interference with the government’s conviction that the chaos in the region meant that this was not the time to intervene – an approach that many in the Chinese policy community believe allows China to let the US stew in its own soup.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”