In recent years, the Middle East has started playing an increasingly important role in Beijing’s foreign policy. For China this region is not just a new market to conquer, it’s both a potential source or barrier that can prevent all sorts of terrorists and separatists from infiltrating the territory of the People’s Republic of China, a nation that has already witnessed foreign-sponsored separatism in its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
However, in its quest for regional stability across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), China is likely to be opposed by both the United States and Saudi Arabia. Should Beijing pursue regional political stability at the expense of promoting political change it may well be accused of violating its own principle of non-interference that it has maintained while approaching other states.
It’s already been stated that China’s abandonment of non-interference is represented in its efforts to mediate conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan as well as between Israel and Palestine and even between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, time and time again Beijing fails to fulfill the hopes of those seeking its assistance in settling regional disputes, which puts it at risk of tying itself up in political knots in countries such as Pakistan, which is home to the crown jewel of its Belt and Road Initiative (OBOR) — the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
It’s seems that Beijing is fully aware of how risky it is to become involved in the Middle East, a region that has witnessed a number of violent political transitions over the last decade, largely due to an extensive amount of foreign interference. It’s safe to say that as of now the whole MENA region is still at the beginning of a transition process that could take up to a quarter of a century to finally resolve.
For centuries the Middle East has been caught at the center of political struggles between major powers that would more often than not result in violent conflict, leading to poverty and bloodshed. For instance, Washington has long been convinced that MENA falls into its sphere of interests, which means that Western foreign policy think tanks would most certainly find the transformation of China into a principal Middle East player unacceptable.
By carefully following the steps taken by leading outside players in the Middle East, which include the United States and Russia, China was quick to realize that it would need a strong ally within the region in order to advance its policies there. It is fairly evident to pretty much anyone that Israel and Saudi Arabia are playing on Washington’s side, while Russia is supporting both Syria and Iran. As for Beijing, it decided to put its support behind Pakistan and Syria.
China is ready to influence Pakistan in order to advance its agenda, forcing it to take steps against Beijing’s political rivals. For instance, Beijing continues to defend Masood Azhar, who is suspected of enjoying close ties with Pakistani special services and armed forces, to prevent Washington from recognizing him as an international terrorist. The use of militants by Pakistan in its territorial dispute with India in the province of Kashmir also serves Chinese interests perfectly. In addition, China’s rapidly developing relations with Islamabad ensures that the former would be able to use the deep water port of Gwadar as a military facility.
China’s position on the Syrian crisis result in Beijing blocking a total of six resolutions of the UN Security Council against Damascus. Mind you, that China has exercised its right to veto UN Security Council resolutions 11 times and more than a half of those vetoes were used in defense of Syria, which clearly demonstrates the role that Syria plays in Beijing’s designs.
China’s special envoy for Syria, Xie Xiaoyan would repeatedly stress the willingness of his government to participate in the reconstruction of the destroyed Syrian economy when the war ends. The prolonged destruction and plundering of Syria by foreign proxy forces transforms contracts for its restoration into a valuable asset, which are being eyed by all sorts of players. Additionally, Syria’s geographic position transforms it into an invaluable asset for the implementation of the OBOR project launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013.
In December 2017, a number of Middle Eastern TV stations and news outlets would report the arrival of the Chinese special forces unit ‘Night Tigers’ to the Syrian port of Tartus to assist government troops in securing control over territories still occupied by terrorists. Although at official levels Beijing has denied the arrival of its special forces in Syria, China acknowledged the presence of Chinese military advisers as early as 2015 which were deployed to train Syrian armed forces, thus facilitating the adaptation of Chinese weapons. At the same time, even though officially Chinese regular units are not operating in Syria, it does not prevent Beijing from using, in accordance with the example set by the United States, Russia and a number of other states, Chinese private military companies (PMCs) in Syria. One of these PMCs – Shandong Huawei Security Group – has been recruiting former military, special forces and police officers from across China to be sent abroad since 2010 and has already officially deployed its forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In addition, it should not be forgotten that China’s growing interest in participating in military events in Syria can be linked to Beijing’s recent armed forces modernization program, so one can understand Beijing’s desire to roll out its latest designs to test them in the field. Just like Russia, China is reluctant to rely on military exercises alone when proving its latest military technology and tactics. This includes bomb disposal and combat robots, drones and communications equipment and much more.
Therefore, China’s growing presence in the Arab region is inevitable and will continue into the foreseeable future, especially as Chinese political leaders finally realize that China’s political, military and strategic distancing from the Arab world threatens its vital interests.
Martin Berger is a freelance journalist and geopolitical analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”