Sino-Arab relations have come a long away over recent decades, gradually evolving into a rather complex system. Of course, the rapid emergence of a new multipolar world allowed ties between Beijing and the Middle East to gain even more traction. For the longest time China has been perceived by the Arab region as an alternative force with a lot of weight upon the international stage, so it’s only logical that some Arab players are now trying to take advantage of the fact that it remains one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. In turn, Beijing recognizes these attempts and tries to use them to gain more leverage in regional affairs.
Turbulent events have turned the Middle East upside down in the last decade, forcing China into reevaluating the role this region would play in its designs. It has became imperative for Beijing to decide which regional players are going to be key partners in the region and how much effort it’s willing to put into supporting them.
As bilateral ties between Beijing and Washington hit an all time low, a lot of attention has been directed toward the recent eighth China-Arab Cooperation Forum, which brought together representatives from a total of 21 MENA region countries in Beijing. The fact that this event was attended by the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit transformed this meeting into a milestone event. Those attending the forum were urged to increase trade and cooperation, develop infrastructure projects, which are seem to be Beijing’s direct response to the trade war unleashed against it by the United States.
This trade war announced by Donald Trump recently, keeps tensions rising. Among the accusations that the White House voiced against China, the gravest is an alleged restriction on American imports, which in Trump’s mind led to a great imbalance in the trade turnover between the two countries. Attempts to negotiate the issue did not allow the sides to come to a mutually acceptable solution, which resulted in the US imposing protective duties against a number of Chinese goods. Unsurprisingly, Beijing responded in a similar fashion, by imposing high import duties on hundreds of items imported from the US.
Under these conditions, Beijing chose to rely on the active development of its ties with the Arab World, especially against the backdrop of the Chinese economy experiencing an ever growing demand for massive hydrocarbon imports. Oil would traditionally be a vital link in the ties that connected the United States and the Middle East up until the point when Washington chose to reduce its dependence on Middle Eastern oil by betting big on its shale oil bonanza at home. However, China has a massive growing economy that needs more and more oil, which creates positive preconditions for the establishment of economic ties with one of the most oil rich regions of the world. Additionally, by nurturing its ties with the Arab World Beijing can effectively contain US influence in the Middle East, and allow Beijing interests to be considered. For China has become the biggest consumer of Saudi, Iraqi and Iranian oil in the world, which allows it to influence the positions of these three, otherwise very different states.
Therefore, one of the proposals of President Xi Jinping at the Beijing Forum was the intensification of joint work with Arab countries in the oil and gas sector, which will allow Arab manufacturers to increase the supply of hydrocarbon products to China. This looks extremely promising considering Beijing’s plans to import 8 trillion dollars worth of oil over the next five years.
It’s must be noted that even before the announcement of Washington’s trade war, China was searching for a suitable solution to solving its own energy security, trying to find a balance in its relations with the United States. To attain this goal, Beijing increased its import of American goods by four times in less than a month last February, thus breaking a promise made earlier in Moscow to strengthen energy cooperation with Russia. Then, in the month of May, it became known that Beijing was planning to further increase the level of oil imports from the US, which Beijing announced in clear hopes of satisfying the White House which was growing increasingly dissatisfied with the state of Sino-American trade. But soon it became clear that no amount of concessions would satisfy Washington, which resulted in China rapidly dropping the amount of oil it was buying form the US.
Therefore, the call made by China at the forum for expanding cooperation with the Arab World should be perceived as Beijing’s direct response to Washington’s actions. Moreover, now China is strengthening its influence across the whole planet, and the Arab World is no exception. Beijing is interested in Middle Eastern resources, but it will not be shortsighted enough to overlook the fact that this region represents a vast uncharted market for its goods and investments.
According to Beijing leadership, China and the Arab World have many reasons to pursue the development of various forms of cooperation. Speaking at the opening of the above mentioned forum, Xi Jinping, in his manner, presented a clear plan of action. First, Beijing and the Arab countries are to start developing a broad infrastructure system that will link the whole region, building ports, logistics centers, and high-speed railway lines. In recent years, Beijing has succeeded in becoming a leading economic partner of a number of Arab and African countries, now it has a goal of linking them together.
It’s curious that among the members of the League of Arab States there are such African countries as Somalia, Djibouti and Sudan, and it was Djibouti that Beijing chose to establish its first overseas military base.
Further still, China is planing to start investing even more in both African and Arab nations this year. China’s Xi Jinping has announced that China is going to allocate some 20 billion dollars in loans to the countries of the region, while handing over an additional 106 million dollars in financial assistance to stimulate economic growth. In particular, China will provide 15 million dollars in financial assistance to Palestine, along with 91 million dollars in aid to the four countries of the region that have recently suffered from armed conflicts the most, namely Jordan, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria.
To bring all of the above mentioned plans to life, an Arab-Chinese consortium of banks is going to be created with a total worth of well over 3 billion dollars. According to the Chinese leader, loans and assistance are provided within the framework of the “oil and gas +” model for the economic revitalization of the Middle East region and development of its ties with the what is still believed to be the second economy of the world.
But China’s growing ties with the Middle East are not limited to commercial and financial activities. Beijing continues to intensify its diplomatic ties and increase its military presence across the Middle East. The Chinese navy has made efforts to demonstrate its presence in close proximity to such strategic regional points as the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the Suez Canal. China has also signed an agreement on the opening of a new facility in Saudi Arabia that will produce military unmanned aerial vehicles.
Although it is unlikely that Beijing will be able to completely remove Washington from the regional stage in the nearest future, since the latter remains a principle arms supplier in the region, the imminent economic growth of the region will create new markets for inexpensive Chinese high-tech weapons systems, while further stimulating China’s determination to drive both research and production costs even lower. However, according to some experts, China’s readiness to sell weapons to virtually any regional player, without taking into account its intentions, can make the situation across the Middle East even more volatile, by providing countries with the means to wage modern wars on the cheap.
Against the backdrop of mounting tensions in the Middle East and regarding US relations with China, Washington simply can not ignore Beijing’s rapid advancement in the region. If Washington fails to come up with a plan, China will soon be able to realize its ambitions in the region by including the Middle East in the orbit of its economic and diplomatic influence, thus completely removing Washington from the region.
Martin Berger is a freelance journalist and geopolitical analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”