Those who have criticized China’s cautious Middle East policy will need to reconsider their stance following President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) recent visit to Saudi Arabia and Iran — two major Middle Eastern powers that are at each other’s throats.
The visits reflect the active foreign policy approach that Xi has spearheaded, particularly in the Middle East. This new approach raises an important question: Can China’s impact on the region be more constructive than that of the US?
It is a tense time to be involved in the Middle East, a region where, as Richard Haass says, a New Thirty Years’ War, in which “civil wars and proxy wars become impossible to distinguish,” is unfolding.
A key factor in unleashing the chaos — which represents the convergence of numerous deep-rooted challenges and conflicts — was the US’ 2003 invasion of Iraq. By eliminating former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime, the US paved the way for a Shiite-led government, a development that tilted the regional balance of power toward Iran and left Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia feeling encircled by a Shiite coalition.
That is why Iran and Saudi Arabia are so deeply involved in Syria’s civil war. They know that the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime will have significant implications for the regional order. For Saudi Arabia, reining in Iran is all the more important in the wake of the recent agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, which has resulted in the lifting of international economic sanctions that have long constrained that nation’s regional leadership ambitions.
Of course, neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran — or Turkey, which has also joined the competition for regional influence — is seeking direct confrontation. These nations would rather empower other actors, even if it means fueling dangerous religious radicalization and the privatization of violence. Terrorist movements that have emerged as a result of this approach — namely, the Islamic State — cannot be defeated using traditional counter-terrorism measures.
Middle Eastern rivals are not the only ones involved in the region’s quagmire. France, Russia and, of course, the US are also deeply involved, each with its own geopolitical objectives. Now China is entering the fray, bringing a uniquely constructive vision with it.
The two characters that comprise the Chinese word for crisis (危機) individually mean “danger” (危) and “opportunity” (機). That is precisely what China sees in the Middle East. For most of the actors, highly perilous geopolitical competition is overshadowing vast economic opportunities. Not for China.
As Xi put it during his visit to Cairo: “Instead of looking for a proxy in the Middle East, we promote peace talks; instead of seeking any sphere of influence, we call on all parties to join the circle of friends for the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative.”
This reflects the broader foreign policy rebalancing that Xi has been pursuing since taking office in 2013. Unlike the US, which has been engineering a strategic “pivot” from one geographic region to another, China is rebalancing from “politics among nations” to “politics among networks,” focusing on “connectivity” rather than “control.”
The Middle East is crucial to this connectivity-oriented grand strategy, not the least because of its key role in the “One Belt, One Road” project that Xi promoted in Cairo. China’s determination to re-establish the ancient Silk Road — including the overland route that runs through the Middle East — has caused it to enter into strategic partnerships with eight Arab nations in the past few years and to sign agreements with six Arab nations to pursue the initiative jointly.
Iran, Turkey and seven Arab nations are among the founding members of the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a key institution for financing infrastructure projects related to the initiative.
However, China is not waiting for the completion of the “One Belt, One Road” to pursue increased trade with Middle Eastern nations.
In Saudi Arabia, Xi said that free-trade negotiations between the Gulf Cooperation Council and China would be concluded this year.
Moreover, Xi said that China would issue US$55 billion in loans to Middle Eastern nations, including a US$15 billion special loan for industrialization, US$10 billion in commercial loans to boost production capacity and US$10 billion in concessional loans. The remaining US$20 billion is to go toward a joint investment fund with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to invest in traditional energy, infrastructure development and high-end manufacturing industries in the region.
All of this aligns with the “1+2+3” cooperation pattern that Xi proposed at the June 2014 Ministerial Conference of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in Beijing.
According to this approach, energy cooperation should form the core of collaboration, while infrastructure and trade, and investment form the two wings. Nuclear power, satellites and new energy sources are three high-tech areas where cooperation can lead to important breakthroughs. The goal is to take advantage of the region’s energy resources while helping it industrialize and diversify its economy.
Of course, China’s success in the Middle East requires progress on mitigating the region’s tensions, cooling its hot spots and stabilizing weak nations — all of which would require smart diplomacy by numerous actors.
However, peace and development are inextricably linked. To turn the tide against extremism, Middle Eastern nations must be able to provide economic opportunities to their people, and these can only be secured through trade, investment and jobs. In this respect, China has a lot to offer the Middle East — and Xi has shown his determination to offer it.
Minghao Zhao is a research fellow at the Charhar Institute in Beijing, an adjunct fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China and a member of the China National Committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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