Sat, Feb 06, 2016 - Page 8 News List

‘Xi Jinping of Arabia’ emerging

By Minghao Zhao 趙明浩

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.

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