China and the Middle East

Summary: President Xi’s visit to Abu Dhabi marks a change in Chinese policy, with the Middle East a key link in China’s belt and road initiative, and his own emergence as a world leader, not afraid to address problems such as Palestine or Qatar vs. the 4.

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1 thought on “China and the Middle East”

  1. Alastair Newton

    I very much enjoyed Stuart Lau’s article posted yesterday, with which I agree entirely. I have myself been writing a good deal recently about China’s Belt & Road initiative (BRI), including (for a US-based client at the start of the year) as follows in response to a question asking whether a new ‘regional hegemony’ would emerge from the ‘rubble’ of the Middle East:
    “The main focal point here is the struggle for regional domination between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Turkey also getting into the mix. This has more to do with power per se than ethnicity or religion, as illustrated by (Sunni) Turkey’s self-serving leaning to Iran and away from Saudi Arabia.
    Short of a major intervention on one ‘side’ or another by a big external actor it is hard to see this being resolved militarily. However:
    1. Russia’s main interest now seems to be defending something close to the status quo on the ground while maintaining friendly relations with as many countries as possible;
    2. The US, pace Israel, is increasingly disinterested and disengaged, with the exception of a possible strike against Iran (but not on a scale likely decisively to shift the balance); and Washington certainly has nothing remotely resembling a coherent regional strategy; and,
    3. China will continue to deepen its engagement through soft power in pursuit of Xi Jinping’s Belt & Road project but is very unlikely to get involved militarily.
    And therein, perhaps, lies the answer, ie no regional hegemony but, if China realises its ambitions, a Gulf region for which Beijing is increasingly the de facto centre of gravity.”
    Perfectly reasonably, Mr Lau concentrates in this particular article on Sino-Arab relations. However, I find the positioning of Iran vis a vis the BRI especially interesting – and would respectfully suggest that it does stand to bear on Sino-Arab relations too.
    As Robert Kaplan wrote earlier this year:
    “…China intends to create an organic alliance with Iran, a state that because of its immense size, location and population, as well as its long imperial tradition, functions as the fulcrum for the Middle East and Central Asia.”
    Especially if the US continues to pursue its current stance towards Iran, Tehran will remain eager to pull in more Chinese investment too.
    Jeffrey S Payne of the Middle East Institute believes that Iran could, in fact, be the main BRI beneficiary in the Middle East (even discounting the additional benefits it stands to secure from Indian investment which is, in part at least, driven by Delhi’s desire to counter Beijing’s influence with one of its key economic partners). As the Middle East Monitor’s Stasa Salacanin explained in an article published in September 2016:
    “Some writers…expect that Iran will benefit from [the BRI] more than others, given its historic ties with China and longstanding opposition towards the United States, making it a trustworthy Chinese ally. This, of course, may cause regional imbalance and raise GCC suspicions toward the whole project. It is true that Iran’s geostrategic location and the possible economic windfall are too favourable for China to pass up. Beijing, for example, welcomed Iran back into the fold as a major Middle Eastern economic player following the nuclear energy deal and recently upgraded its relations to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Dr [Mohammadbaghe] Forough [of Leiden University] lists numerous comparative advantages that Iran has over GCC states, including a more diversified economy than most GCC members and a market size of almost 80 million people that is attractive to Chinese investors. According to him, the country could also provide more energy security to China than the GCC states and has experienced fewer security issues in terms of terrorism on its soil and domestic political stability. Iran also boasts a very attractive geography in terms of access to the Arabian Gulf, being a bridge (together with Turkey) between Asia and Europe, access to Central Asia and the Caspian Sea.”
    The trick will be for China to achieve this while maintaining strong relations with the GCC countries, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular. To date, Beijing has succeeded in striking a pragmatic balance based on economic interest while keeping out of regional politics other than through its membership of the UN Security Council. It is not impossible that this could all come undone if relations between Iran on the one hand and, on the other, Saudi Arabia and its close regional allies deteriorate still further. But I think it more likely that the BRI will greatly encourage business as usual with the GCC countries, deepening Sino-Iranian ties notwithstanding.

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