China: facing the music in the Middle East

Summary: non-intervention is still more than a slogan, but does not constitute a policy. China is waking up, but fears getting its fingers caught in the mangle.

In two earlier postings this year, on 14 March and 20 April, we considered China’s relations with the Middle East; very large and growing energy and trade interests, relatively thin political and military relations adapting rather slowly to a new situation.

China continues to feel its way forward. So far it is content to shadow Russia, although its economic interests are so different (China a major energy importer, Russia a major energy exporter). The most recent comprehensive statement on the Middle East and North Africa to which China is committed is the press release following a BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) meeting in Moscow on 22 May, which is pretty bland but contains two references to Russian initiatives, one in the Security Council and one in the Quartet; there are no references to China. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman/woman now gives a daily press conference like his/her US and Russian counterparts, but on the Middle East the comments are bland to the point of absurdity.

However earlier this month President Ismail Omar Guelleh of Djibouti told AFP that discussions were taking place with China about a Chinese naval base (Djibouti already has the US base at Camp Lemonnier as well as French and Japanese bases) and that China’s presence would be welcome. The Chinese navy already has an agreement to use Djibouti port. China has neither confirmed nor denied the story. One US analyst comments “China is becoming more active in international security affairs than at any time in the history of the People’s Republic because they have an increasing global interest. Barring drastic unforeseen change in China itself, this is the new normal,”

Yesterday 25 May in what may have been a first the Chinese news agency reported the arrival of two missile frigates and a supply ship in Istanbul for a five-day friendly visit to the country. The ships had recently taken part in a joint China-Russia exercise in the Mediterranean which according to a Deutsche Welle report included live firing and could be seen as a response to US/Filipino military exercises off the Chinese coast and manoeuvres in the Yellow Sea, as well as to Western attempts to isolate Russia.

Writing in March on the Middle East Institute website Degang Sun of Shanghai International Studies University commented  “In recent years, under a banner of peace and development, the non-military functions of the Chinese navy have expanded. Naval diplomacy, the combating of piracy, disaster relief, and ocean rescue have all become crucial functions of the navy… The further expansion of China’s soft military presence overseas is necessary to protect its growing foreign commercial investments and other interests, not to mention the safety of Chinese expatriate workers.”

According to an article published on the Diplomat website by a Ph.D. candidate at Fudan University, Shanghai, China faces two security challenges in the Middle East. The first relates to its “go global” trend. China learnt a lesson from Libya in 2011 which required the evacuation of tens of thousands of Chinese citizens and the loss of investments worth several billion dollars. “The cases of Iraq, and more recently Yemen, have demonstrated that the plans for evacuation had been carefully crafted and studied. As soon as the risk reached a certain level, all Chinese expats were evacuated in an orderly and timely manner. The images of a Chinese warship docking in Yemen and the special forces protecting the Chinese and foreign civilians during the boarding showed a caring government to the Chinese at home and a confident China abroad.”

The second challenge relates to radicalisation and China’s western regions, where China’s main target in counterterrorism is the separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Some Chinese nationals (mainly Uighurs), reportedly three hundred, are fighting with IS. There is also some evidence that Chinese nationals are fighting with Peshmerga against IS. “One of the main reasons for China’s hesitance to expand its military presence in the region is the fear that groups more ferocious than the ETIM will retaliate against Beijing.”

A report in the Wall Street Journal (behind a pay wall) on 20 May describes how China “has shifted away from its philosophy of ‘non-interference’ and reliance on U.S.-provided order to a more forward-leaning role… Greater involvement in the Middle East means a greater chance of becoming enmeshed in its troubles… China’s struggles to translate power and resources into influence present an opportunity for U.S. leaders: They have an opening to convince Beijing that its resources and energies would be better spent in support of an U.S.-led regional order that advances interests shared by both powers and their regional allies, rather than striking out on their own as they have done in East Asia.”

The article below published in the Huffington Post is by James Dorsey of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Middle East and North Africa: Forcing China to Revisit Long-standing Policies
Posted: 05/25/2015

A scan of white papers on multiple foreign policy issues published by the Chinese government is glaring for one thing: the absence of a formulated, conceptual approach towards the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). This is a part of the world that is crucial not only to Chinese strategic and economic interests but also to how tensions in the restless Muslim province of Xinjiang will develop.

For much of the four decades of economic reform that has positioned China as one of the world’s foremost players, the People’s Republic could remain aloof to crises in the MENA region as Beijing single-mindedly pursued its resource and-export driven objectives. That is proving increasingly difficult as tortuous, bloody and violent conflicts threaten to redraw the post-colonial borders of a region that is crucial to a continued flow of oil and through which at least 60 percent of Chinese exports pass.

The MENA region moreover has become home to hundreds of thousands of Chinese expatriates who repeatedly have had to be rescued from escalating violence in countries like Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen or who were taken hostage by insurgents or criminal gangs in places like Egypt’s Sinai desert and Sudan. As a result, China has been forced to breach its policy of non-interventionism by establishing ties to opposition forces in countries like Libya, Syria and Afghanistan to hedge its bets in situations of political change.

The rise of Islamic State, the jihadist group that is expanding its control of swaths of Syria and Iraq and is attracting hundreds of Chinese Muslims as foreign fighters, is further forcing China to take the horse blinders off its approach towards the MENA region. China realises that it needs a new approach that would allow it to increasingly relax its long-standing insistence on non-interference in the domestic affairs of others while ensuring it is not seeking to become a global military power through the establishment of military bases in far-flung lands.

Beijing has to do so without officially surrendering those policies or challenging the United States. on whom it relies for the security of key regions like the Gulf. In groping for a cohesive policy, China has to compensate for limitations to its ability to project military and political power. It is having to accommodate a broadening spectrum of domestic players with vested interests in Chinese policy towards the Middle East and North Africa, including national oil companies and security authorities.

“The deep political changes in the Middle East, the restructuring of the regional system and the strategy adjustment of the US, Europe and other Great Powers… suggest that it is urgent for China to work out mid-term and long-term diplomatic strategy toward the Middle East and corresponding mechanism and measures,” warned Middle East scholar Liu Zhongmin.

China’s limitations were evident in the failure of mediation efforts in the Sudan in 2011 and 2014 and a half-hearted Chinese attempt in 2013 to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that went nowhere.

The failures notwithstanding, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi signalled a recognition that non-interventionism was unlikely to be sustainable when he told the United Nations General Assembly in 2013 that China would play a “more proactive and constructive role” in the world’s hot spots and provide “public goods to the international community.”

In their search for a Middle East policy, Chinese officials are driven by their perception of misguided US support for political change in the region. They see a waning US influence, as shown in Washington’s reluctance to become further embroiled in the region’s conflicts, foremost in Syria, and its inability to nudge Israelis and Palestinians towards a resolution of their dispute. They also fear that the projection of Chinese power through military bases runs the risk of being further sucked into the Middle Eastern and North African vortex.

Avoiding this is, however, proving to be easier said than done. Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh recently disclosed that China was negotiating to establish a naval base in the African state’s northern port of Obock. The base is an outcome of a military agreement concluded in 2014 between China and Djibouti, which hosts the US’ only permanent military facility in Africa – an agreement that was criticised by Washington.

The International Business Herald, a paper published by Xinhua News Agency, moreover reported that China was likely to establish over the next decade three strings of “overseas strategic support bases” totalling 18 facilities: a North Indian Ocean supply line with bases in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar; a Western Indian Ocean supply line with bases in Djibouti, Yemen, Oman, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique; and a central-south Indian Ocean supply line with bases in Seychelles and Madagascar.

Concern about Xinjiang, home to a Turkic-speaking people that has long felt culturally more akin to the region’s Turkic trading partners than to the Han Chinese, is undermining China’s adherence to the principle of non-intervention and forces China to balance contradictory approaches. In Iraq, for instance, China supports the fight against Islamic State while in Syria it backs the government of Bashar al-Assad against rebels who confront both the Syrian regime and Islamic State.

The self-proclaimed Islamic State’s expansion in Iraq in 2014 moreover put the group in direct competition with China for access to Iraq’s energy resources in which Beijing is heavily invested. As a result, China has agreed to intelligence cooperation with the US-led coalition in Iraq while some analysts have called on the government to contribute financially and materially as well as with training.

Ironically, as China tries to come to grips with realities on the ground, it faces the same dilemma that stymies US policy in the Middle East: the clash between lofty principles and a harsh reality that produces perceptions of a policy that is riddled with contradictions and fails to live up to the values it advocates. Non-alignment and non-intervention coupled with economic incentives have so far allowed China to paper over some of those dilemmas. Increasingly, that no longer is an option.

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