In April, Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit the Middle East and Pakistan; he will also visit Indonesia to celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Bandung Conference. There are four things observers should pay attention to during this trip.
First, this will be Xi’s first time visiting the Middle East since becoming China’s top leader. His choice of stops – Egypt and Saudi Arabia – demonstrates how important these countries are to China.
Looking back at previous leaders’ choices for Middle East visits, we can see different priorities. Jiang Zemin visited Israel, Palestine, Egypt, and Turkey in April 2000. Jiang’s trip made him the first (and up till now, the only) Chinese head of state to visit the Israel-Palestine region, which is so crucial to Middle East issues. Jiang’s visit embodied the importance he placed on the Middle East. From a political perspective, Jiang tried to show that China was becoming involved in the Middle East question, in the mold of a great power.
Hu Jintao visited the Middle East three times: in 2004, 2006, and 2009. In 2004, he visited Egypt; in 2006 and 2009 he visited Saudi Arabia. From this, we can see that Egypt and Saudi Arabia have taken on a critical role for implementing China’s Middle East policy. They had also become important political and economic partners for China.
In China’s political rhetoric, Egypt is a major regional power and a leading country in the Arab world. Generally, any Chinese leader who visits the Middle East will stop in Egypt. Although political unrest in Egypt has somewhat weakened its international image, the Arab League is still headquartered there, giving Egypt irreplaceable political symbolism.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is China’s most important source of oil in the Middle East, as well as a heavyweight in the bloc of Gulf monarchies. Saudi Arabia’s political and economic influences make its one of China’s most critical partners, not just in the Middle East but in the broader West Asia-North Africa region.
For Xi’s upcoming trip, his first to the Middle East, he’s chosen Egypt and Saudi Arabia as destinations. That represents the continuation and further development of China’s Middle East policy. At the same time, Xi’s trip also represents the importance China places on Middle East affairs, based on a firm determination to safeguard China’s interests.
Just before Xi’s trip, Saudi Arabia and Egypt began airstrikes against anti-government forces in Yemen. The Sunni-majority Arab states and Shia-majority Iran all have good relations with China. If competition between the two sides gets worse, it will be important to watch how China remains balanced.
One more point worth stressing: after Xi’s trip to the Middle East, China’s top leader will have visited virtually every important region in the world, thus completing arrangements for China’s global diplomacy.
Second, April will mark Xi’s first visit to Pakistan after a planned visit in September of last year had to be postponed. That gives a special meaning to this trip.
In a rarity, China postponed Xi’s visit to Pakistan last year, meaning Xi’s tour of South Asia took him to India but not Pakistan. China and India’s friendly rhetoric grew stronger and stronger, naturally causing some consternation in Pakistan, which used every occasion to exhort Xi to visit as soon as possible. After mutual discussions, the two sides finally settled on early 2015 as the basic timeline for a visit. Pakistan has historically served as China’s bridgehead in West and South Asia. Xi’s visit will warm up this all-weather friendship and show China’s support for Pakistan’s efforts in anti-terrorism and economic development.
One of the major questions for this visit is whether or not leaders will discuss the fairly sensitive questions of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a terrorist group that seeks to split Xinjiang from China.
Previously, U.S. media leaked Chinese demands for Pakistan to crack down on ETIM forces within its borders. Reports also said that local military forces in Pakistan had different ideas, leading Chinese officials to privately voice their dissatisfaction. Moreover, in November 2014, former Afghan National Security Advisor Rangin Spanta said that Afghanistan’s intelligence agency has arrested ETIM terrorists fighting in Afghanistan and handed them over to the Chinese government. But these terrorists didn’t receive their training in Afghanistan — they were all trained in Pakistan or Uzbekistan, according to Spanta.
Third, as Xi goes to Indonesia for the Bandung Conference, he’ll be advancing China’s multilateral diplomacy. He will have various types of meetings and talks, including possible discussions with both South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This sort of diplomatic contact would warm up regional trends while also openly pushing forward bilateral ties between the countries involved. If Xi and Abe meet, their photograph together might be a bit more cheerful than their photo from the APEC summit – lately there have been signs of easing tensions in the China-Japan relationship.
Additionally, this broad gathering of Asian and African countries will make the West see that rising countries’ struggle for and influence over international agenda-setting is growing stronger each day. Xi’s contact with other leaders of rising powers will send two clear signals to the West: first, the power of China and other rising countries cannot be ignored, and second, China has friends all over the world.
The Bandung Conference will probably involve documents voicing support for Palestine, which China will likely endorse. This is another opportunity for China to show its deep concern for Middle East issues on the international stage.
Fourth, all of Xi’s destinations on this trip will be Muslim countries as well as important partners for China to develop its “one belt, one road” strategy. This reflects an important fact regarding China’s new strategy – of the countries either on directly on the “one belt, one road” routes or otherwise part of the strategy, many have serious ideological differences with China. Some of these countries are seeing a rising trend of Islamic extremism. China must think carefully about this when promoting its “one belt, one road” strategy, in order to safeguard its security and economic interests. China should not be passive about such issues. Economic and strategic cooperation relating to the “one belt, one road” strategy will certainly be an important topic of discussion during Xi’s trip to these countries.