Until a few weeks ago, people around the world were wondering which countries Xi Jinping would visit for his first trip abroad in 2015. There was no doubt that Pakistan would be on the itinerary, but it was also thought likely that Xi would travel to the Middle East to visit Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Since assuming the presidency two years ago, Xi has been to almost every region of the world, even visiting far-away Latin America twice. But he hasn’t yet been to the Middle East, an important region located directly on the planned route for the “One Belt, One Road” strategy. Besides Xi, Premier Li Keqiang also hasn’t stopped in the Middle East, to the regret of many Middle Eastern countries. To remedy the situation, the Middle East was to be included in Xi’s April trip, according to Chinese diplomatic sources.
In the end, when Saudi Arabia and Egypt were not included on Xi’s itinerary, it was a bit unexpected. Apparently the plan for Xi’s trip heavily considered security factors — especially the Yemen crisis, which had an impact on Xi’s travel plans.
At the end of March, the situation in Yemen was growing worse. The Houthis, anti-government Shiite fighters, forced Yemen’s president to flee the country. Saudi Arabia moved quickly to organize a group of Sunni Muslim states to conducts air strikes on the Houthis, with the strikes still continuing today. The strikes have caused great anger on the part of Iran, the major Shia state. The situation in the Middle East is extremely tense.
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are China’s political and economic partners, and particularly important sources of oil for China. If Xi Jinping were to visit Saudi Arabia in the next week, as originally planned, it would give the impression that China supported Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen. This would unacceptable to Iranians and would be harmful to China’s policy of balanced diplomacy in the Middle East. It could also affect China’s One Belt, One Road strategy.
In addition, having Xi visit Riyadh could create doubts about China’s diplomatic policy of not interfering in other country’s internal affairs. It would also contradict China’s official calls for a political solution to the Yemen conflict. That position has already been taken by much of the Arab world to mean that China does not agree with the Saudi strikes against Yemen – or even that China is closer to Iran on this issue. A few days ago, Xi even spoke with the Saudi king on the phone and openly expressed China’s concern over the growing instability in the Middle East.
Given the complexities of sectarian conflict and clashing national interests in the Middle East, China struck the region off Xi’s travel itinerary – a wise choice given the circumstances. After quick discussions, officials tweaked the plans for Xi’s first trip abroad this year, finally deciding that he will visit Pakistan and Indonesia.
Even Xi’s trip to Pakistan, however, has also been influenced by the Yemen crisis to a certain extent. Pakistan is a Sunni majority country, but also a neighbor to Iran. Pakistan also is home to some Shiite militant groups. Saudi Arabia and Iran are both conducting high-profile lobbying campaigns aimed at Pakistan – Saudi Arabia wants Pakistan to join the air strikes against the Houthis, while Iran’s foreign minister went to Pakistan to argue against Islamabad’s military involvement. Pakistan itself has been tight-lipped on its position.
China often calls Pakistan its “iron brother.” What position these “brothers” will take on the Yemen crisis – supporting the trans-border airstrikes or maintaining neutrality – is a question the Chinese foreign ministry needs to carefully consider.
While Xi could temporarily avoid traveling to the Middle East – and thus avoid directly becoming entangled in the Yemen crisis – his visit to Pakistan had been firmly scheduled already. The Pakistan trip had to be conducted in April, partially due to the other demands on Xi’s schedule (both domestic and international) and partially due to Pakistan’s own requests. In May, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit China. If Xi waited until after Modi’s visit to meet with Pakistan’s top leadership, it would call up unpleasant memories in Pakistan of Xi cancelling a scheduled trip to Islamabad in September 2014 but nonetheless visiting New Delhi. Xi’s September trip was deeply irritating to Pakistan. Because of the need to schedule the trip for April, when discussing Xi’s travel itinerary, Chinese and Pakistani planners must have talked about the sensitive question of Pakistan’s position on the Yemen crisis, in order to avoid causing any trouble for Xi on his first international trip in 2015.
Further, looking at the deliverables of this specific trip, China is willing to fund part of a pipeline that will bring natural gas from Iran to Pakistan. This plan requires Pakistan to maintain friendly relations with Iran – at the very least, Pakistan must avoid going overly far toward the Saudi side on the Yemen issue. Iran places great importance on China’s ability to influence Pakistan, and thus will be closely watching for the regional impact of Xi’s trip. Xi’s visit to Pakistan isn’t just about displaying the two countries’ friendship; it will have an indirect bearing on the situation in the Middle East.
Pakistan’s parliament held a vote on April 10 to determine the country’s position on the Yemen crisis. The result of the vote was exactly what China had hoped for: Pakistan’s parliament passed a resolution saying that the country should remain neutral, effectively refusing Saudi Arabia’s demands for assistance (at least temporarily). Pakistan’s government later said it would respect the parliament’s decision.
In a curious coincidence, April 10 was also the originally scheduled date for Xi’s trip to Pakistan. A week after the vote, China formally announced the news that Xi would visit Pakistan.
In truth, even before that vote, China had been in close contact with Pakistan, and must have clearly understood Islamabad’s view on the Yemen crisis. The final itinerary for Xi’s visit wasn’t entirely decided by the results of the parliamentary vote. But the vote and Pakistan’s formal expression of its stance were important – this revealed to the entire world that all parties in Pakistan have a similar position on the Yemen crisis. We’re not likely to see a repeat of the political chaos of last September, and that ensured a balanced domestic and regional environment for Xi’s first trip to Pakistan.
This sort of complicated, messy situation will inevitably arise whenever China’s top leaders visit western Asia and the Middle East. China’s diplomats have wasted much time and energy on these issues, and it might be a major reason why neither of China’s top two leaders has visited the Middle East since assuming power over two years ago.