President Xi Jinping made his first overseas visit in 2016 to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran, which implied that China is considering bringing its “One Belt and One Road” strategy (OBOR) to the Middle East and regards this region as a critical area of neighborhood diplomacy. So what kind of diplomacy should China conduct in the Middle East? Is it the time for China to become militarily involved — for example, to send an army to Syria? Also, given that China issued an “Arab Policy Paper” right before the visit, does this mean that China-Arab relations will cover Chinese-Iranian relations as well? To answer those questions, we need to figure out three things: the main characteristic of the Middle East, China’s comparative advantages, and China’s interests in this region.
Besides its importance in geopolitics and geography, the Middle East is rich in energy resources (according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015, the region accounts for 47.7 percent and 42.7 percent of the world’s proven oil and natural gas reserves, respectively) and human resources (with a population of about 500 million, youthful demographics, and a high growth rate), and is in the process of industrialization and urbanization. All Middle Eastern states except Israel are developing countries.
However, the region is also famous as a home to various conflicts. Religious conflicts, national conflicts, and economic conflicts mingle together, which has even caused several local wars. This region has become a hotbed of terrorism and religious extremism. Because of the lack of a dominant power, the regional powers — Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, even Iraq — vie with with each other over the leadership of Middle East. The conflicts between small and middle powers frequently result in intervention from regional powers and outside powers. Outside powers often support different countries, religions, or religious sects to secure their own benefits.
China could gain economic profits in this region through the petrochemical industry (including oil and gas exploration and exploitation), investment, and infrastructure construction. The Middle East also provides China with a market for manufactured products and access to vital sea lines of communication (SLOCs).
For Middle Eastern nations, China’s comparative economic advantage could lead to opportunities in many fields, such as FDI, infrastructure, nuclear power, and new energy technology. In addition, the oil producers in Middle East are much attracted to China’s market.
However, Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq are all American allies. Compared to China, the United States has closer relations with all states in Middle East except for Iran.
Strategy in the Coming Decade
The Middle East is a complex brew of conflicts: between different religions (Palestine and Israel), different religious sects (Sunni and Shia), different ethnic groups (Kurd and Turks), and even between moderates and radicals (the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas). It is beyond any great power to solve the Middle East’s problems. Outside powers often deal with these issues in three ways: adopting a hands-off posture, supporting one side over another, or reaping benefits from stirring up troubles.
In next decade, the prospect of China’s relations with Middle Eastern states mainly lies in the potential for economic cooperation. For China, it will be difficult to to transform cultural exchanges (which have considerable potential) to practical influence in the region. On the one hand, China wants to play a more significant role in security issues in the Middle East, to show its responsibilities and capabilities as a rising power. On the other hand, China also hopes to get economic and cultural profits from its interactions with the Middle East. For China, a hands-off policy is out. It is also inappropriate for China to benefit from inciting conflicts (as European powers historically did) because doing so will harm China’s interests. Similarly, playing off one side against the other, which Russia and the United States prefer, is not a feasible approach, since the oppressed side — either the administration or the opposition — may adopt retaliatory measures, and then China will suffer economic damages, or even terrorist attacks. China is neither a party to the disputes in the Middle East or responsible for these conflicts; nor is it a direct neighboring country of Middle Eastern states. China’s critical task is still developing its domestic economy and society; thus, it is inappropriate for China to undertake too many international responsibilities and obligations that might interfere with its internal progress.
Past empires and today’s great powers have all proven incapable of completely solving the Middle East’s issues — let alone China, a late comer to the nation-state system. The only measure that China could adopt is helping disputing parties in the region to reach a temporary compromise, which is different from the tactics of the European Union, Russia and the United States. In other words, China would choose a powerful but constructive and peaceful strategy, easily accepted by directly disputing parties, and meanwhile allowing China to avoid censure from extra-regional powers. In terms of concrete measures, China could continue to use its existing special envoy mechanism to mediate, while providing material and financial assistance to the region, coordinating with other great powers, and strengthening policy dynamics.
Though it is difficult, China needs to focus more on designing compromising and cooperative schemes as available options for directly disputing parties. Over time, based on some cases carried out successfully, the “China Scheme” will come to possess a reputation for neutrality and impartiality — like the Nordic countries, but more powerful. China has already played a part in trying to solve the Syria crisis through inviting both sides — the Syrian government and the opposition faction — to visit China.
China’s limit, though, should be never directly intervening in local armed conflict. Chinese diplomatic strategy in the Middle East should be positive and enterprising, but lay more emphasis on strategic prudence and action based on capabilities — in particular, China should by all means avoid being eager to flex its muscles.
Despite this, China could still strengthen its military presence in Middle East. China has decided to build a logistical base for its navy in Djibouti. If the opportunity arises, China could build similar bases in Middle East in the future — Oman, Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, and Iran are suitable choices, based on geography alone — but that possibility does not exist yet.
Xi Jinping’s Middle East Visit and China’s Middle East Diplomacy
China has to craft corresponding diplomatic strategies toward the four forces in Middle East: the Arab states, Turkey, Iran, and Israel. The Arab states are the majority and while China always keeps good relations with these countries, China needs to pay more attention to these relationships. China needed a document to clarify its diplomacy toward Arabian countries and to implement OBOR. Thus China’s Arab Policy Paper was released, timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Egypt. And Xi started his first trip to the Middle East in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the major representatives of Arab states.
Of course this is by no means a sign that China puts its diplomacy toward Iran under the same framework as its “Arab Policy.” Iran has the potential to become a pivot country for OBOR and attaches great importance to relations with China. As a consequence, China and Iran have built a comprehensive strategic partnership, making China is the first country to have that level of relationship with Iran.
Given the complexity of Syria crisis and the roles that Iran and Saudi Arabia each play, China knows that the summit mediation will be particularly helpful for resolving the conflict. However, it would be absolutely inappropriate for the president of the People’s Republic of China to take a direct flight from Riyadh to Tehran. Three reasons made Egypt a suitable transfer place. First, Egypt is a traditional leader of Arab world. Second, Egypt has adopted a moderate stance and keeps normal relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Last but not least, China hopes that Egypt will become a pivot country for OBOR, according to Xi’s speech in Cairo.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran also represent three great civilizations, which endowed Xi’s visit with cultural implications. He stressed repeatedly that, in the implementation of OBOR, China will improve not only economic cooperation but also the dialogue among civilizations. The numerous relevant cultural activities included Xi’s schedule fully proved his words.
Indeed, China’s interest in the Middle East in the coming decade will mainly focus on economy and culture. China’s diplomacy toward the Middle East should aim at those two fields. International responsibility should be given a secondary place and fulfilled by pursuing the image of a positive actor and strong peacekeeper in the Middle East.
Dr. Xue Li is Director of the Department of International Strategy at the Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Zheng Yuwen is a master’s degree student at China Foreign Affairs University.