One of the main highlights of the much-watched Trump-Xi meeting in early April at Mar-a-Lago was President Trump informing his Chinese counterpart during dessert that in that moment Tomahawk missiles launched from U.S. warships were flying towards a Syrian military air base. Given the tensions brewing in the Korean Peninsula and Trump’s more-or-less successful attempt to pressure the Chinese to cut their support for North Korea, it is not surprising that many interpreted the missile strike in Syria as an American show of force and determination, and as a threat to do the same against North Korea if China would not cooperate.
Yet, both Chinese scholars and media also looked at this from the point of view of China’s strategy in the Middle East and in the larger Mediterranean region. In the past the Chinese foreign policy community tended to have a rather ambiguous approach to the U.S. presence in the Middle East. On the one hand, Beijing viewed American engagement in the Middle East somehow positively because it prevented the United States from focusing solely on Asia and offered some degree of protection for Chinese companies in the region. On the other hand, the U.S. has been severely criticized for its military interventions in the region.
However, now growing attention is being paid to the direct harms that Chinese interests might suffer from American actions. Indeed, as emphasized by Liu Zhongmin, the Director of the Shanghai International Studies University’s Middle East Studies Institute, as the Chinese economic and diplomatic presence in the region expands, China also becomes more sensitive to the ups and downs of American policies. It is then important to have a better understanding of what China’s presence looks like beyond the usual and general references to energy dependence and an alleged Sino-Russian de facto alliance.
First of all, we have to enlarge our point of view to include what can be called an enlarged Mediterranean region stretching from the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Aden to the Mediterranean Sea via the Suez Canal. Although such a conglomerate of countries, extremely different among each other, might make little sense at first, the truth is that they form a complex ecosystem of people and goods moving from one place to the other thanks to the connecting power of the sea. Chinese economic, and thus political, interests are not immune to these forces. Thanks to a number of factors — the enlargement of the Suez Canal, trends in the shipping industry and technology towards the creation of big alliances and fleet composed of fewer, but bigger ships, and the impossibility for American ports to easily take care of the most modern megaships — the Mediterranean Sea and the shipping routes going to and passing through are becoming increasingly important for China’s trade. Indeed, Chinese investments in port terminals and harbors, from Abu Dhabi to Suez and Greece, just to mention a few, have been growing in the past few years. Djibouti is becoming the new Chinese trade, financial and military, hub in the region.
These are clear manifestations of the fact that we have to look beyond China’s energy ties with the Gulf countries, which have been providing China around the 40 percent of its yearly energy imports (equivalent to an average of 10 percent of the energy consumed in China every year) over the past decade and half. Indeed, China has steadily become one of the top trade partners for all the countries in South Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Although compared to Europe and other advanced economies most of the Middle Eastern and North Africa countries are not (yet) important markets for Chinese products, China aims at integrating them in its global chains of production within the framework of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) and make them example of a new, modern, and efficient, “made in China” brand. Consistently, the number of engineering contracts awarded to Chinese companies and of Chinese workers in the region have been surging. The shock of the 2011 Libyan crisis had only temporary effects.
However, while China has many economic partners, its political relations with regional and extra-regional powers are much more complex and fragile.
Iran and Turkey are often mentioned by Chinese scholars as pivotal countries for the governance of the region, especially when thinking about the eventual expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Nonetheless, either because Iran might recalibrate its economic strategy favoring European products, or because of rising instability and nationalism in Turkey, Chinese analysts call for cautiousness in approaching those two countries.
The European countries are hardly seen as capable or useful partners. The disastrous military adventures in the region, especially Libya, are understandably interpreted negatively by China. Cooperation with them should be based on the acknowledgement that China is not a secondary actor, especially in Africa. Security cooperation, a Chinese scholar advised recently, should be pursued directly with North African and Middle Eastern countries.
Although depicting China and Russia as allies trying to obstruct the United States in the region sounds catchy, the Chinese are well aware that Russia’s goals do not necessarily overlap with China’s. Russian “opportunistic” diplomacy in the region might fuel further chaos in the region.
In the face of such a difficult choice in finding reliable partners, China’s growing reliance on the United Nations to try to ensure regional stability through peacekeeping missions and antipiracy patrols is easy to understand. Not surprisingly then, after a significant growth of the level of engagement in peacekeeping operations, now China is also aiming to placing one of his officers at the helm of the United Nations’ Department of Peacekeeping.
What about the future? There is little doubt that China’s economic engagement with the larger Mediterranean region will keep growing in the foreseeable future under the auspices of the OBOR initiative, both shaping and being shaped by the regional economic and political landscapes. Yet, the Chinese strategic community is also well aware that it is necessary to avoid being drawn too deeply into regional affairs, especially when the use of military force is part of the debate. Hence, it is unlikely that China will take sides clearly with any of the potential partners mentioned above. Direct friction between Chinese and American interests in the larger Mediterranean region is rather unlikely in the foreseeable future, but China’s growing sensitiveness and Trump’s apparent carelessness hardly match with each other.
Andrea Ghiselli is a PhD Candidate at Fudan University and Junior Research Fellow with the Torino World Affairs Institute where he manages the website www.chinamed.it, a website with data and translations from Chinese, Arabic, Persian, French, Turkish, and Italian about the economic, energy, and security ties between China and the Mediterranean region.