1 November 2016

China’s interests in Middle East: Non-intervention meets economic necessity

by Scott N Romaniuk and Tobias J Burgers
OCT. 24, 2016
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Over the past several years, China has eagerly eyeballed the Middle East, acting on its interest in economic development and expansion, and the development of its trade deals, but has done so relatively under the radar. China’s recent approach to the Middle East finds some familiar friends and previously established relations with some of the region’s most powerful states. Building a new chapter of relations with Iran, the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated that, “The Islamic Republic will never forget China’s cooperation during [the] sanctions era.”

China’s cultural ties with Egypt go back to the 1930s with student exchanges and visits by China’s Zhou Enlai on three different occasions. Saudi Arabia was the last Arab country to recognize the People’s Republic of China in 1990 and less than a decade later China’s Jiang Zemin went to Saudi Arabia to sign the Strategic Oil Cooperation Agreement. It was during the 1990s that the Gulf-China strategic partnership rapidly expanded. Cooperation back then made perfect sense: China needed Gulf oil and found the market for Chinese good in the Gulf region quickly growing.

Back then China was accused of undermining American interests in the region and for sabotaging U.S. efforts to coax Iran into halting its nuclear program. Today China is not just seeking out Gulf opportunities; rather Gulf leaders are equally reaching out to China in the interest cultivating a glowing future of trade, development, and economic prosperity. In China, the Gulf has found a new and powerful strategic ally; in the Gulf, China has stoked opportunities to fuel its varied international interests and growth.

In the past two years alone, a number of partnership agreements have been signed with the “Big Three,” Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt. Further agreements have been signed with other countries, some of which are based on energy transportation. While some analysts have claimed that China’s violated its policy of non-intervention, China has merely to its policy but playing well at its new proactive diplomacy in multiple areas including energy and security.

At the same time, China has appeared to outpace the U.S. at its own game – one that the US has pursued for numerous decades. Acting on the mantra: “no peace, no development; no development, no peace,” China has not only recognized but acted on the notion that development in the Middle East is mutually beneficial and that returns to China could far outweigh its investments. In 2013 China became the world’s largest merchandise exporter, and three years prior, stole the America’s spot as the Middle East’s largest trading partner. Many of China’s state-owned oil companies have entered into strong agreements with Middle Eastern companies.

There is more to be gained over the long-term if China is to become deeper involve din oil and gas exploration and extraction – something that Middle Eastern companies are eager to do. Doing trade has a number of indirect benefits as well. For example, building economic relations with the Gulf means greater access to vital sea lines of communication (SLOCs) and the opportunity to connect its interest in the Middle East with its growing interests in Africa.

Unlike Israel, which has already been largely developed, the rest of the Middle East is still developing and has a long way to go. Along for the ride are 500 million inhabitants, relatively the same population of the European Union (EU). This means that a region boasting approximately 50% of the world’s known oil and natural gas reserves (with 80% of the world’s crude oil reserves in the hand of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries [OPEC]) are also developing and building strong ties with a oil thirsty nation of some 1.35 billion people.

In pursuing a wide range of interests, China has managed to do so without radically interesting (at least negatively) in Middle Eastern affairs and development the way that the U.S. and the European countries have historically. China is currently occupying a comfortable position in its dealings with the Gulf: it has neither stoked violence or conflict in the Middle East, assumed a dichotomous position in hostilities, or finds itself involved in a potential political-ideological quagmire with any particular state. This is probably a position that the U.S. has paid close attention to and one that it likely covets deeply.

However, in spite of its rosy position, China will probably come under increasing pressure to play the role of developer or peacebroker to some extant or another. It is unlikely that China can expect to have it all in the distant future. If Beijing is truly committed to the Middle East beyond its own material interests, it is going to have to deliver on at least some sort of, at least half-committed, strategy to raise the human security profile of the Middle East.

Could China be poised to fulfill this role? Presently China has sought to establish a meager military presence in Djibouti. With many friends and partners throughout the region, China has more than a handful of options – Jordan, Cyprus, Oman, Lebanon, Israel, and Iran are all viable options. During the late 1950s and 1960s, China cosied up to Yemen, signing several friendship agreements, suggesting economic, technical, and cultural development lay on the distant horizon. In 2002, Beijing relieved $84 million of the country’s debt. In this, China has made a range of wise investments decades ago that are able to yield substantial returns and leverage China’s strategic position in a region historically branded as America’s area of interest and “test ground.”

China has set a strong precedent of non-interference with its emerging drone arsenals, setting it apart from the application of innovative technology seen in the case of the U.S. Yet, increasingly China will build economic relationship that are inexorably linked to its national security interests, therefore Beijing will walk a fine line in adhering to its original position toward the Middle East and the practicality of protecting economic interest fusing strongly with national survival.

If China can lucratively pursue its interests abroad without having to employ military force to protect those interests, Beijing will have established a pristine position as an affirmative actor in the international realm. Presently, however, China’s interests abroad rest amid sundry religions, national, and economic conflict, in addition to religious extremism, terrorist, and insurgent activity. Protecting its interests might demand more of Beijing than just historical agreements, handouts, and promises of cultural partnership.

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