Many observers have noted recently that China’s foreign policy has turned more assertive than it has been in decades. When it comes to the Middle East, it has expressed this aggressiveness mostly through the veto power it wields in the United Nations Security Council, protecting Iran from crippling sanctions over its nuclear program. Additionally, the Chinese government, along with the Russians, have prevented the U.N. from sanctioning the Syrian regime.
There are different interpretations of Chinese assertiveness; Charles Grant from the Centre for European Reform, recently provided a number of factors may explain the situation: China’s economic growth has surged at a time when the West is in crisis, making China’s leaders more self-confident and less willing to accept Western tutelage. At the same time problems in Tibet and Xinjiang, and perhaps events in the Arab world, have made them feel insecure; the growth of nationalist postings on the internet has started to influence policy; and the leadership transition makes China’s leaders unwilling to be seen as soft on foreigners. While, Yao Yang, the director of the China Center for Economic Research at Peking University and editor of China Economic Quarterly, wrote in the Financial Times: “After the 2008-09 financial crisis, the U.S. suddenly found that it had to face a more confident – or in many Americans’ eyes, more arrogant – China (…) To them, [the U.S. and EU] China will only be treated as ‘one of us’ after China is fully transformed politically and socially. This discrepancy of beliefs will be a major source of tension between China and existing powers in the coming years.”
The Pivot vs. March West
Above all, China is uneasy with what the Americans have called the “pivot to Asia” or “rebalancing” of forces and renews U.S. attention further east. To counter the Americans strategy, the Chinese academics came up with their own pivot. The theory was recently articulated by Wang Jisi, China’s most prominent and influential international relations scholar and a professor at Peking University, in a piece published on Global Times last October. The strategy, branded “March West”, (the region to the west of China, including Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East), which would offer Beijing additional strategic leverage against Washington since “U.S. is desperate for China’s assistance” in stabilizing these regions. Vali Nasr, the Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, goes further to argue that American retreat from the Middle East will be welcomed in China as a strategic boon: it will give China a free hand to shape its energy security in west Asia, which in turn will give Beijing greater leverage in resisting American pressure in the Asia-Pacific.
It is not a secret that in recent years, Beijing increased its political activities across several hot spots in the region. China is now one of the largest GCC countries trade partner, the largest exporter to the Middle East, the biggest importer of Iranian oil, and the largest player in the Iraqi oil game. Meanwhile, the GCC countries are eager to diversify their economy and foreign policy; subsequently they welcome the Chinese involvement and investments, but also view such presence as vital toward the creation of balance in international relations and energy markets. From the Arab perspective, there is little concern that China’s increasing status as a world power will constitute a security threat. They don’t see China as threatening to their national sovereignty, territorial integrity. Thus, the relations are unlikely to be affected by the events in Syria or Iran.
China is now one of the largest GCC countries trade partner, the largest exporter to the Middle East, the biggest importer of Iranian oil, and the largest player in the Iraqi oil game.Naser Al-Tamimi
However, as China’s influence grows in the Middle East two contradictory points should be highlighted: on one hand, the old ‘oil for security’ paradigm of U.S.-GCC relations could weaken as the United States get less oil from the Middle East and China’s economic and political influence grow over time. On the other hand, while there is fear for the future of the U.S. role, there is at the same time no alternative to it. Indeed, a recent study by the Centre for Strategic and International (CSIS) finds that citizens of countries of the Middle East are more apt to expect a weakened United States over the next decade. But there is also still a sense that the United States is the only actor with the ability to play the role of external guarantor of security for the region.
Indeed, China has no military presence in the region nor does it have strong navy to protect the strategic locations. Due to the GCC countries relations with the United States, China-GCC military relations have been very limited. From the Gulf states perspective, China does not have the same capability to project power globally as the United States does and therefore cannot provide the same security assurances against the international threats GCC countries faces, particularly against Iran or/and the internal dangers of terrorism. Minxin Pei a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States noted that: “With its growing military might, China will naturally want to protect its own energy sources. However, it is unlikely that Beijing would risk confronting the Americans by deploying its navy to the Gulf as at the moment, it simply does not have a blue water navy capable of being deployed far away from China. To emphasis the point, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in its recent China’s report concluded that military intervention by China to defend its interests in territory that it does not claim as its own looks unlikely in the short term.
As for Iran, it’s true that China has stood firm in the U.N. Security Council against further sanctions against Islamic Republic, but it is also well aware of the importance of its economic and political relations with the GCC countries, Saudi Arabia in particular. Indeed, the economic relation between China and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is more important than Iran. The total trade between China and the GCC is more than 4 times the Sino-Iranian trade, as the bilateral trade reached between China and GCC more than $ 155 billion (around $ 74 bn with Saudi Arabia alone) in 2012, versus less than $ 37 billion with Iran. Furthermore, the GCC countries provided China in the same year with more than third (over 36%) of its oil imports (almost 20 percent from Beijing’s top supplier Saudi Arabia), versus less than 9 percent from Iran, according to latest UN Comtrade data.
Cooperation not Conflict
There is no question that China’s high interdependence with the Middle East will make it more challenging for the United States to successfully pursue its objectives and follow through with unilateral action, but despite China’s increasing influence and economic power in the Middle East, neither China nor the United States will take hostile military actions against each other for various reasons. Firstly, the most obvious reason is that nuclear weapons make it suicidal to risk a great-power war. Secondly, since China is highly economically interdependent with the United States, and the Middle East, it will seek to prevent any situation which may jeopardise the ongoing peaceful economic exchanges among them. Therefore, China will seek greater cooperation with all sides in order to avoid an armed conflict in an effort to protect its economic interests. Thirdly, as China becomes more economically interdependent with the Middle East, so the United States will not be able to exclude China from the region.
China’s foreign policy toward the Middle East, it can be concluded that the available evidences confirms that China’s behaviour (at least for the time being), is in line with the theory of interdependence, not a conspiratorial plot against the West in the region. China, like the US and its major oil consumer allies such as South Korea and Japan, wants stability in the Middle East to ensure the flow of oil; that is why China works within the existing institutions to secure a steady access to energy resources.
Dr. Naser Al-Tamimi is a UK-based Middle East analyst and the author of the forthcoming book “China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance?” He is also Al Arabiya’s regular contributor with particular research interest in energy politics and political economy of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and Middle East-Asia relations. The writer can be reached at: Twitter: @nasertamimi and email: [email protected]