Notwithstanding that China is a relatively “shy participant” in Middle Eastern policy, the US hegemony, which claims exclusivity among the most “obedient” Arab countries (those which fall into its strategic sphere of influence), is threatened by it. The worrying aspect for the US is that Beijing seeks to present a different model that integrates and takes advantage of the US’s failed military experiences in many wars and direct political interference attempts over the past decades.
China hopes for a non-aggressive economic-political breakthrough in the Middle East through a less ferocious and less explicit model than the American one. China has robust chances to succeed due to the mounting awareness in that part of the world of the need for the Middle Eastern states to diversify their international relations and sources of military equipment and commerce. It reinforces the context of the Middle Eastern states’ efforts to reduce dependence on the US and the Western countries.
Moreover, the devastating effect of the US interventions and the large number of deaths caused by US forces has created significant resentment among many populations, to the point where modern communication and social media exchanges can no longer hide the evidence of US wrongdoing. On the other hand, Beijing has followed the approach of non-interference in the affairs of other states. It has sought to reach a “zero enemies” policy, notwithstanding some (modest) military interventions in different parts of the world. However, China did not threaten any country with military action or sanctions. In contrast to Washington, China has never been in a position to wave the “defence of human rights” card (walked out by Donald Trump) to intimidate states, using this pressure to reaffirm its influence when needed.
The Chinese leadership watches international politics and dynamics and observes the countries and peoples confronting the world’s most powerful military force and how they rebelled and challenged the US hegemony. Consequently, it did not access the Middle East to “plunder” what America collects in its “basket”. Instead, it calls for partnership with relatively poor and oil-rich countries that possess the primary energy source needed for China’s industries. Moreover, China is looking for multiple markets for its industries and products.
What Beijing believes in fits with the aspirations of most Middle Eastern countries. China thinks that stability in the Middle East requires economic dynamism, securing job opportunities, building vital infrastructure, and providing education and health services for all. This, in China’s visible perspective, helps countries to grow and prevent the migration of their populations to the west or oil-rich countries. Because the nearby European continent is the most affected by the flow of immigrants, the Chinese objectives fit with the European countries’ desire to support Middle Easterners but without supporting the US hegemony. Through finance and loans from the US-dominated World Bank, the US spread its oppressive influence over poorer African and Middle Eastern countries.
Also, by exploiting fear of Iran and concern about their thrones (for certain kingdoms), the US established military bases and distributed them throughout many countries in the Middle East (and the rest of the world). Moreover, aiming at impoverished countries, the US imposed harsh sanctions to destabilise weak states. The US ultimately failed to achieve such objectives, allowing China to learn from Washington’s numerous mistakes and avoid them.
It is natural for China to fear the US attempts to destabilise its domestic unity and security by waving the “democracy” and “human rights” cards. But the US has a well-established relationship with many dictators and harsh ruling monarchies. However, the “human card” is politicised rather than defended out of principle. Beijing’s fears are legitimate because Washington has gained a long experience encouraging the “colour revolution” to overthrow regimes worldwide. However, the US has failed to achieve peace anywhere its soldiers were engaged in a war.
China’s incapacity to launch solid domestic or international media that support its policy or promote the hundreds of essential projects it is engaged in worldwide, or present the Chinese model in exchange for the failed American mode, is visible by its relative absence in the Middle East.
China History with the Arab World
Two thousand years ago, the Han Dynasty had strong ties with the Middle East that never stopped using the ancient trade routes known as the “Silk Road“, connecting the East with the West. After founding the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Mao Zedong’s era retreated towards the interior and its surroundings as a priority. This policy weakened the relationship with the Middle East until Deng Xiaoping (1978-1989) took the leadership, where he began to improve the relationship following the slow domestic economic reforms. China’s need for oil (60 per cent of its oil comes from the Middle East) and the purchasing power of the Arab countries and West Asian countries, in general, has prompted the Chinese leadership to give this part of the world more attention for the export of its goods. Consequently, China emerged from the isolation that it had imposed on itself.
When President Hu Jintao came to power (2002-2012), China concluded free trade agreements with the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The China-Arab Cooperation Forum (CASCF) was established in 2004; subsequently, the proportion of Chinese trade and investments with the Middle East improved from one billion in 2005 to 11 billion in 2009.
The “New China”
In 2013, President Xi Jinping presented his most important and ambitious economic strategy to revive and amplify the ancient “Silk Road”. He called it the 21st-century land and sea “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) to connect China with Afro-Eurasia, linking over 60% of the world population. This colossal project would enable China to surpass the European Union and the US, which have dominated the global economic power for a very long time.
China’s initiative aimed to break the circle that the US had tried to establish around its waters with the “String of Pearls”, connecting dozens of harbours in the West Pacific/East Asia with the Indian Ocean, Africa and Europe. It will enable China to gain a foothold in Afro-Eurasia and enhance its soft power along the busiest commercial routes. Indeed, 90% of Chinese oil imports are delivered along this route, coming from Africa and the Middle East. Moreover, the annual trade flowing through the South China Sea is estimated at $5 trillion, accounting for more than half of the world’s total commercial trade volume.
Consequently, the Middle East is considered a “strategic region with top priority” for China to become an even more significant player. Indeed, its investments in the Middle East already amount to 177 billion, including 70 billion with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries alone.
It is undoubtedly the case that the Middle Eastern states need China and vice versa. Beijing has taken many steps to move in and has tried energetically to enter Lebanon and Iraq, presenting tempting concepts for projects that the two countries required and needed. However, the timing in offering significant projects was not appropriate for each country: they feared the US reaction and potential anger. And the US refused to “give way” to China in many Middle Eastern countries for fear of the obvious comparison that would inevitably shake the US and its position in that part of the world.
As a matter of fact, the US selected the types of support offered to its “friends” that were absent from any significant infrastructure-related projects needed in those countries (i. e. Lebanon and Iraq) where America is partially dominant. That created a considerable lack of satisfaction among the population. This clumsy strategy, ignoring infrastructure, offers an opportunity for China to search for civilian rather than governmental interventions as justifiable access to return to these countries for investment and establish a foothold. China will find many states thirsty for an alternative due to the non-dominant nature of its development model presented within and outside the circle of US influence and in contrast to it.
China has a trade and commercial role globally and a significant political function as a permanent member of the United Nations. It amplifies its role by coordinating with Russia on several Middle Eastern issues. The most recent Russian-Chinese interventions at the UN Security Council were related to Libya, Syria, and the Iranian nuclear file. Indeed, occasionally, the US relies on Russia and China to play a positive role in the nuclear dossier negotiation with Iran and prevent it from reaching a military nuclear capability. On the other hand, the Chinese-Russian opposition to many US project resolutions prevented many of the Middle East’s aggressive sanctions and military actions.
Militarily, Beijing participated in the peacekeeping forces in Lebanon in 2016. China sent its ships to the Gulf of Aden to participate in anti-piracy operations, by decision of the United Nations, without taking sides or getting otherwise involved in Middle Eastern conflicts. Indeed, China has established good relations with Hamas,Hezbollah, Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia and signed trade agreements with more than 15 Arab countries.
Also, China is showing its military capability. It has conducted joint naval exercises in the Gulf of Aden with Iran and Russia for the first time to demonstrate that it has become more visible. Also, Senegal asked China to intervene to combat terrorism in the Sahel. China has invested more than 200 billion dollars in Africa, and its security is a source of concern and importance to Beijing. China has built an impressive military, naval and missile arsenal. It has recently tested the most advanced space capability (with hypersonic missiles, which can constitute an obvious deterrent to any country that wants to attack it).
China also headed to Africa to build relations with Egypt and several African countries. It constructed a naval base in Djibouti in 2017 and contributed to the peacekeeping forces in Mali and Sudan. The Chinese “dragon ships” reached the Syrian coasts of Tartus and Latakia during the US occupation of north-eastern Syria.
China is strong enough to intimidate any foreign power tempted to aggress it by possessing a few hundrednuclear missiles. Still, it is far from competing with the US quantity of atomic bombs, even if the number of weapons is irrelevant. The US used only two bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the second world war. They were sufficient to destroy two Japanese cities and show the destructive capability of the US towards civilian populations in case of war.
Asian International Bank (AIIB)
During the cold war, China benefitted from the US-Russia nuclear race to boost its economy and reach its objective. Chinese wealth allowed it to initiate colossal projects affecting the world economy and finance.
Indeed, China announced the establishment of the Asian International Bank (AIIB) in 2013 to operate from Beijing with 104 members, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Iran, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, with $100 billion capital. It competes with the influence of the World Bank, which the US established to impose its economic policy on countries and involve itself with their economic-political affairs- a more significant impact than any military intervention
Significantly, China exists as an active state within the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Iran). Beijing is trying to build partnerships and allies for economic prosperity and fortify its position worldwide.
Unlike the US policy base, China is basing its current goal on renewed “partnership strategies” with Middle Eastern states (and certainly not on explicit colonialism), not to feed internal and sectarian differences and conflicts. China operates as a superpower, creating an international standing that protects it from external interference in its internal affairs. After closing the doors on itself for decades, it has learned lessons from the mistakes of other major powers such as the Soviet Union and the United States of America. It has been proven that military solutions do not often bring about the desired goals.
At the moment, China lacks the experience and the decision needed to win the hearts and minds of the Middle Easterners, who are eager to deal with an economic superpower that is more visible and is not only exclusively looking to explore what there is in their pockets. However, China’s policy is undoubtedly to move slowly but steadily and consolidate its position worldwide before becoming a prominent actor in different directions, countries, and fields.
This is triggering anxiety at the heart of the US administration, which now should worry about the intense competition to its hegemony from Russia and China. Logically, Washington should realise that the era of unilateralism is over and that the current age of multipolarity has inevitably become a reality.
Most countries in the Middle East are not accustomed to governing themselves without external interference that makes them play the collective role of “an orchestra”. However, the American conductor certainly was, and still is, part of the problem. Thus, the question remains: Can China play the role of the maestro (in a more rational form than America) without necessarily demonstrating its military strength and relying mainly on economic power?
Proofread by: Maurice Brasher.