China’s president Xi Jinping’s visit to the Middle East in January 2016 marked a historic moment for China’s foreign policy. The first president to embark on an official visit to Tehran after the lifting of the economic sanctions, Xi Jinping’s trip to Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt signaled China’s increased involvement in the area. In the subsequent analysis, two main issues will be addressed in order to shed light on the dynamics that China’s involvement may generate and on the extent to which these dynamics may be confined to the economic sphere, as continuously reasserted by Chinese spokesmen on official occasions. First of all, the analysis will look at the economic dimension of China’s interest in the Middle East, and will try to contest the idea – supported by Chinese authorities – that the turmoil in the MENA region might find a definitive solution through economic development. Second, the article will investigate the political engagement of China through a diplomatic strategy of non-alignment and the subsequent South-South cooperation rhetoric, that is increasingly depicting the West as a biased actor with vested interests in the region, as opposed to China’s good intentions of mutual economic development.

Although Xi Jinping is the first Chinese president since 2009 to go on an official visit to Middle Eastern countries (The Economist, Jan. 2016), the historical relations between China and the MENA region have been constant and assiduous, if analyzed from a historical longue durée perspective. As reported by Muhammad Olimat (2013), relationships between the two geographical areas have always been regular, albeit with different intensity depending on historical circumstances. Sino-Arab relations started reportedly since the Silk Road period of intense economic and cultural exchange, and continued throughout the Islamic era that influenced Chinese culture so much that Chinese Muslims (the Uyghur) can still be found in the Xinjiang region (North-West China). More recently, Sino-Arab relations have particularly increased under Mao Zedong’s government. He considered the MENA region an “intermediate zone” in which the two opposing forces of U.S.-led capitalism and Third World countries would ultimately face each other (Olimat, 2012: 18). By promoting an image of China as the leader of developing countries through massive use of identity politics, Xi Jinping is purporting the same kind of political rhetoric as Zedong’s, after a period of international isolation for the country.

It may be worth asking, then, why China has decided to terminate its international isolationism and regain ground in the MENA region. According to David Dollar (Horizons, Summer 2015), this renewed interest in the Middle East relies in China’s attempt to face a domestic slow growth that needs both internal (i.e., reforms) and external (i.e., Foreign Direct Investment, or FDI) solutions to be solved. In this view, the expansion of China’s interest in the Middle East has an unmistakably economic origin. Specifically, two projects have been launched to foster economic investment in the area: the AIIB (the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) and the “One Belt, One Road” initiative (Horizons, Summer 2015). The latter is of particular interest since it encompasses the creation of both a land and a maritime road to facilitate economic exchanges between West and East. MENA countries will significantly contribute to and benefit from the implementation of the project since many bilateral accords will be signed and China’s FDI will dramatically increase in the area.

Furthermore, in January 2016, few days before the beginning of the MENA tour by Xi Jinping, the Chinese government published the China’s Arab Policy Paper, a vademecum and a statement of intent that is aimed at contextualizing and guiding Chinese foreign policy in Arab countries. Interestingly enough, the focus of the Paper is undoubtedly economic, echoing recent declarations from China’s vice-foreign minister, Zhang Ming, who stated that economic development is the “ultimate way out” of conflict in the MENA region (The Economist, Jan. 2016). Praising the South-South model of cooperation, the Paper declares, “Arab states are China’s important partners in following the peaceful development path, strengthening unity and cooperation among developing countries and establishing a new kind of international relations with win-win cooperation at its core.”

Chinese official rhetoric focuses on the economic dimension because the Chinese government is deliberately trying to avoid taking sides in Middle Eastern conflicts. Indeed, Xi Jinping’s decision to visit both Tehran and Riyadh in a period of heightened tensions between the two countries is a clear sign of China’s attempt to remain impartial on political issues. Nonetheless, as Michael Singh recently wrote (Foreign Affairs, Jan. 2016), the economic expansion in the region has increasingly drawn China to be diplomatically and militarily involved in the area. An important example can be China’s attempt to host peace talks between the Syrian government of Bashar al-Asad and Syrian opposition groups in Beijing in December 2015 (al-Jazeera, Jan. 2016). In addition, as reported by Geoffrey Aronson (al-Jazeera, Jan. 2016), more than fifty percent of China’s peacekeeping military force is based in Middle Eastern countries, a piece of data that further supports the argument in favor of the impossibility of non-interference in domestic issues in the region (Foreign Affairs, Jan. 2016).

Last but not least, the political pressures of the jihadi threat worldwide forces the Chinese government to address terrorism as both a global concern and a security issue to protect Chinese economic investments in the area. As a matter of fact, the last part of the China’s Arab Policy Paper is devoted to delineating general principles enhancing anti-terrorism cooperation, thus stating, “We resolutely oppose and condemn all forms of terrorism, and oppose coupling terrorism with any specific ethnic group or religion as well as double standard.” Far from being a distant problem, the war on terror is among the first on Chinese domestic agenda given the persistent turmoil in the Xinjiang region, a Muslim-majority separatist region where episodes of terrorist violence cyclically take place, especially since many Uyghur fighters have recently joined ISIS and are currently fighting in Syria (al-Jazeera, Jan. 2016).

Can, then, impartiality be maintained as a long-term strategy in the Middle East? Can China keep on doing business with Arab countries without taking sides in the conflicts that are perturbing the area? Can the all-economy solution promoted by the Chinese government solve the persistent political instability of the MENA region? Can China be involved in big economic projects in the Middle East without creating enemies among the various and disparate actors with vested interests in the region?

First of all, separating economic interests from political ones is a hard task since both are always intertwined and hardly separable. Even though China’s rhetoric focuses on business, showcasing a conciliatory and non-interventionist approach on political issues, it is hard to believe that this “no-enemies policy” in the MENA region can continue unaltered. As reported by Singh (Foreign Affairs, Jan. 2016), Xi Jinping’s first planned visit to Riyadh was cancelled after conflict broke out in Yemen, where a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is currently taking place. On that occasion, Xi Jinping reportedly angered the Saudi king while implicitly favoring Iran. This is a simple instance of how impartiality seems to be a difficult strategy to pursue in such a polarized and war-torn area.

Second, the all-economy solution laid out in the China’s Arab Policy Paper and supported by Chinese government’s rhetoric is not likely to lead to a definitive solution to the problems in the region. MENA instability, the turmoil in almost all countries in the region, the never-ending wars affecting countries like Yemen, Libya and Syria, are unlikely to be solved merely by promoting economic development (al-Jazeera, Feb. 2016). The roots of these conflicts and the continuous sectarian divisions in the region have deeper roots than mere economic underdevelopment and needs be addressed by means of all-encompassing strategies, not limited to just one sphere of intervention. In addition, as Alice Su asserted (al-Jazeera, Feb. 2016), Chinese approach to the MENA region is characterized by a major paradox since “Beijing hopes to stabilize the region through investment but its investments require stability in order to succeed.”

In conclusion, Chinese rhetoric of an all-economy solution to Middle Eastern problems does not seem to be a viable path towards the pacification of the area, but rather an attempt by China to portray itself as a peaceful actor, not taking sides because genuinely interested in promoting stability in the area, in contrast to biased Western countries whose partiality is held accountable for the turmoil of the region. At the same time, however, China’s all-economy position is unlikely to last long since economic involvement in the area inevitably bring with it political, diplomatic, and military issues that cannot be ignored given their preeminence in determining regional dynamics. Following Geoffrey Aronson, we may then ask ourselves not whether China will be able to maintain its only-economy plans, but rather whose side China will be on in the near future (al-Jazeera, Jan. 2016).

Valentina Cantori

Master’s degree in Languages and Cultures for International Communication and Cooperation (University of Milan)


References

Aronson, G. (January 21, 2016), China’s Vision of the Middle East. Beijing Eneters the Great Game, al-Jazeera, Retrieved from: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/01/china-vision-middle-east-160121052018955.html

China’s Arab Policy Paper, January 13, 2016, Retrieved from: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2016-01/13/c_135006619.htmDollar, D. (Summer 2015), China’s Rise as a Regional and Global Power, Horizons, pp. 162-172.

Editorial Board (January 23, 2016), Well-wishing. Xi Jinping’s Tour of the Middle East Shows China’s Growing Stake There, The Economist, Retrieved from: http://www.economist.com/news/21688786-chinese-president-makes-his-first-visit-region-xi-jinpings-tour-middle-east.

Olimat, M. (2013), China and the Middle East. From Silk Road to Arab Spring, London: Routledge.Singh, M. (January 24, 2016), China’s Middle East Tour. Beijing’s Post-Sanctions Ambitions, Foreign Affairs, Retrieved from: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2016-01-24/chinas-middle-east-tour

Su, A. (February 20, 2016), “Let’s not Talk Politics”: China Builds Middle East Ties Through Business, al-Jazeera, Retrieved from: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2016/2/20/china-middle-east-business-politics.html