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How China Gets Sucked Into the Middle East

While shifting energy import patterns enhance China’s clout in the Middle East, it is still struggling to be perceived as a big regional player.

Credit: Nicolas Raymond www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • While shifting energy import patterns enhance China’s clout in the Middle East, it is still struggling to be perceived as a big regional player.
  • An end to the war in Syria opens up economic opportunity for Beijing. Reconstruction will play to China’s strength, while highlighting Russian weaknesses.
  • The hardening of Middle Eastern fault lines is likely to make it increasingly difficult for China to emphasize economic and trade relationships without getting sucked into the region’s multiple conflicts.

Subtle shifts in Chinese energy imports suggest that China may be able to exert influence in the Middle East in ways that do not involve military or overt economic pressure.

The shifts involve greater dependency of the Gulf states on oil and gas exports to China, which is the world’s largest energy importer. This is the result of the People’s Republic recent strategy to diversify energy imports, which has come at the expense of Gulf producers.

These shifts first emerged in 2015 when Chinese oil imports from Saudi Arabia rose a mere 2%, while purchases of Russian oil jumped almost 30%. Since then, Russia rather than Saudi Arabia has turned into China’s biggest crude oil supplier.

Donald Trump’s tougher trade policies have also had an effect. “With the Trump administration, the pressure on China to balance accounts with the United States is huge… Buying U.S. oil clearly helps toward that goal to reduce the imbalance,” said Marco Dunand, chief executive and co-founder of commodity trading house Mercuria.

Chinese investment

At the same time, China in 2016 became the largest investor in the Arab world with investments worth $29.5 billion. Much of that money was targeted on the infrastructure sector, including the construction of industrial parks, pipelines, ports and roads.

At the same time as it has been turning to Russia for energy imports, and despite general support for Russian policy in the Middle East, Beijing increasingly fears that Moscow’s approach risks escalating conflicts and has complicated China’s ability to safeguard its mushrooming interests in the region.

Viewed from Beijing, the Middle East has deteriorated into a part of the world in which regional cohesion has been shattered, countries are fragmenting and domestic institutions are losing their grip. Worse, political violence threatens to effect security and stability in northwest China.

China’s particular concern in that regard is likely to increase if and when the guns fall silent in Syria and the country begins to focus on reconstruction. China already worries that Uyghur foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq are heading to areas closer to Xinjiang in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

While an end to the war in Syria opens up economic opportunity for Beijing, it is also likely to sharpen rivalry between Russia and China. After all, reconstruction will play to China’s strength, while highlighting Russian weaknesses.

China’s interest in Syrian reconstruction goes beyond dollars and cents. “Syria can be a key logistics hub for China. Its history is the key to bringing stability in the Levant, meaning it has to be incorporated into China’s plan in the region. From a security perspective, if Syria is not secure, neither will (be) China’s investment in neighbouring countries,” said Kamal Alam, a Syrian military analyst.

China’s dilemma

All of this raises the question of how China can best stand up for its interests in the Middle East. Even in the eyes of Chinese scholars, their country’s unsuccessful efforts to mediate in multiple conflicts in the Middle East have failed to position the People’s Republic as a credible alternative to the United States and Russia.

Indeed, Chinese support for Russian policies in the United Nations Security Council and elsewhere has effectively identified Beijing with Moscow, rather than differentiate itself.

The Middle East has already forced China to move away from long-standing policies like non-interference in the domestic affairs of others and a refusal to establish foreign military bases, even if these principles remain valid officially.

Beyond the establishment of China’s first foreign military base in Djibouti, Chinese special forces have been advising Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime in its operations against jihadists that include Uyghurs in their ranks.

The hardening of Middle Eastern fault lines is likely to make it increasingly difficult for China to remain aloof and emphasize economic and trade relationships without getting sucked into the region’s multiple conflicts.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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