World Review | China cautiously engages with the Middle East to protect its interests

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China cautiously engages with the Middle East to protect its interests

China cautiously engages with the Middle East to protect its interests
China wants to secure its military, economic and energy interests in the region (source: macpixxel for GIS)
China cautiously engages with the Middle East to protect its interests
Beijing hopes to prevent jihadist movements from spreading to Xinjiang, where the Muslim Uighur minority has already come into conflict with the government (source: macpixxel for GIS)

BEIJING’S increasing involvement in the Middle East has important economic, diplomatic, and military implications for the region, China and the world. While beefing up its presence in the Middle East could pay off for China in a big way, Beijing will have to tread carefully to avoid becoming entangled in the region’s conflicts, writes World Review Guest Expert Brendan O’Reilly.

Beijing’s choice of Djibouti as the site of its first overseas military base is an important indicator of its long-term strategy in the Greater Middle East. For now, the base is primarily expected to be used for logistics and the resupply of Chinese ships fighting piracy in the surrounding waters. It is worth remembering that Djibouti also hosts military forces from the United States, France and Japan.

Still, the base is ideally positioned to give China a strategic toehold in Africa and the nearby Arabian Peninsula. It could also serve as a stepping-stone to more substantial force projection in Africa or the Middle East.

President Xi Jinping’s recent visits to Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia underscored China’s economic importance to the region, as well as Beijing’s hands-off approach to the various Middle Eastern conflicts. The Chinese government, unlike other world powers, has no interest in choosing sides. For example, Beijing has remained neutral in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Nevertheless, China does have a significant geopolitical stake in the region. It wants the stability that can foster trade and prevent extremist transnational groups from spreading, particularly to its own Muslim population.

The Chinese government portrays itself as a victim of jihadist terrorism, specifically in Xinjiang, an autonomous region in western China. Although conflict there is primarily ethnonationalist, there is a political Islamist aspect. Credible intelligence reports have found that thousands of ethnic Uighurs from Xinjiang are fighting government forces in Syria.

Chinese citizens living in the region are increasingly threatened by its chronic instability. Daesh (also known as Islamic State or ISIS) recently executed a Chinese national in Syria. Early last year, a Chinese warship docked at a port in Yemen to evacuate hundreds of Chinese citizens, as that country’s civil war escalated.

Energy is a major factor driving Chinese involvement in the Middle East. China is now the world’s largest importer of petroleum, and despite the Chinese economy’s recent slowdown, imports are almost certain to increase in the long term.

China is making a big push to draw more energy from Africa and is also utilizing oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia and Russia. Saudi Arabia remains China’s largest source of imported oil, but the Chinese market is rapidly shifting toward Russian supplies.

China looks to the Middle East as a vital link in its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, which seeks to strengthen overland and maritime transportation routes in Eurasia and Africa. As a core long-term foreign policy initiative, Beijing is supporting OBOR through the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB), itself a Chinese-created international financial institution that indirectly challenges the established order of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

OBOR will help China bypass maritime choke points in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. For OBOR to succeed, its routes through the Middle East must remain open and secure.

When it comes to Saudi Arabia, China is mostly concerned with its regional clout and vast energy resources. Saudi Arabia still surpasses Russia as China’s largest supplier of crude oil. Moreover, Beijing wants to maintain friendly relations with the oil-exporting Gulf monarchies, of whom Saudi Arabia is the principal actor. China also has a long-standing strategic alliance with Pakistan, a Sunni-majority state and close partner of the Saudi monarchy.

For a more in-depth look at this subject with scenarios looking to future outcomes, go to our sister site: Geopolitical Information Service. Sign in for 3 Free Reports or Subscribe.

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