Lesson for China: no relationship with the Middle East can be ‘just business’

Rob Edens says no purely economic approach will work in a region rife with sectarian rivalries, as China is finding out as its belt and road wades its way through East Asia to Europe. Its involvement in the Gulf countries may be more than it bargained for

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 April, 2017, 11:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 July, 2018, 7:22pm

To hear Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) tell it, China’s interest in the Middle East is thoroughly peaceful and commercial. When Saudi Arabia’s King Salman led a delegation to Beijing two weeks ago, for example, the main item on the agenda was trade and investment and the highlight was signing business deals worth US$65 billion. When Benjamin Netanyahu followed the Saudi leader to China a few days later, Xi stuck to reassuring platitudes about the benefits of coexistence for a “peaceful, stable, developing Middle East” and pointed out that China enjoyed positive relations with much of the region.

The problem with this narrative, both for China and its partners, is that it obfuscates a much broader role in the Middle East – a role which could easily drag China politically and militarily into a web of regional tensions Beijing doesn’t have the expertise to handle. Make no mistake, the Chinese footprint is already taking on a military component: as revealed by IHS Jane’s, at least some of the US$65 billion flowing from China to Saudi Arabia will go into building a factory for China’s CH-4 unmanned drones inside Saudi Arabia.

None of this is unexpected: as “One Belt, One Road” wades its way through East Asia to Europe, it must inevitably pass through the Middle East. The issue is that an infrastructure project as gargantuan as the belt and road was never going to stay purely economic: China cannot develop Middle Eastern markets without spending more political and diplomatic energy, a lesson it has already taken to heart in Africa. The need to protect Chinese investments and business interests prompted the creation of China’s first overseas military installation in Djibouti – which, conveniently, sits in striking distance of Yemen.

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To answer the question of why Beijing might now implicate itself in providing security to the Persian Gulf after years of studious non-intervention, look no further than China’s oil supply. The Chinese economy is heavily reliant on oil imports from Saudi Arabia and Iran, and even a small disruption to shipping traffic in the Persian Gulf would be detrimental to both Chinese and global markets.

An infrastructure project as gargantuan as the belt and road was never going to stay purely economic

It has always been a theoretical possibility that Beijing could rely on force projection to protect its critical oil supply. That prospect was seen as unlikely just a few years ago, in no small part because the Americans were already committed to keeping shipping lanes open. There was no need for a Chinese naval presence in the Persian Gulf when Beijing could just as easily “free ride” on Washington’s back. However, once the US stopped relying on shipments from the Gulf, that unspoken deal has started teetering. That two successive American presidents have overtly questioned the utility of their force commitments in the region complicated the equation even more for Beijing. Even if a transition from an American to a Chinese security framework in the Gulf is still years away, it is already getting a hard new look from security experts.

Beijing would certainly not be the first to see its economic priorities morph into military commitments. America’s now eight-decade-old alliance with Saudi Arabia was founded exclusively on oil: Saudi Aramco, the Saudi national oil company, began as a subsidiary of California’s Socal in 1933. It did not become fully Saudi until 1980. These stakes in the oil industry obliged the US to maintain a permanent military presence in the region, whose primary reason for being has always remained the same: protecting the Saudi and wider Gulf oil supply, be it from jihadists, communists, Baathists or Iranian revolutionaries.

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The Chinese response to this will be to say that they, unlike the Americans, are pursuing a “zero problems” policy. Namely, at the same time Beijing deepens its economic relationship with Riyadh and the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, it also maintains its long-time partnership with Iran. Unfortunately, the idea that this balancing act could be sustainable over the long-term is naive at best.

The belt and road can become an aggravating factor in the regional rivalries: as Jeffrey Payne of the Middle East Institute explained last year, the belt and road’s main relevance for the GCC countries is that it is likely to enrich and strengthen Iran – to their detriment.

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Other outside powers with local ambitions have taken this lesson to heart. The British, for example, have made it a cornerstone of their regional economic strategy. When Whitehall wanted to reprioritise the GCC as a trade partner, Prime Minister Theresa May attended the GCC summit in Bahrain last December and overtly recommitted Britain to the Gulf states’ defence. This posture is backed up by deeds, namely through the deployment of British forces explicitly meant to counter Iran.

In an ideal world, China would continue to build its commercial presence in the region without having to engage in overt force commitments like the one the British have made in the Persian Gulf. History, however, is not on Beijing’s side: no other major power, not even a local one like Turkey, has successfully stuck to a “zero problems” policy in the Middle East for long. Between the rise of jihadism and the Sunni-Shia sectarian civil war, the region has a way of forcing everyone to pick a side.

Rob Edens is a London-based researcher and commentator