China’s growing influence in the Middle East region is remarkable. Relations between China and Middle East countries are entering a “new era”, with the first China-Arab summit slated for the end of 2022.
Declining US hegemony in the Middle East makes China’s increasing presence more conspicuous. While China’s rising engagement in the region is commonly attributed to its rise to economic power, in fact, it is due in part to the Chinese government’s steady development of dialogue platforms with Middle East countries at various levels since the early 2000s.
...will China become an “empire by invitation” in the Middle East, as the US was in Western Europe following World War II?
An increasing dependence on oil imports, coupled with the fact that many states in the Middle East are distancing themselves from Western political values, makes the region increasingly important for China. On their part, Middle East countries support China’s policy of expanding its trade relations to support its economic development while refraining from interference in domestic issues such as political systems.
Increased economic engagement by China is certain to continue. The question now is whether Middle East countries will call on China to play a role that goes beyond that of an economic power to one of a mediator in regional security and political issues. In other words, will China become an “empire by invitation” in the Middle East, as the US was in Western Europe following World War II?
China’s proposed policy of “major power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” suggests that the Xi Jinping administration is willing to play a more active role in politics and security in the Middle East. In his Five-point Initiative on Achieving Security and Stability in the Middle East, Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed a constructive role for China in Syria, Yemen and Libya and on Palestinian issues and Iran’s nuclear issue.
China is viewed favourably in the Middle East region because of the economic benefits it provides and the fact that it does not intervene in domestic affairs...
The Xi Jinping administration has demonstrated a willingness to engage in “great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics”, offering “Chinese ideas” and a “Chinese platform” to address powder keg issues in the Middle East that have hitherto been avoided.
Moreover, China is viewed favourably in the Middle East region because of the economic benefits it provides and the fact that it does not intervene in domestic affairs and maintains political neutrality in regional affairs. In other words, China has continued to maintain a “loose engagement” with the Middle East.
However, with the political roles required of extra-regional powers in the Middle East varying from country to country, the security issues in the region are more intricately complex than those prevailing in Western Europe during the Cold War period when the US became involved in order to combat the common threat posed by the Soviet Union. Based on these premises, it will not be easy for China to play a political role in the Middle East region using great power diplomacy.
The provision of strategic weapons to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s competitor, would impact the military balance and stability of the region.
China’s stance of exercising restraint in the supply of arms to the Middle East since the end of the Cold War has begun to shift in recent years. As well as its sale of the medium-range ballistic missile DF-21 to Saudi Arabia, China is also reportedly in the process of equipping Saudi Arabia with missile technology for domestic production.
It is difficult for an intermediary that ingratiates itself with everyone to play a meaningful role.
The provision of strategic weapons to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s competitor, would impact the military balance and stability of the region. This deepening of military engagement with competing powers generates hostility on the part of the adversary. These factors may be behind China’s efforts to forge closer military ties and a strategic relationship more broadly with Iran.
In addition, if China were to make its position clear on issues pertaining to sectarianism, ethnicity and sovereignty in the Middle East, not only would it sacrifice the neutrality that has gained China acceptance in the Middle East region, but it would also risk the country becoming embroiled in regional conflicts.
The question is whether China can find a new equilibrium in the Middle East region by engaging in major power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics. It is difficult for an intermediary that ingratiates itself with everyone to play a meaningful role. A worse scenario is that it could turn into a dangerous duplicitous diplomacy that exacerbates the chaos in the Middle East. China may find itself at a difficult crossroads in the Middle East in its pursuit of great power diplomacy.
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