In 97 CE, Gan Ying, military ambassador to the Han Dynasty, was sent on a mission to the West. However, he only got as far as the eastern shore of what some later accounts suggest was the Persian Gulf; inauspicious omens, unfavorable winds, and uncompromising advice from his Parthian hosts prompted him to turn back. Twenty centuries on, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), modern reincarnation of the Han Dynasty, is taking decisive steps to establish a firm Chinese presence in the Middle East.
China’s position as a global power is now established fact. Its political and economic influence radiate farther, wider, and deeper than that of any previous Chinese regime. Given its pivotal role in contemporary geopolitics, the Middle East presents an optimal case study for analyzing China’s ambitions as a global power. Three recent publications, addressing different aspects of China’s activity in the Middle East, try to decipher its aims and objectives in the region. These contributions are much welcomed; few of the profusion of books exploring China’s growing international status engage with its burgeoning role in the Middle East.
China’s Presence in the Middle East: The Implications of the One Belt, One Road Initiative explores the implications of China’s increasing engagement with the region. Edited by Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Niv Horesh—the first Professor of International Relations at Durham University, the latter Professorial Research Fellow at the same institution—the collection of academic essays maps out China’s core interests in the Middle East, and parses its relationships with other regional players, particularly the United States, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.
Unveiled in 2013, the One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative—popularly known as “The New Silk Road”—is the cornerstone of President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy. The initiative is anchored by a series of land and sea transportation routes, linked by economic corridors and newly-built sea ports. Described in official pronouncements as a move towards ensuring global prosperity and development, on equal terms and for “mutual benefit,” it nevertheless has already attracted global criticism and controversy. Issues raised include its (allegedly) over-ambitious scope, its management of projects along the OBOR routes, its impact on partner economies, and its ultimate goals.
Since its inauguration, the OBOR initiative has encountered numerous challenges and obstacles, prompting some specialists to speculate that the ambitious and costly initiative might be leading China—and, by extension, the rest of the world—into an economic dead-end. Some of these setbacks are linked to internal issues. The absence of a clear overall blueprint for the OBOR superstructure has contributed to a conceptual fuzziness; the decentralized management structure of OBOR sub-projects at the provincial level has led to episodes of mismanagement.
Other setbacks have been more significant, however. A number of Chinese-backed projects in developing countries failed to recoup their debts before they were handed over to the financier. Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka is a notable example; OBOR projects in Pakistan and Malaysia faced similar issues, which prompted diplomatic crises. Whether or not these outcomes were inevitable, the onus is still on China to demonstrate that its new “Maritime Silk Road” is not just a neo-colonial “String of Pearls,” as some analysts have dubbed its chain of sea ports across the greater Indian Ocean region. OBOR projects are increasingly associated with corrupt practices; the fear is that it will not succeed in its stated objective of elevating local economies, numerous examples across Africa and Asia appearing to confirm this apprehension.
The Red Star and the Crescent, edited by James Reardon-Anderson—Professor of Chinese Studies and Dean of the Georgetown University in Qatar—examines specific aspects of China’s economic presence in the Middle East, including security, the OBOR Initiative, Islam, and China’s relations with countries in the region. Drawing from detailed case studies, it provides a concise exploration of a superpower in the making, evaluating China’s strengths and weaknesses in its quest to balance economic aspirations with geopolitical sensitivities and the search for national security.
Mehran Kamrava’s “The China Model and the Middle East” considers the “Chinese Dream” as an alternative model to Western neoliberalism. Kamrava identifies a natural affinity between the Chinese model and various Middle Eastern regimes—in that it offers a road map to economic prosperity, without the inconveniences of the “Washington consensus” and its underlying moral pretenses. But despite the appeal of the Chinese model, and China’s enthusiastic support for “mutually beneficial development” in the Middle East, the nations in question lack the socio-political conditions that expedited China’s own rise. While China may find willing partners in the Middle East, it will be hard-pressed to offer an alternative model of development along the OBOR routes. As Kamrava puts it: “In addition to pervasive corruption and nepotism across the bureaucracy, state agencies often suffer from structural incoherence, thus further undermining the effective formulation and implementation of state policies. Inefficient and ineffective though it may be, the state still retains unchallenged control over the commanding heights of the economy, further choking off developmental possibilities.”
The Middle East and its troubles are far enough from China’s borders to ensure that they cannot pose any immediate threat to its national security. However, there is always the risk of overspill into China’s Central Asian neighbors
The Middle East and its troubles are far enough from China’s borders to ensure that they cannot pose any immediate threat to its national security. However, there is always the risk of overspill into China’s Central Asian neighbors, specifically the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, to the northwest of the country. In Xinjiang, considerable investment in infrastructure has been accompanied by a major crackdown on Uighur civic society, an unprecedented demonstration of state power. This makes the Greater Middle East, stretching from the eastern Mediterranean to Central Asia, a “strategic extension of China’s periphery,” as Andrew Scobell argues in his essay “China’s Search for Security in the Greater Middle East.”
Given all this, it is no surprise that China’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is particularly important. China recognizes that its policy towards the Uighurs will eventually lead to an outcry in the Muslim world; it seeks to counterbalance this by cleaving ever-closer to the self-described leader of the Sunni world. China and Saudi Arabia have increased cooperation in the energy and financial sectors: Saudi Arabia is China’s largest source of oil and there is also close military and nuclear cooperation. Indeed, Saudi Crown Prince Bin Salman’s recent backslapping visit to Beijing highlights this approach; as Mohammed Turki Al-Sudairi’s article (“Hajjis, Refugees, Salafi Preachers, and a Myriad of Others: An Examination of Islamic Connectivities in the Sino-Saudi Relationship”) argues, only an initiative like the OBOR can bring the “atheist enemy of Islam” and the “exporter of Wahhabism” together at the same dinner table—while leaving Turkey as the sole provider of some lip service to the Xinjiang crisis.
In expanding its presence in the Middle East, China is not seeking to take possession of a no man’s land. The Middle East has traditionally fallen within the United States’ (presumed) sphere of influence. In recent years, it has been suggested that the US is removing itself from the region and distancing itself from its old allies. But in reality, the United States’ Fifth Fleet remains firmly ensconced in the Persian Gulf—making it clear who holds the key to the region’s energy resources. As Jon B. Alterman shows in “China, the United States, and the Middle East,” this explains China’s unwillingness to develop its Middle East connections any wider than the economic sphere. While the Sino-Saudi energy relationship may be solid, the US’s sway over the region can be expected to hold firm for the foreseeable future.
Across the Gulf, while Iran and China (in a typical display of OBOR rhetoric) emphasize the significance of a shared history linked by the Silk Road, John W. Garver (“China and the Iran Nuclear Negotiations: Beijing’s Mediation Effort”) persuasively argues that contemporary Sino-Iranian relations are not founded on mutual trust. While China is reliant on Iranian petroleum, this has not motivated the PRC into mounting a meaningful challenge to the US’s policy on Iran. In fact, China’s intensive efforts to entice Iran into a development pact, as a substitute for its nuclear ambitions, were almost entirely in line with the West’s mode of engagement with the theocratic state.
Since the publication of Garver’s article, a new round of sanctions have been placed on Iran, forcing China to tack back or suspend its high-profile corporate activity in the country. It is also important to stress that, despite the nostalgic commodification of the ancient Silk Roads and the promotion of same by Chinese state media, it is not realistic to expect that the overland routes will enjoy a surge in the volume of trade, mainly because maritime shipping costs are considerably less. This positions Iran and Central Asia as a market for infrastructure projects and Chinese goods, and as a trove for energy resources—but not as a key node in global trade networks.
Energy security remains China’s main priority. Along with Saudi petroleum, Iran provides nearly 20 percent of China’s crude oil imports. This is a key fact for understanding the subtle path China must negotiate in the Middle East, especially with regard to dealing with the two feuding energy giants.
Finally, we turn to Aron Shai’s China and Israel, which examines one of the most intriguing aspects of China’s Middle East policy. Both Jewish and Chinese writers have explored the cultural and historical similarities shared by the two nations, despite their obvious (and substantial) demographic, religious, and political differences. In today’s world, the ostensibly superficial connection between Israel and China is in fact reinforced by a range of subtle factors. Beyond narrow economic and geopolitical considerations, there is also a mutual respect, and the perception of shared historical experience—a correlation between the Chinese experience under the Japanese during World War II and the Jewish experience in Europe, for example. Whatever the reality, these factors allow Israelis and Chinese alike to stress their commonalities whenever there is an advantage to doing so.
Shai—Professor of East Asian Studies at Tel Aviv University—opens his book with a lengthy, somewhat tedious account of Sino-Israeli relations since the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) rise to power and the establishment of the State of Israel. More relevant for our understanding of current dynamics is the second part of the book, which provides an intimate account of Sino-Israeli relations from Deng Xiaoping’s reforms to the present day.
China’s policy in the Middle East, as underpinned by OBOR, is based on opening regional markets to Chinese manufactured goods; the acquisition of Chinese engineering, telecommunications services, and other infrastructure-related solutions; and tapping into the region’s copious reserves of natural resources. Given that Israel cannot make a major contribution to any of these objectives, one might expect Israel to be of limited strategic significance to China.
On the other hand, and given China’s close ties with the Islamic and Arab world, one might also expect it to take a more active role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the Syrian Civil War, given that resolving these conflicts would be of considerable benefit to international trade—and, consequently, to China’s core interests.
But while China has made numerous statements stressing her commitment to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and has even made a public plea for the promotion of peace talks between the two sides (as Andrew Scobell outlines in his essay in The Red Star and the Crescent, “China’s Search for Security in the Greater Middle East”), this has never extended beyond diplomatic rhetoric.
Despite these unpromising conditions, it is clear that China’s interests in Israel extend beyond the traditional parameters. Sino-Israeli relations, for decades almost completely frozen under the ice sheet of Sino-Arab relations, have thawed considerably since the early 1990s. Aside from the Phalcon Crisis of 2000 (when Israel was forced, after a US ultimatum, to cancel the $2 billion sale of the Phalcon early warning system to China), there has been a tightening of diplomatic and commercial ties between the two countries, to the dismay of Israel’s main patron, the United States. Israel lacks petrol, however, and the sum of Chinese infrastructure projects in the country is quite modest compared to other countries in the region (albeit substantial in its own right); what China desires most is access, via investments, in Israel’s high-tech industry.
The 2015 purchase of a controlling stake in Israeli food processing cooperative Tnuva by the state-owned Bright Food Group, and Fujian Yango Group’s failed 2017 attempt to purchase Phoenix Insurance aside, most Chinese investments in Israel tend to be low profile. China’s deep pockets are a good match for the Israeli high-tech industry’s constant liquidity demands.
China’s ongoing interest in Israeli technological innovation, particularly in the areas of artificial intelligence, information technology, biotechnology, health technology and agro-technology, reflect its developmental aspirations in both the domestic and foreign markets. While Chinese investments in these markets are officially welcomed by Israel, analysts and officials have expressed concerns about the possible ramifications. One prominent concern relates to the sale of sensitive and early-stage technologies to the Chinese government and its economic offshoots, given the dual-use potential of otherwise innocuous technology—the transfer of surveillance technology to an authoritarian regime, for example. Similar concerns flared up again recently, after the Israeli government awarded the tender to build the new Haifa port to the Shanghai International Port Group. The “String of Pearls” theory aside, the US administration has strongly protested the 25-year lease. The deal is expected to hold though, despite the apprehension that the Chinese might use the port for military and espionage purposes.
China’s official status as a Communist country drapes an old cloak on new foundations; China has not confronted the global system as the USSR did during the Cold War, but rather seeks to accommodate itself within existing dynamics. The ongoing China-US trade war, and China’s role in establishing competing financial institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Silk Road Fund, have prompted accusations that China is seeking to undermine the extant, West-led global order. But China’s obvious efforts to manage inevitable economic rivalry through negotiation, together with the coalition of states and global institutions participating in the OBOR Initiative, strongly suggests a different set of objectives. We should see the OBOR’s role in the Middle East, as in other places, as a direct expression of China’s core interests, not as an attempt to challenge the status quo.
The three books reviewed all clearly show that China has no intention of dramatically changing or overthrowing the current international order, based as it is on continuous economic growth. However, the OBOR Initiative has not yet proved its worth; while Chinese state media continuously stresses the benefits that it will (in due course) bestow on all interested parties, China still seems unwilling to pay the price for social or political damage arising from its ambitious global networking. For now, its economic might shields it from a diplomatic backlash. But there is no guarantee this will remain the case in the future.
Unlike Gan Ying, China crossed the Persian Gulf, and there is no turning back. However, the long-term consequences of an expansionist China, outside the realm of economic development, remain unclear. One thing is clear, though. As it stretches itself along the trade routes of old, striving to create an economic system unrivaled in world history, the PRC will have to accommodate itself to the outer world, just as the world will have to accommodate itself to China.
*Anoushiravan Ehtsehami/Niv Horesh (eds.), China’s Presence in the Middle East: The Implications of the One Belt, One Road Initiative, Routledge, pp. 228.
*James Reardon-Anderson, The Red Star and the Crescent: China and the Middle East, Hurst & Co, pp. 256.
*Aron Shai, China and Israel: Chinese, Jews; Beijing, Jerusalem (1890-2018), Academic Studies Press, pp. 300.