China signals it wants to be major player in Middle East

Sunday 09/04/2017

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s $65 billion deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping in March was the latest indication of China’s desire to improve its position in the Middle East in terms of economic strategy, weapons sales and geopolitical strategy. By strengthening ties in the region, China is hoping to challenge the longtime dominance of the United States.

While the multibillion-dollar deal covered areas such as energy, culture, education and technol­ogy, one of its key components was the future construction of a Chinese drone factory in the kingdom. The facility will produce the CH-4 drone, which China has been selling as a cheaper, reliable substitute to the United States’ MQ-9 Reaper drones.

Although China has had mixed success selling drones to Saudi Arabia — previous models had problems with the kingdom’s desert terrain — the new CH-4 model has been successful in other countries in the region, including Iraq, which switched to the Chinese drone to fight the Islamic State (ISIS). Price is also a major selling point. The cost of one Reaper drone, about $20 million, is equivalent to that of four CH-4 drones and a control­ling unit.

The deal helps China build up its market in a region where weapon demand is high. For the Saudis, connecting with China is a way to hedge their bets at a time when the United States has reduced its level of involvement in regional affairs. (If US President Donald Trump continues on an anti-Muslim trajectory, Saudi Arabia could quickly switch to a more solid partnership with China.)

For China, the deal with Saudi Arabia also fits neatly into its desire to build a new Silk Road, which Xi has called the “One Belt, One Road” initiative. This initiative is part of a long-term strategy to ensure China’s access to countries and markets in the region and improve its position as a counterweight to the Americans. China has become the Middle East’s main trading partner, bumping the United States into second place.

After the deal was signed in March, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it would act as a mediator between Riyadh and Tehran at the request of Saudi Arabia. While the United States has a strong relationship with the Saudis, it has virtually none with Iran. China, on the other hand, is one of Iran’s main supporters. Acting as the go-between for the two major powers in the region gives the Chinese a considerable advantage over Washington. Unlike the United States, China leaves issues of human rights off the table.

Despite the advantages, China’s diplomatic strategy has draw­backs.

Despite their determination to avoid the kind of mistakes the United States has made in the region, China is vulnerable to the region’s ever-changing political landscape. In Libya, for example, the new government shied away from working with China for years because of its support for former dictator Muammar Qaddafi. This resulted in 36,000 Chinese workers being forced to leave the country.

But even their relationship with Libya seems to be changing. The Tobruk-based government announced a $36 billion infra­structure plan in November 2016, largely financed by Chinese investors.

As promising as the present looks for China, it may all just be a temporary surge. China can expect to be challenged by the United States, who will not just walk away from its dominant position as external power in the region. And if meaningful political change does come to the region, China’s reluctance to champion human rights may present problems.

What happens over the next year and a half will be important to watch. If China continues to sign big trade and defence deals in the region, it may signal a longer-term shift is taking place. If not, it is a slight rebalancing of the status quo.