China steps into the Middle East quagmire

Friday 22/01/2016

Life in the “good old days” of the Cold War was indeed far simpler. With the disappear­ance of the two stabilising factors that dictated Middle East policy — the Soviet Union and an engaged United States — the region is more volatile than ever. The arrival on the scene of new stakeholders will further compli­cate a deeply complex situation.

The absence of the traditional powers in the Middle East, despite the vivid tension that prevailed in the days of the Cold War, never­theless helped maintain some sort of imposed order on the region.

Indeed, the demise of the Soviet Union and the pulling back of the United States from the region’s politics left the stage open to a number of new actors and ushered in a number of new conflicts.

Long-dormant disputes rose to the forefront and multiple wars raged across the region from the skirmishes along the Tunisian- Algerian border to full-fledged battles in the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, not forgetting the devastating war in Syria.

Thus, the stage was set for Iran to start its serious involvement in the region with the Islamic Republic supporting Syrian Presi­dent Bashar Assad militarily. It did not take long for the Turks to get dragged into the region’s complex politics and, ultimately, militar­ily as well with Turkish troops deployed in Iraq.

And now, inevitably with the Russians firmly entrenched with naval bases in the eastern Medi­terranean and a US administration that seems to lack any coherent foreign policy, the door is wide open for China’s appearance in the region.

The Chinese have a double rea­son to get involved in the Middle East.

First, it has long been China’s desire to have political influence in the Middle East but, try as it may, relations between Beijing and Arab capitals have never warmed to the level they did with Washington or Moscow or Paris or Islamabad. As China’s fast-growing middle class developed, Beijing under­stood the need for greater amounts of oil.

And second, Beijing believes that, to become a superpower, it must prove itself diplomatically.

With that in mind, Chinese President XI Jinping visited Saudi Arabia and Iran, two regional powers locked in dispute, so far limited to fighting via proxies. However, as tensions mount, so, too, does the danger of a direct confrontation.

Such a confrontation would place the entire oil-producing Gulf region in jeopardy and would send oil markets into uncharted territory, further adding to the tensions among opposing factions in the region.

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have escalated since Saudi authorities executed Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr on January 2nd, triggering outrage among Shias.

Iran responded by not effective­ly preventing protesters storming the Saudi embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad, prompt­ing Riyadh to sever relations. Tehran cut commercial ties with Riyadh and barred pilgrims from travelling to Mecca.

It is in this political environ­ment that Xi began his visit to the region. Xi was also to visit Egypt.

China has been very cautious in trying to appear neutral, repeat­ing that it had always taken “a balanced and just position” in the dispute between Riyadh and Tehran.

Chinese leaders believe if the Middle East is not stable, the world cannot be very peaceful.

China has left the politics of the Middle East to the other perma­nent members of the UN Security Council — the United States, Rus­sia, Great Britain and France. But recently the Chinese have been ea­ger to have a greater say. The last time a Chinese president visited the region was when Hu Jintao went to Saudi Arabia in 2009 and Jiang Zemin visited Iran in 2002.

China is also eager to prevent any rapprochement between its Uighur Muslim population and Islamists in the Middle East and is hoping to find natural allies in Saudi Arabia and Iran.

With cheap labour, goods made in China have flooded markets around the world. With Beijing entering the Middle East political scene, you can also expect to see politics made in China.