Europe adjusting to China’s presence in the Middle East
In 2015-16, two important Chinese government documents — “Visions and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road” and “Arab Policy Paper” — sought to outline how important economic cooperation and development with Middle Eastern countries had become to China’s foreign policy.
China’s narrative of neutral engagement with all countries remains a cornerstone of the country’s approach to the region, including those who are in conflict with one another. Mutually beneficial agreements are the core belief of policymakers in Beijing who avoid replicating what they see as Western intervention. The two documents focus on energy, infrastructure construction, trade and investment.
China’s rise has led to greater competition in Europe’s neighbourhood and Beijing’s increasing economic activity in Africa prompted any number of fears.
Despite its expressed wariness about China’s growing imprint in the Middle East and Africa, Europe is increasingly adjusting to it. France and Germany are getting used to working with Chinese companies in the region, which would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
European policymakers have been slow to factor in the growing Chinese presence. At first, they looked on it with fear; now they seem more willing to cooperate. Whatever they do, China’s policies will have to be better understood and accommodated as the years go by. Commercial and investment power cannot be ignored as anyone who has any knowledge of the growth of Pax Britannica in the 18th and 19th centuries should understand.
Four years ago, China became the biggest global importer of crude oil, almost half of that from the Middle East. This put the sea lanes and trade routes linking China and its neighbours to Africa, the Middle East and Europe centre stage, even if Gulf countries have China’s attention only because Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Oman and Kuwait are among the most important sources of oil for China.
A paper published by the European Council for Foreign Affairs suggests that “Beijing will likely struggle to maintain its neutral narrative as Chinese interests in this volatile region grow.” Much will depend of the speed and manner in which the United States draws back from the region.
China may not feel ready to strengthen its political and security presence in the region “but it may feel it has no choice in the matter,” the council’s paper stated. It is worth recalling the events of summer 2011 when China found itself with no local assets to help hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers fleeing the chaos in Libya.
Beijing remains, as this report stresses, “extremely careful not to become too involved” in supplying arms, still “believing that the United States can take responsibility for managing security in the Gulf.”
Its work with Russia on the UN Security Council to protect the Syrian regime stems, as the authors of the report stress, “from its desire to adhere to the principle of non-interference rather than its direct interests in the Syrian conflict.”
US behaviour will likely direct policy. In August, Chinese Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates Ni Jian announced that Beijing “might participate in maritime security operations in the Strait of Hormuz. Tehran had announced that China would be involved in a joint naval drill with Iran and Russia in the Sea of Oman and the northern Indian Ocean.
The Chinese have a well-established anti-piracy operation but they suggest the stakes are higher today than only a few years ago. Some Chinese are more sanguine about their country’s role, as the report explains that “the [Belt and Road Initiative] BRI not only promotes global trade and connectivity but also creates an economic system outside Washington’s control.”
The United States would no doubt oppose a stronger Chinese military presence in the region for now but China plays a long game. It is aware that a greater Chinese economic presence allows it to diversify economically and politically while the United States looks as if it is in retrenchment mode. Whatever its presence, no EU country is a match for China.
The report argues that the strict non-interference of Chinese policy “is likely to become a major weakness for China in the near future… Its lack of interest in regional politics makes Middle Eastern countries wary about its real value as a partner.” That is true but Europe’s and the United States’ disregard for the principle of non-interference has hardly provided the region with much stability.
What fascinates many Middle Eastern countries is “the Chinese model of authoritarian capitalism,” which allows Beijing the means to resist Western pressure to pursue governance reforms and human rights accountability in return for development aid.
Chinese exports of goods such as surveillance technology could reinforce authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, argue the report’s authors. This appears somewhat hypocritical as the West talks of good governance, freedom, et cetera, but never seems to put it in practice, especially in countries that are oil rich and buy a lot of weapons from Europe and the United States.
As for the Chinese model, it is sui generis invention that cannot be transplanted to oil-rich autocracies that depend on vast pools of foreign labour.
Whether China adopts more assertive policies in the MENA region only the future will tell. What is not in doubt is the country’s growing presence in the region and its wariness of getting too enmeshed in very complex political conflicts.