How long can Beijing avoid a political role?
London - As the security situation in Yemen deteriorated, China’s People’s Liberation Army rescued hundreds of Chinese citizens, and many foreigners, from the strife-torn Arab nation. It was an exercise that echoed events of four years earlier when China sent a warship to protect vessels taking its workers out of a similarly chaotic Libya.
The episodes illustrate how China’s burgeoning economic ties with the Middle East, leading hundreds of thousands of Chinese to base themselves in the region, have brought with them security implications.
While it has willingly stepped up in response to regional emergencies affecting its citizens, China has shown little sign of wanting to advance its wider political or security influence in the Middle East.
This is despite the fact that the time would appear ripe for China to strengthen its role in the Middle East. Economic ties between China and the region have expanded dramatically: trade has grown seven-fold over the past decade to about $230 billion in 2014 and is predicted to double again within five years. In 2014, more than half of China’s oil imports came from the Middle East, while manufactured goods — and small arms — move in the other direction.
The influence of the region’s traditional external power, the United States, is waning. Washington has stepped back from Iraq and in 2013 shied away from taking military action against Syria over the regime’s suspected use of chemical weapons.
Although many in the Middle East would welcome a second external security guarantor to balance Washington’s influence, China’s non-economic engagement has not extended beyond signing up members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, sending its foreign minister to the region and being at the table during the Iran nuclear negotiations. Neither Chinese President Xi Jinping nor Premier Li Keqiang have visited the Middle East since taking office more than two years ago.
Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that US President Barack Obama has pointedly accused China of being a “free rider” in the Middle East.
China’s reluctance to become a forceful political or security player in the region comes even though it is better placed than many Western nations to act as an impartial mediator of intractable issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It does not generate the resentment that weighs down the United States and leads many to see Washington as a cause, rather than a solution, of some of the region’s problems.
Perhaps Beijing feels if it did step into the breach, it would end up in the same position as Washington.
“If you moved the clock back 70 years, you could say that the US is better placed than the UK, so they could do well, but see where they are now,” says Professor Steve Tsang of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom.
China’s growth in defence spending is primarily focused on strengthening its position in the Asia-Pacific.
In the Middle East, it has developed ties to nations as diverse as Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, with the latter being a particular admirer of China’s model of economic growth without political pluralism.
Beijing’s approach of non-interference has allowed it to achieve the remarkable balancing act of forging links with Israel while not alienating the Palestinians, to whom in previous decades it supplied arms and funds.
In a region where alliances and power balances shift, and there are interstate rivalries aplenty, China realises there are dangers in becoming too close to a particular regime. In 2011, Beijing’s vetoing of sanctions that would have targeted the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad led to Chinese flags being burned by opposition forces. Recognising the risks it faces, China has more recently made greater efforts to engage with opposition groups in the region. It wants to be friends with everyone but appears keen to avoid the perception that it is throwing its weight around. “China won’t be a hegemonic power. China doesn’t want to follow the imperial pattern like the former British Empire or the US,” says Gordon Cheung, senior lecturer in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University in the United Kingdom.
There are challenges that could ultimately draw China deeper into the region in security terms. Until now it has stayed clear of the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), even though the group has backed the cause of Uighur Muslims in China’s north-western region of Xinjiang who have protested what they see as repression by Beijing.
Although exiled Uighurs have played down links with ISIS, senior Chinese officials have said hundreds of their citizens are fighting alongside the group and claimed that Uighurs have received training in Syria.
This indicates that China’s domestic security cannot be divorced from events in the Middle East, potentially pressuring Beijing to eventually deepen political and security ties.