China and the Middle East, Working Group Meeting II

On October 4 and 5, 2015, CIRS held a second working group meeting under its research project on "China and the Middle East." Contributors were assembled to receive critical feedback and commentary on the draft chapters that they had written on range of topics, including amongst other things, the nature of Chinese foreign policy interests in the region, China’s increasing security engagements in the Middle East, the applicability of the “Chinese Model” to Middle Eastern states, and China’s role in the Iranian nuclear deal negotiations. Case studies were also presented on Israel’s role in the development of Taiwan’s military and defense capabilities, on the Sino-Saudi relationship and on Sino-Turkish relations.

Chinese policy makers tend to view the world through four concentric geographic circles, and rank countries in order of importance to Chinese interests based on their proximity to China. Accordingly, China’s primary attention is devoted to ensuring the security of its domestic realm and sovereign territory, followed by prioritizing relations with those countries that press upon its immediate land and sea borders. Subsequent Chinese foreign policy engagement is more or less active depending on whether or not a state is located close or far to its immediate periphery. Within this analysis, the location of the Middle East may not make it one of the most critical regions drawing Chinese commitment and attention. Yet, for a number of reasons in spite of its somewhat geographic remoteness from the Chinese borders, the Middle East is growing in importance to China. One of the reasons for this is that, in the Chinese imagination, the Middle East is in fact an extension of the Chinese periphery, and particularly if seen through the lens of its cultural and historical connectivity to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. Central Asia and its neighborhood certainly falls into China’s direct realm of hegemony and fundamental interest. Additionally, internal discussions in China on the spillover and impact of extremism and terrorism that may threaten China’s domestic security, Chinese scholars and analysts clearly identify linkages with the Middle East. The Middle East is also increasingly central to China as a source of energy, and Chinese economic investments in the region have been growing exponentially over the past decade.

Despite the growing importance of the Middle East, China continues to demonstrate a reluctance to step outside the parameters of its traditional role in the region, or to change its standard policy line of offending no one, maintaining or attempting to maintain cordial relations with everyone, and avoiding direct conflict or confrontation with any of the states in the region. Working Group participants discussed the obvious mismatch between Chinese interests in the region and China’s efforts to protect those interests, and suggested that in the Middle East China punches below its weight. However, despite the fact that we see no obvious signs of China taking on a stronger military presence in the Middle East, there are indications that Chinese security-related activities are expanding. Amongst other things, Chinese peacekeeping forces have been deployed in the Middle East, combat fleets have been active in the Gulf of Aden, and China has also taken part in joint military exercises. In addition, with the growing presence of Chinese economic investments and infrastructural projects the security of Chinese citizens has become of paramount concern and there are now several Chinese private security contractors operating across several Middle Eastern states.

China also appears to be seeking to develop more robust partnerships within the Middle East and has expanded its diplomatic efforts in the region. A case in point is the initiative shown by Beijing in terms of playing a key role in mediating Iran’s nuclear settlement with the West. China has a long standing history with Iran, and has carefully cultivated this relationship as it sees Iran as one of the pivotal countries in the Persian Gulf sure to play a leading role in the years ahead. At the same time, Chinese engagements in the Middle East are clearly informed by the necessity of avoiding antagonizing the United States or of being perceived as adopting a position contrary to American interests in the region. Up until 2013 in relation to the nuclear issue China adopted a policy of trying to keep both the United States and Iran happy, however post 2013 Beijing adopted a much more proactive role in bringing about some resolution to the ongoing hostility between Iran and the West. Amongst other factors propelling this change in direction were China’s strategic calculations in maintaining stability of Persian Gulf energy supplies, an increasing wariness in China around the possibility of a full scale militarized conflict between the United States and Iran, as well as the ascension of Xi Jinping to the Chinese Presidency and the impact this has had on China’s global engagements.

During the Working Group scholars also discussed the applicability of the “China Model” of political and economic governance to the context of the Middle East. It was suggested that despite the similar authoritarian and state-centric modes of governance visible in China and most of the Middle East, the Chinese Model cannot be easily replicated in the region primarily because of the lack of state capacity, weak institutional structures, and also the very different economic preconditions existing in Middle Eastern states as compared to China. While the China Model of developmentalism may remain appealing to Middle Eastern elites as an ideal type, the necessary requirements for establishing it are lacking in the Middle East.

Working Group participants also presented select case studies on the historical evolution of Taiwanese-Israeli military cooperation, how Islam has informed the Sino-Saudi relationship, and the changing dimensions of Turkey’s relations with China. While Israel has publicly prioritized its relationship with the PRC, it has also actively engaged in working with Taiwan over the decades on developing Taiwanese defense systems, often through private or backdoor engagements. Although Israel has been a provider of both arms and technology  to Taiwan, its key contribution has perhaps been in the provision of “software” in the shape of the expertise and knowledge of Israeli scientists  who worked actively to develop Taiwanese military capacity.

While the Sino-Turkish relationship has not always been an easy one, at the current juncture both countries consider the other to be a strategic partner with whom they must work. Both states have serious economic incentives which propel them to cooperate, despite the fact that politically they have very different views of the Middle East. Turkey has long been a close ally to the United States and NATO member states, and also has a self-perception as a “civilizational” power in the Middle East and Asia. Turkey considers itself to be a normative regional model for  the Middle East, and adopts an agenda for supporting reform across the region. For China it is current quite critical that it inoculate itself from international criticism on how it is managing the Uighur issue, and in this context the relationship with Turkey becomes quite critical. China and Turkey are placing considerable effort in developing their bilateral relationship, albeit primarily fixed in economic cooperation, and showing considerable restraint in terms of avoiding any confrontation on the political or foreign policy front.

Saudi Arabia continues to be one of China’s most important relationships in the Middle East. Existing academic scholarship on the Sino-Saudi relationship tends to focus on the economic and strategic underpinnings of this relationship, quite naturally so given that the Kingdom is a pivotal energy provider to China. Invariably some of these works also address the role that Islam has played in China’s engagements with Saudi Arabia, particularly from the perspective of the state. The Working Group concluded with a broader discussion examining “Islamic connectivities” that have historically existed and have informed the Sino-Saudi relationship. Group discussion touched upon the role of various non-state actors and groups, including Islamic missionaries in Chine and the ways in which Islamic symbols are employed and utilized by the two states. 

Article by Zahra Babar, CIRS Associate Director for Research