China moves slowly into the Middle East
A forum was organized last week in Beijing by Tsinghua University, under the title “Constructing a security community: Equality, equity and justice.” There were four plenaries and 26 panels dealing with a wide range of security issues. When the subject is security, the Middle East comes automatically to the forefront. As the former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party, Yasar Yakish writes in the article China moves slowly into the Middle East for Arab News, despite every effort by China to be as open and peaceful as possible, any move by it, no matter how insignificant, is enough to startle many countries worldwide.
Last year, it built a support base in Djibouti on an area of 0.5 sq km, staffed by some 300 personnel. At the forum, American participants insistently referred to it as a military base, while the Chinese hosts said it was a supply facility within the framework of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Japan and the US also operate bases on the southern outskirts of Djibouti. While these bases do not cause any international objections, China’s presence creates sensitivity because of the country’s size.
The Belt and Road Initiative of Chinese President Xi Jinping interests almost every country in Eurasia. China has extended credit to many countries’ governments to construct infrastructure that will complement the project. China needs both raw and semi-manufactured materials for its industries, and markets for its agricultural and industrial products. The US is China’s biggest market with 18 percent of its exports, and its third-biggest supplier with 8.5 percent. It is likely to remain the biggest trade partner. Nonetheless, China wants to increase and diversify its trade relations with countries in Africa and Eurasia.
It is penetrating Africa much to the discontent of former colonial countries. China will be able to source many raw materials from Africa, and semi-manufactured goods from Eurasia. The Belt and Road Initiative is important for this reason, and profitable for both China and target countries.
China is closely interested in Middle East developments because of the country’s almost insatiable need for oil. The division between the region’s Sunni and Shiite blocs has forced the US to take the side of the group opposing Iran. This has created opportunities for Beijing, which has no problems with any country in the region. A $10.7 billion refinery is being built in Oman with Chinese capital. China is interested in improving the Suez Canal and the possible construction of a second canal there. In Israel, it is investing in ports and railways; this cooperation helps two high-tech countries to further their technological advances over others. China is Iran’s biggest trade partner; with US President Donald Trump’s revocation of the Iran nuclear deal, Chinese-Iranian trade has jumped from $31 billion to $37 billion.
China is nowhere close to dislodging the US from the Middle East as the main arms supplier, but it is penetrating the region steadily, beginning with drones and other weapons that are not particularly sophisticated.
If Iran is admitted to the Shanghai Cooperation Council as a full member, from its present status as an observer, China’s Middle East footprint will deepen. So far, Beijing has remained neutral by abstaining in UN Security Council votes regarding regional conflicts, but it may not be possible to maintain neutrality when its involvement deepens.
Trump seems eager to withdraw from the Syrian crisis, but the “deep state” in the US is reluctant to do so for fear of Iran becoming more deeply entrenched in Syria. Russia is already very much present in Syria. In such a complicated scenario, China is using its traditional cautious approach to penetrate the region steadily without military involvement, because that would startle many countries. China’s unstoppable penetration in various regions, including the Middle East, will certainly affect power balances.