Beijing is increasingly stepping up its foreign policy. Its leverages in different parts of the world are also growing. The Middle East is one of the regions evoking interests in this respect. China is pursuing a multi-pronged policy in that part of the world and experts agree that there is a particular substance to it. Notable features of Beijing’s geopolitical strategy can be identified from the angle of key elements of that policy. New undertones observed in that direction constitute a particular interest.
“Four modernizations”: transition to new diplomacy
China does not just amaze the world but also provokes some thoughts. Substance of its policies is being scrutinized. The process initiated in the 1970s, was commenced by elaboration of new, largely economic model called “four modernizations”. China’s diplomacy was to be overhauled if new geopolitical, economic, military and cultural objectives identified were to be attained.
Experts described it as the “reserved diplomacy”. Essence of this diplomacy emanates from China’s cultural-political tradition. Its key objective is “to limit the geopolitical influence of external powers from a given region through expansion of own geopolitical clout”.
Main principal is non-meddling into domestic affairs of every nation and non-deterrence of others aiming to influence the region. Experts figuratively describe such diplomacy as “silent and soft” (see: Eyup Ersoy. Cin Dis Politikasinda Ortadogu: Temki Diplomasisi Uzerine Bir Inceleme / Uluslararasi Stratejik Arastirmalar Kurumu (USAK), “Uluslararasi Hukur ve Politika”, 2012, Vol. 8, Edit. 31, pp. 37-55). This line of its foreign policy was fully initiated in the 1990s, due to China becoming a major energy importer. To satisfy its needs the country sought to establish closer ties with the regions it previously was not interested in.
The Middle East was one of those. Contact with this region dates back to the establishment of diplomatic ties with Egypt in 1956, followed by Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Saudi Arabia became equally important. Libya held a special significance which led to China losing hefty, $18.5 billion worth of investments, after the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi. Experts argue that for Beijing this was a lesson well-learnt (see: Сергей Лузянин. Политика Китая на Ближнем Востоке: «накормить волков и сохранить овец», 12 December 2012).
Chinese vision of the Israel factor is also interesting. Beijing established diplomatic ties with this nation in 1992, while also closely cooperating with the Palestinians. China advocated the Palestinian cause in the UN. It was not until serious intervention by Washington that the process slowed down (see: Eyup Ersoy. Previous publication. p. 48). Other than that, Tel-Aviv has failed on its obligations to supply Beijing with weapons system in 2000-2006.
China’s relations with the Arab nations, as well as Iran and Turkey, in the field of energy and economy are successfully developing. If the countries of the Middle East were satisfying 38.7% of China’s energy needs in 2007, in 2010 this figure hit 47%, followed by a drop to 30% in 2012. That very year however, China’s trade turnover with eighteen Arab nations reached $200 billion (see: Eyup Ersoy. Same source, p. 46).
In this context, China-Iran relations have to be viewed separately. In 2007-2009 China has signed total of $3.76 billion worth of oil and gas deals with Iran. Today, the supplies from Iran account for 14% of its energy needs. Chinese auto manufacturer “Chery” established its first overseas subsidiary in Iran. Two countries currently experience growing energy cooperation, despite Washington’s pressure. Nonetheless, the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described China’s position on Iran’s nuclear program as constructive, during his February visit to Beijing. Still, he urged the substance of China-Iran relations be changed.
Strategic competition in the Middle East: Beijing breaking the “silence”?
According to the experts, this recommendation by the U.S. fell on Beijing’s deaf ears because “China’s support of Iran is a key component of the strategic U.S.-China rivalry in the Middle East” (see: Николай Бобкин. Иран и Китай: в основе дружественных отношений прагматизм / «Новое Восточное Обозрение», 21 February 2014).
Military field constitutes another interesting aspect of the Chinese Middle East policy. Saudi Arabia and Israel are the ones with whom Beijing cooperates more. Iraq, Syria and Qatar have been the additions of the recent years. And let’s not forget the deal on Turkish acquisition of missile systems from China. Ankara is determined on this issue despite the opposition from NATO.
These are some principal aspects of China’s Middle East policy. Chinese approach to the region and more broadly, in the context of Western Asia and Northern Africa, is noteworthy. The primary objective is to systematically secure the economic as well geopolitical interests of the nation throughout vast spaces. Initially China was focused on economic and military areas but in recent years social-cultural component received greater attention. China’s successes in disseminating its language and culture are well acknowledged.
In general, China’s Middle East policy is “reserved” but not “creative” (see: Eyup Ersoy. Previous source. p. 53); this means Beijing is not setting the tone of the geopolitical processes. For now, it prefers to remain a “nonpartisan party” by non-meddling into internal affairs of the regional states. Nevertheless, new situation is emerging in the region and Beijing is facing certain foreign policy constraints. Experts highlight the differences in the foreign policy of the U.S., Russia and China in this particular light.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel describes the substance of Washington’s Middle East policy “as shaping the course of the processes” (see: Наташа Мозговая. США, Китай, Россия – три разных взгляда на Ближний Восток / «Голос Америки», 10 May 2013). Thus, America is trying to shape the overall geopolitical landscape of the region and is driven by the objective of maintaining control over the change dynamics.
According to the experts, Russia’s policy in that region is rather controversial. Alexander Shumilin, Director of the Middle Eastern conflicts Center of the U.S. and Canada Institute of the Russian Academy of Scienses, believes that “…especially on Iran and Syria issues, Moscow’s actions are beyond understanding. On one hand, Russia seeks cooperation with Iran in the economic, energy and other fields, but on the other hand, it rejects nuclear-armed Iran. The same situation is with Israel. Moscow abolishes visa regime with this country and yet votes against this nation in the UN (see: previous source).
Professor Vu Bingbing of the Beijing University insists that unlike the U.S. and Russia, China has no intentions of impacting any processes in the Middle East (see: previous source). That being said, Beijing buttresses Syria in the UN, continues cooperation with Iran and advocates Palestine. On top of that, this country aims to broaden the ties with all the states in the region in every field. Apparently, albeit not backed by rhetoric, China is increasingly attempting to protect its geopolitical interests in the region. And there are specific reasons for that.
The point is that in the recent years the U.S. been busy trying the “geopolitical encirclement” of China. The Middle East occupies a special place in this process. It is not accidental that Washington pressures every nation of the region that cooperates with China. This is obvious, if geography of the conflicts in the region is taken into account. And that is why it is difficult to predict how much longer China would exercise the “silent, soft and reserved policy”.