China’s New Grand Strategy for the Middle East

China’s New Grand Strategy for the Middle East

President Xi Jinping’s recent trip to the Middle East signals a willingness to revise China’s policy in the region, one that has traditionally centered on non-interference, as shown in Beijing’s reluctance last year to get involved in Syria’s humanitarian crisis. As a part of Xi’s new Middle East strategy, China is poised to abandon the sidelines and increase its involvement in the region, Gal Luft at Foreign Policy reports:

It has been a busy few weeks for Beijing’s Middle East policy. In the past several weeks, even before the al-Nimr execution, Xi has sought ways for China to inject itself into the Syrian crisis, inviting both Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem and the head of the opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), to high-level meetings in Beijing in an effort to promote peaceful resolution. Significantly, this meant departure from China’s long-held policy of supporting Bashar al-Assad. On Jan. 13, Beijing released its Arab Policy Paper, a vague but seminal document articulating China’s interests in the Middle East. After the ransacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Xi dispatched his Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Ming to both Tehran and Riyadh, urging the sides to exercise calm. Xi also rearranged his travel itinerary, replacing his planned visit to the UAE with an unexpected stop in Tehran, thus becoming the first foreign leader to set foot in Iran since the lifting of the sanctions. For balance, he brought the Saudis a consolation gift: a declaration of support for the sovereignty of Yemen’s government, whom the Saudis support in the war against Iran’s proxy.

[…] Realizing that the Middle East is too important to be left to others — and that neglecting it could run to China’s peril — China is no longer willing to sit on the sidelines and watch the region descend into chaos. China has for several months harbored a suspicion that the United States, entering an election year while drowning in domestic oil and gas supply, is not as interested in the Middle East as it has been for the past half century. (At any rate, Washington’s relations with Riyadh and Tehran are too thorny to enable it to be an honest broker.) More importantly, Russia has laid down the flag of Middle East neutrality that it carried for most of the post-Soviet era. Moscow once enjoyed equally good relations with Tehran and Riyadh. But in plunging into the civil war in Syria, Russia — despite the fact that most of its Muslim population is Sunni — entangled itself with the Shiite camp, and can no longer be trusted by the Sunnis. With the United States and Russia no longer able to hold the balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia, China, which has solid relations with both, is increasingly tempted to fill the vacuum. […] [Source]

China’s increasing role in the Middle East has implications not only for the region but also for the United States and its allies. On Xi’s trip, he also stopped in Tehran, where he signed 17 economic and technological agreements with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani. At The Diplomat, Sara Hsu asks whether China’s relations with Iran pose a threat to the West:

Maybe. China’s relations with Iran may support the latter’s military capabilities, particularly as China sells arms and transfers nuclear technology to Iran. China’s overall trade with Iran lessens the power of international sanctions. This relationship has reduced the power of sanctions and embargoes for decades, starting in 1979 when the U.S. and the West imposed arms embargoes on Iran, inducing Iran to purchase weapons from China instead. Iran acts as an important transport hub between China and Europe.

Or maybe not. Iran has curbed its nuclear program according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which means that Iran has restricted its possession of enriched uranium, limited centrifuge operations, shipped out all spent fuel reactors, and met other conditions under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. In addition, China is not the only nation Iran is attempting to openly court, now that sanctions have been lifted. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani traveled to Europe to rebuild political and economic relations in that region. Rouhani’s visit appeals to European leaders due in part to his stated commitment in fighting terrorism. Rouhani has underscored Iran’s desire to bring solidarity among all Muslims and combat discord.

[…] Whether China’s relations with Iran are a threat to the West can be viewed from different perspectives, but the real threat of violence stemming from Iran must be taken seriously. As a key stop on China’s One Belt One Road, Iran’s importance to China seems healthy, but the sales of weapons or nuclear material in particular cast a shadow over this partnership. As China becomes increasingly influential on the world stage, this relationship will likely be more deeply scrutinized. [Source]

China has also been stepping up efforts to broker peace in Afghanistan. On Tuesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry released a statement urging Kabul to bring Afghanistan’s warring factions to the negotiating table and restart peace talks with the Taliban. Edward Wong at The New York Times reports:

Chinese officials are urging the government of Afghanistan to restart peace talks with the Taliban after the last round of discussions collapsed, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has said.

The statement by China late Tuesday was a sign that its leaders were asserting their commitment to the nascent peace process despite problems after the major countries involved learned last year that a Taliban founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar, had been dead for two years. That caused a split in the Taliban ranks and raised questions among the participants in the talks.

[…] Li Yuanchao, the Chinese vice president, and Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, met in Beijing on Tuesday with Salahuddin Rabbani, the Afghan foreign minister.

Afterward, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced: “Wang Yi said that as a peaceful mediator of the Afghan issue, China supports the ‘Afghan-led and Afghan-owned’ reconciliation process. China appreciates the move by the Afghan government to restart the negotiations with the Taliban.”

The announcement said this was “the right approach to achieve long-term stability in Afghanistan.” [Source]

Last year, an Afghan peace envoy met with former Taliban officials in Xinjiang to discuss the possibility of a peace process. The Taliban subsequently denied participating in the meeting.

For more on Beijing’s strategic engagement with countries in Central Asia and the Middle East, see prior coverage via CDT.


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