Staying in Neutral: China’s Middle East Policy Problem

Beijing (photo: Trey Ratcliff)
Beijing from above (photo: Trey Ratcliff)

David Hartwell is a Middle East political, military and security expert, and Director and Managing Editor at Middle East Insider. He tweets: @DaveHartwell1

China may well be one the five permanent members of the Security Council with substantial energy and economic interests in the Middle East, but its cautious, arms-length approach to the region will continue to hinder its ability to increase its influence there.

Indeed, despite its economic interests in the Middle East, Beijing has never really suggested that it wants to play anything more than the role of ‘interested observer’ to the region’s problems.

Beijing’s interests

On the face of it, China has good reason to care about what happens in the Middle East. Approximately half of the country’s oil imports come from the Gulf and Beijing has recurrently expressed concerns that the activities of Islamist extremists provide inspiration to Muslim Uighur separatists in China’s western Xinjiang autonomous region.

On the first of these concerns, Beijing has so far managed to walk a tightrope that balances energy relationships with Iran and Saudi Arabia. The relationship with Saudi Arabia is especially dependent. Chinese consumption is expected to account for around 11% of global oil consumption in 2015, according to industry experts. Saudi Arabia will provide the bulk of this, outstripping competition from Russia, Iran and Angola. Yet there are concerns that the Chinese economy may be slowing – real-term GDP growth will remain steady in 2015 and oil demand will be the weakest since 2009, according to the International Energy Agency. This will hang over the Saudi-China relationship in the near future, even as Riyadh seeks to corner more Chinese demand to soak up its continued high level of oil production.

Despite these potential problems, China values the stability provided by Saudi supply in the same way the United States does. This is despite the fact that one of Riyadh’s primary rationales for maintaining its high production level is to place pressure on US shale gas producers. Beijing is unlikely to want to swap Saudi stability for perhaps more uncertain, albeit cheaper, supply from somewhere like post-sanctions Iran. Saudi political and economic stability will therefore remain of huge interest to China, but Beijing will not seek to interfere politically as long as its energy and economic interests remain strong.

As a consequence, potential Iranian attempts to try to recover from the impact of sanctions by selling cheaper oil and gas to China may well be scuppered by Beijing’s dependence on Saudi and the tempering effect of potentially slower economic growth in the future.

On the second of these concerns, China’s view that the Uighur separatist threat is largely an internal issue continues to drive its government policy. Of course the risk that the tactics and ideology deployed by Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) may inspire the Uighurs remains a major security concern.

Suicide bomb attacks have become a major component of the Uighur campaign, replicating tactics used by groups in Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, Beijing has historically shown a greater interest in the activities of Afghan and Pakistani insurgents due to their relative proximity to China and the greater likelihood of cross-contamination of tactics and strategy.

Choosing sides

The over-riding problem in Beijing’s approach to the Middle East is that it does not appear to want to choose a side in an area of the world where successful diplomacy frequently demands this be done. Moreover, the effort to maintain an ‘even-handed’ Middle East policy frequently means that Beijing is perceived by those states that have ‘chosen a side’ as being an unhelpful influence.

This risk-averse strategy has resulted in China being a largely passive actor on many of the region’s critical security issues. On the issue of the Iranian nuclear programme, Beijing’s position mirrors Moscow’s. It has no desire to see Tehran develop a military nuclear capability but has no major problem with its civilian nuclear ambitions, not least as this could lead to the development of a deeper technological and economic relationship with the Islamic Republic. The problem is that China is widely seen by opponents of a nuclear Iran as the most likely source of finance and credit for Tehran in the event sanctions are removed, a perception that undermines Beijing’s attempts to appear non-partisan.

On the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, China is non-committal. Beijing still adheres to its traditional support for national self-determination movements dating back to the foundation of the People’s Republic, meaning its sympathies lie overwhelmingly with the Palestinians. But like Russia, it does not want to get involved in the messy reality of trying to resolve the conflict. This may be borne of a realisation that it has little constructive to offer or lacks sufficient influence, especially with the Palestinians, but Beijing’s overriding sense of disinterest remains palpable.

China is also absent from international efforts to combat IS (and Al-Qaeda). While its desire not to become involved in the Iraq-Syria quagmire is perhaps understandable, China’s policy to support Russia in blocking UN resolutions that criticise the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has once again led to it being viewed as an unhelpful player by Assad’s regional opponents.

To counter this perception, Beijing has hosted gatherings of Syrian opposition groups and sent envoys to Damascus, but these initiatives have not removed the impression that these are token efforts that do not amount to a substantial policy.

Furthermore, unlike Russia, China is not able to use substantial arms exports to the region to leverage influence. Although China’s defence exports surged by 143% between 2010 and 2014, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the vast majority of these were to its neighbours in Asia or to Pakistan, by far its biggest arms customer. China is in the top 10 of arms suppliers to the Middle East, but does not sell in nearly enough volume to any wouldbe strategic partners to be able to spread its influence through successful defence diplomacy.

Beijing’s rationale

China’s traditional policy of non-interference in the affairs of other states remains a central foreign policy tenet and Beijing may well be more comfortable resolving issues of national interest on a case-by-case basis.

But equally, the demands of holding a superpower status could be seen to dictate a more proactive stance on all of these issues. Even Russia, which largely dissociated itself from Middle East diplomacy after 1991, has re-engaged with the region in recent years, partly out of concerns of US unipolarity and partly because Moscow has again acknowledged that it must at least retain a diplomatic foothold in the region if it is to still be seen as a global power.

China is still averse to such pressure, leading to accusations that it is happy to reap the regional stability benefits secured by others.

The Chinese “have been free riders for the past 30 years [in the Middle East] and it’s worked really well for them”, US President Barack Obama said in August 2014, expressing an opinion few observers would find it hard to disagree with. Beijing would suggest that 30 years of US ‘interference’ in the region has not exactly delivered lasting stability, and in any case, Chinese policy has at least remained consistent and predictable.

Its critics may argue that China is a free riding superpower when it comes to the Middle East. However, as long as the senior leadership in Beijing believes there is little to be gained by assuming a more proactive policy of engagement towards the region and as long as it can continue to deal with issues on a largely bilateral rather than a multilateral basis, there is little reason to think policy will change in the foreseeable future.

This piece originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Middle East Insider.

PS21 is a non-governmental, non-national, non-ideological organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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