Western dominance on the global stage is coming to an end – we are now entering the era of Chinese influence
China’s economic relations with the Middle East are on a long-term upward trend. Beijing is the region’s largest foreign business partner, now surpassing the US in oil purchases. In the five years leading up to 2009 trade tripled, reaching $115bn
Donald Trump’s inauguration has been described as symbolising the end of the “American Century”. Historians may look back on 2016-17 as the years in which the two greatest forces sweeping the world – the anti-establishment backlash in the West, and the resurgence of Asia – combined to thrust China into a global leadership role. This was seen at Davos, in Beijing’s recent foray into the world’s most contentious conflict – Israel-Palestine – and most recently in Theresa May’s statement that the US and UK will never again invade sovereign countries to “remake the world in their own image”. This suggests that it might not be just a century of American dominance that’s ending, but half a millennia of Western pre-eminence.
President Xi Jinping’s call for the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital occurred just as the Trump White House began early talks over moving America’s embassy in Israel to the disputed city. This is part of China’s conversion of economic weight into diplomatic and geopolitical assertiveness in the Middle East over the last few years.
China’s economic relations with the region are on a long-term upward trend. Beijing is the region’s largest foreign business partner, now surpassing the US in oil purchases. In the five years leading up to 2009 trade tripled, reaching $115bn.
China has begun translating this into strategic influence. In 2008-2009, Beijing sent naval vessels to the region, an action referred to as its “biggest naval expedition since the 15th century”. China has embarked on strategic partnerships with traditional US allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In addition to Saudi Arabia traditionally being China’s top source of oil, Beijing has convinced Riyadh to engage its “One Belt, One Road” initiative and attracted it to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. In 2016, the two countries unveiled a five-year plan for Saudi Arabia-China security cooperation. Riyadh also expressed interest in Chinese defence technology.
China’s growing footprint is in part possible due to some of the forces that brought President Trump and Prime Minister May to power. Firstly, Western publics are beyond fatigued by over a decade of war and intervention in the Middle East – much of which was supported by the same Republicans within Washington’s foreign policy establishment that had declared they wouldn’t work with Trump, and the same Labour MPs who sought to overthrow Jeremy Corbyn. Despite Trump’s tough-on-terror talk, the public gravitated to the same anti-regime change positions that were popular with Bernie Sanders supporters. May herself has observed this mood and adjusted her position accordingly. This is combined with a reduction of the US and Britain’s relative power in the region.
Additionally, Washington is less dependent on energy from the region. This is combined with Middle Eastern states themselves reaching out to diversify their strategic partnerships in an increasingly multipolar world. This includes US allies like the Gulf States, as well as those who feel threatened by the West, like Iran.
Beijing’s Trump Cards
China has several advantages in the region. Firstly, Beijing mirrors Western public opinion by taking a non-interventionist approach to issues like democracy and human rights. This of course sits well with rulers in the Middle East. China has asserted its view that Middle Eastern countries and their people should be able to decide their own path to development in accordance with “national conditions”. In the past, President Xi has expressed China’s support for Saudi Arabia choosing its own development path. In Qatar, Beijing differentiated itself from the West, pledging to support Doha on issues of national independence, sovereignty, stability, security and territorial integrity. This was received well during a visit to Beijing by Qatar’s Emir who reportedly voiced his “appreciation for China’s impartial stand on international affairs”.
Secondly, unlike the US, China is not bound by well-known and entrenched alliances and animosities. It is obvious who the US supports in the Middle East and who its rivals are. With Beijing there is more flexibility. Shrewd foreign policy advisors in Beijing will be advising President Xi to use China’s burgeoning ties with the Gulf States and Israel to leverage relations with Iran and vice versa.
For instance, China has held positions on Syria and Libya inimical to those of its new partners in the Gulf. In addition to Damascus being a long-time buyer of weapons from China, Beijing has also made clear its support for Moscow’s intervention. China and Russia have consistently worked together to provide diplomatic protection to the Syrian government via vetoes at the UN. Some sources also reported Chinese military advisers being dispatched to Syria and Beijing providing training support to the Syrian army.
While maintaining its tendency to take a soft-spoken approach, Beijing hosted both senior Assad government and opposition figures. In a purposely symbolic move, during the China visit, the Syrian Foreign Minister confirmed the government’s willingness to participate in the peace process. Beyond Middle Eastern states, China’s position on Syria provides it negotiating power with both the West and Russia. Similarly, Beijing’s Palestine announcement allows it to extract more from Israel.
China primarily sees the region as a source of energy. It is also a continuation of the trade routes it seeks to secure from East Asia, through the Indian Ocean, to the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
The ability to influence the Middle East is also important to great/rising powers like America, China and India in order to disrupt and deny energy to potential adversaries. Greater Chinese involvement will give Beijing some potential leverage over the energy supplies of adversaries like Japan, and potential competitors like India. Beijing’s pursuit of closer ties with Middle Eastern states as part of its “Maritime Silk Road” initiative adds to India’s fears of encirclement by a Chinese “string of pearls”.
Beijing also prioritises stability in the region more consistently than Washington. Recent conflicts cost China. The toppling of Gaddafi in Libya led to losses in energy investments, infrastructure and equipment, as well as evacuation costs. With regard to Syria, Beijing had to abandon its oil investments in 2013 due to the war.
As one of the main theatres for geopolitical competition between great powers, China’s growing strategic role in the Middle East is another step toward what many in the country see as its own “manifest destiny”. This rising Asian power, free of colonial baggage in the region, adds a new ingredient that could help untangle seemingly intractable issues like Israel-Palestine. Furthermore, with its steadfast principle of respecting sovereignty, China’s increasingly loud and distinctive voice in the Middle East may indeed be the final nail in the coffin of Western interventionism.
Sources: Dr Kadira Pethiyagoda is a visiting fellow with the Brookings Institution researching Asia-Middle East relations – independent.co.uk
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