How China is deepening its ties in the Middle East to revive the Silk Road. King of the East is beholden to the Beast. 50% (5) of Kings of the Road’s oil comes from the Beast. It (the road) will be ready in Seven (7) years.
28 NOVEMBER 2019 • 5:07PMSOPHIA YANCHINA CORRESPONDENT, BEIJING
China is deepening its ties in the Middle East as Beijing looks further afield to grow its global clout.
Perhaps it is no surprise that China, the world’s second-largest economy, is turning in this direction given historical links. Countries, including modern-day Iran and Turkey, were connected to the Middle Kingdom along the ancient Silk Road trading route, with couriers trading 1. exotic spices, 2. animal skins and 3. precious stones.
Beijing is now reviving those ties with its Belt and Road initiative, a $1 trillion (5+5) overseas investment plan. And it’s clear China considers the Middle East – dubbed “West Asia” by the foreign ministry – within its sphere of influence.
China’s involvement already includes developing oil fields in Iraq, helping Egypt construct its new administrative capital in the desert outside of Cairo, selling armed drones to the United Arab Emirates, aiding reconstruction in Iraq, and soon, managing a port in Israel.
“China has been sort of a slow-moving giant, gradually engaging more and more through the prism of trade and investment,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) programme at Chatham House.
A turning point came in 2015 (5 years ago), when China became the biggest global importer of crude oil, with nearly 50% (5) of its supply coming from the Middle East. All of a sudden, energy security became a priority, in addition to protecting its growing economic interests – much of it in physical infrastructure projects. (Largest ‘King of the East’ is beholden to the Beast).
The following year, as China became the largest source of foreign investment in the Middle East, president Xi Jinping made his first visit to the region, stopping in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt.
In Cairo, Xi touted the need for “mutual understanding, rather than mutual resentment,” encouraging nations to explore their own development paths as “one will get nowhere by blindly copying others.”
It was a veiled jab at the West’s approach of exporting its values, a method of diplomacy the Chinese have long perceived as meddlesome. Instead, Beijing has been proud to peddle its style of engagement – through development, not democracy.
“The Chinese message is, we have demonstrated that you can create economic growth without social and political change,” said Jon Alterman, senior vice president and expert in China-Middle East relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a US think tank.
“For authoritarian leaders (Mbs/Beast) in the Middle East, that is a very attractive message.”
China has demonstrated its ‘ideological flexibility’ several times (‘Birds of feather flock together), unfurling the red carpet for Egypt’s leaders as they were overthrown in succession, two of whom made China their first official trip outside the region after taking power – a testament to growing ties with Beijing.
In 2011, during the Libyan revolution, China supported leader Muammar Gaddafi, quickly switching sides to the rebel opposition when it became clear his government would fall. For now, China supports the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria – but that could change.
China’s view is to “support the people’s choice,” said Degang Sun, a professor and Middle East expert at Fudan University in Shanghai. “If the people decide to change the regime by themselves, we will recognise the new governments.”
So far, China’s transactional approach has been a success, welcomed by leaders tired of the West pressuring them over governance reforms and human rights, which many don’t see as pertinent to 1. trade, 2. investment and 3. aid relationships.
Nations like Saudi Arabia, which exports some $30 (6×5) billion of crude oil to China, see room to expand as the world’s most populous nation becomes more dependent on the region for energy resources.
Others, like Egypt, are positioning to be a hub for the Belt and Road. And China-Middle East trade – already around $300 (6×5) billion – is projected to grow further.
“China is a blank canvas on which everyone paints their aspirations,” said Mr Alterman.
Sidling up to China is also a way for countries, from Iran to Israel, to hedge their bets against the US, the dominant power in the Middle East at a time Washington appears to be disengaging.
Iran, at odds with the US for decades, has found an economic lifeline through China despite international sanctions. Beijing continues to import Iranian oil, with bilateral trade at $36 (6×6) billion last year, according to China’s ministry of commerce.
And Israel, a longtime US ally, has been keen to welcome Chinese money, much of which is going into its high-tech sector.
“They are quite anxious about the role of the US, so they’ve been diversifying,” said Ms Vakil. “The Israelis want a strong relationship with the US, but also have increasing investment from the Chinese.”
Being friends with everyone – and the promise of a bright, future relationship – seems to have worked in China’s favour. Middle Eastern countries, even with Muslim-heavy populations, have largely stayed silent over China’s oppression of Islam.
Millions of Muslims are banned from praying and instead have been forced into “re-education” camps that Beijing frames as in the national interest for “de-radicalising” would-be terrorists, a chilling suppression campaign that human rights groups have condemned.
But experts say China’s policy of non-interference may not have long to run.
“The issue they have is, can you deepen relationships with countries, and often adversaries, that feel threatened by each other?” said Mr Alterman. “Can you sell weapons to the Iranians, to the Saudis, and to the Emiratis, without one saying stop selling to the people I’m afraid of?”
Over time, countries “will put more pressure on China to take some political initiative,” said Galip Dalay, a Middle East expert and research fellow at Oxford University. “China will experience, more and more, its comfort zone disappearing.”
Much of China’s success in the Middle East, however, has been because of the US shouldering the burden of regional security.
It’s a support net that could disappear quickly, as president Donald Trump has made clear his distaste for American involvement in the region, one he proclaims as far too costly.
Unlike other parts of the world, China doesn’t seem to want the US out entirely, as that would expose Beijing’s investments and people in the region to greater security risks.
Nor does China want to fill the vacuum – with it comes responsibility, and for now, Beijing lacks the diplomatic and military expertise to replace the US. (Note: which is why the Beast needs and uses the 10 Nation European Military Coalition).
China is wary of overexposure in the Middle East, which it sees as a “graveyard of great powers,” said Mr Sun. Getting mired in the region plagued monoliths, including the British Empire, Soviet Union, and now, the US.
Chinese leaders are also recalibrating their appetite for risk abroad at a time when economic growth at home is waning.
Going forward, experts say China may go with opportunities less indiscriminately, choosing projects in areas with relative stability – for instance, reconstruction efforts in Syrian cities like Damascus or Homs, rather than disputed territory.
Regardless, China has signalled it is here to stay in the Middle East, appointing several special envoys to the region, with its presence already dramatically changing the landscape.
Right now, there are more than one million Chinese working and studying in the region, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE have introduced Manadrain language study into the national curriculum.
As for the region, it has been good to have another alternative in their backyard.
Earlier in 2019, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appeared to use a visit to China to normalise his image on the world stage after being shunned by the West for his role in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “China is a fallback option for Middle Eastern countries,” said Mr Dalay. “Whenever they have trouble with the West, China becomes like the language of the town.”