Monday, September 1, 2014
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China’s Arab March

BEIJING – The growing bloodshed in Iraq and Syria is being watched as keenly in China as anywhere else in the world. Indeed, the greater Middle East is becoming an ever greater focus of Chinese foreign policy.

At the just-concluded sixth ministerial conference of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, held in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping called upon his Arab counterparts to upgrade their strategic relationships with China, by deepening bilateral cooperation in areas ranging from finance and energy to space technology. This reflects China’s broader goal – established partly in response to America’s “pivot” toward Asia – of rebalancing its strategic focus westward, with an emphasis on the Arab world.

Of course, economic ties between China and Arab countries have been growing stronger for more than a decade, with the trade volume increasing from $25.5 billion in 2004 to $238.9 billion in 2013. China is now the Arab world’s second-largest trading partner, and the largest trading partner for nine Arab countries. Within ten years, the volume of China-Arab trade is expected to reach $600 billion. Engineering contracts and investment have also enhanced ties.

Under Xi’s leadership, China is attempting to reshape its relationships with Arab countries according to its new “march west” strategic framework. The most notable component of this strategy is the “Silk Road economic belt,” which is to run along the ancient Central Asian Silk Road and the modern maritime Silk Road – an initiative that Xi promoted heavily at the recent meeting in Beijing.

This effort highlights China’s goal of establishing hub-and-spoke relationships with key developing economies around it. To this end, Prime Minister Li Keqiang has proposed an economic corridor linking China to Pakistan, and has spoken of other corridors running through Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar.

Unsurprisingly, energy has been a key factor in economic ties with the Arab world. From 2004 to 2013, China’s crude oil imports from Arab countries grew by more than 12% annually, on average, reaching 133 million tons per year. And China’s “march west” strategy furthers its goal of safeguarding access to these resources. As the director of the State Council’s Development Research Center, Li Wei, pointed out in February, at the current rate, China will be consuming 800 million tons of oil annually, and importing 75% of its petroleum, by 2030.

In this sense, China’s trajectory contrasts sharply with that of the United States, where the rapid growth in output of shale oil and gas, together with energy-saving measures, has brought energy independence closer than ever – a point that President Barack Obama emphasized in his most recent State of the Union address. In fact, according to the US Energy Information Administration, China surpassed the US as the world’s largest net oil importer earlier this year.

Moreover, the US is gradually disengaging strategically from the greater Middle East, creating a vacuum that China seeks to fill. To succeed, China will need to become more attentive to the region’s complex dynamics; find creative ways to participate in conflict-resolution efforts; and respond enthusiastically to Middle Eastern governments’ growing desire to connect to Asia.

Doing so would enable China’s leaders to advance their goal of developing the country’s vast inland regions. Specifically, western provinces like Ningxia and Qinghai, which have substantial Muslim communities, could benefit from deeper links with Arab economies.

Enhanced influence in the Arab world would also promote the perception of China as a leader of the developing world – a position that could boost China’s strategic and economic resilience considerably. For starters, it would enable China to capitalize on the demographic heft of the developing world, which will house more than 80% of the world’s population in 2020. Moreover, it would allow China to maximize its gains from burgeoning trade among developing economies, which surged from 8% of global trade in 1990 to 24% in 2011.

To be sure, not all Arab governments are welcoming China with open arms. Indeed, many of the Middle East’s most powerful actors – including Turkey and Saudi Arabia – are suspicious of China’s long-term intentions.

But China can take steps to gain these countries’ trust. For example, China’s leaders should work to address the unrest in the Muslim-dominated province of Xinjiang more effectively.

Clearly, China’s rising clout is no longer confined to Asia. China’s “march west” into the Arab world is a bold effort to translate its economic might into enduring regional – and, ultimately, global – influence. This is a daunting task, but it is one that can not only help to secure China’s long-term future, but perhaps bring greater weight to bear in resolving the region’s immense challenges.

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  1. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    Saudi Arabia was angry with the United States for its deal with Iran's nuclear dismantlement program; it was not angry with China because it knew well that China could not influence Iran at all. Israel and Palestine were angry with the United States because they thought that President Obama gave up on them. They were not angry with Mr. Xi because they kew that he was not up to the task at all in spite of his big mouth. The Iraqi President is asking the US Forces to come and intervene, but not China for the same reason.

    The Cooperation Forum treat the Arab leaders to gorgeous meals and wine; the Chinese leaders are happy too, like their guests, to feel with their pride tickled and boosted that they are at the center of the world if not at the center of the universe.

    Tang China had attractive things to offer that exceeded low wages, an unsatiated market and contaminated food. If China wants to be respected, it needs to behave in such a way.

  2. Commentedslightly optimistic

    Another matter for Australia's G20 agenda?
    The international community and its responsibilities.
    China says today that the government in Iraq is responsible for addressing the terrorism within the country [Reuters report]. The international community should provide it with help to maintain its security and stability. However China's foreign policy so far is non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.
    China is Iraq's largest oil client and holds more than a fifth of Iraq's oil projects. PetroChina, the single biggest investor in Iraq's oil sector, is pulling some of its staff out of the country but production was unaffected as yet, a company official said.

  3. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    The Chinese have cultivated the political skill, though China as the largest oil importer indicates that its industrial skill consumes about six times as much oil for one unit of industrial product as Japan and the United States, engulfing its neighborhood in acid rain and toxic substances, and making its citizens coughing and drinking contaminated dirty water, the frightful political skill to make it look larger than it is. Prof. Zhao's commentary is one such self-overappreciation. China is not interested at all in denuclearizing Iran and bringing peace to Israel and the Palestine; instead it has cautiously abstained from this in order not to show its weakness: It helped Pakistan's nuclear armament.
    It paid a handsome amount of money to Somalian pirates to get its hostages free, because its navy was too weak to fight the pirates. An African government wanted to extradite about five thousand Chinese who had been excavating gold without observing the law and regulations and enormously polluting the land; the Chinese government refused to take in its citizens; it said that to make the Chinese respect the law of the land was not the China's political and moral responsibility but the Africans'. Nothing of this sort was made public to the Chinese.

  4. CommentedPeter Wong

    The Chinese will have three big advantages in dealing with the Middle East; their intentions to trade and not colonize their trading partners, their policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of the host country and their ability to trade with the various countries in an equable manner.

    The track record of the U.S. has been poor in their ability to deal with the region. The instability in the area has been encouraged by many who see it as a preferred alternative to the stable and peaceful collective that can be achieved buy a strong and rational force.

    Good luck to the Chinese on this endeavor.


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