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.