By Sidra Tariq Jamil
Lahore, October 5 (newsin.asia): Barack Obama, predecessor of incumbent US President Donald Trump, focused on Asia. The Obama administration referred to this as the Pivot to Asia policy. Trump, however, has other priorities and is focusing on giving China a tough time in the economic field. However, the weaknesses of the US administration have provided China with opportunities to expand its economic and geostrategic interests across Asia including the Middle East.
Some say that the presence of American forces in Asia under the Pivot to Asia policy has enabled China to expand its interests in the Middle East. The strategy of engagement China follows is to focus on economic development and soft pedal the strategic and political aspect.
‘The 2018 China- Arab State Cooperation Forum’ reflected this trend. Taking the opportunity provided by this forum, China took existing partnerships with the Middle Eastern countries to a new level. It started considering them strategic partnerships in line with partnerships with some of its traditional partners.
China’s Middle East initiative is backed with a US$ 3 billion consortium negotiated between Chinese and Middle Eastern financial institutions. They aim to partner in the fields of clean and nuclear energy, oil and gas, and technology transfer initiatives to enhance the capabilities of the Middle Eastern manufacturing sector.
In recent years, China and the Middle Eastern countries have expanded their cooperation to include defense too. China sees the Middle East as a tempting opportunity, which if handled in a timely and strategic manner, will secure large financial gains.
Good relations between China and the wealthy Middle Eastern countries have risen to a high level. The Middle Eastern countries are initiating cultural and linguistic programs to fortify these relations.
The olive branch China being held out to the wealthy states benefits China in many ways. Primarily, it is Middle Eastern support for the Chinese stance on the Uyghur Muslims. This self-protective and defensive policy of Middle Eastern countries and of some “all-weather friends” of China have surprised and dismayed Western regimes.
Chinese projects in the Middle Eastern states are attuned to geostrategic and geopolitical interests. Saudi Arabia, which enjoys a significant position in international relations, is China’s main trading partner in West Asia. The Saudis are leveraging China for building infrastructure and oil refineries. These refineries ensure a continuous supply of oil to China and other clients. This is a mutually beneficial relationship. The Saudi Kingdom has also shown interest in expanding partnership with China in the field of petrochemicals.
Next in line is the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Here again, China tops the list of UAE’s trading partners. In the UAE, China plans to restructure its shipping and logistics facilities. Chinese interest in the port and shipping industries in the UAE stems from the fact that the port state is an entrepôt for Chinese traders seeking to enter overseas markets. UAE sees the Chinese interest as an opportunity to build a robust trading partnership with China.
Both believe that trade interest should go beyond oil-based partnerships. China calls its relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
After these two heavyweights comes Egypt. Egypt has gained attention because China is concerned about the safety of transit via the Suez Canal. Just to ensure the safety of this trade route, China has given billions of dollars to Egypt. Other than ensuring the trade route, China is investing in building infrastructure in Egypt’s capital-Cairo-which certainly is a soft asset for China.
The development of a port in the Red Sea and the building of industrial zones in Ain Sokhna are also among China’s priorities in Egypt.
Next in the Middle Eastern region is Israel – a tiny country but a mighty power in the region. After America’s discomfort over Chinese defense cooperation with Israel, the later has expanded its commercial interest with China. Israel and China are now focusing on enhancing technology trading and counter-terrorism collaboration.
In a very short span of time, the two countries have developed manifold relations. Between 2016 and 2017, China and Israel were successful in signing agreements worth US$ 16 billion. The key areas of partnership are light rail technology and port facilities.
China has expanded its partnerships with Iran also. Despite the war clouds over the Shiite state, the Iranian Supreme leader had held meetings with the Chinese on the sidelines of the 2019 UNGA session in New York. The Chinese consider Iran a state which is out of step with the Middle East.
Chinese investments in Iran follow the same pattern as in the Saudi Kingdom which is an adversary of Iran. But Iran is friendly to China since China’s strategic interest lies in challenging America’s Middle Eastern and global aspirations.
China’s Middle East strategy is not a unified “regional” one. China looks at each country independently. It is focused on state-owned enterprises and is prioritizing the host governments’ ambitions.
In the Middle East, Chinese investments appear focused and well-planned. On the other hand, Chinese investments and bilateral agreements provide legitimacy to governments in the Middle East.
But China’s development policy has created suspicion among its competitors, who believe that the region might see a strategic tilt toward China which can also leave a question mark over their strategic interests in the Middle East and other parts of the world.
Governments in the Middle East have been struggling to legitimize their regimes. They had to face long wars in the region and had to prove their legitimacy from time to time. With the coming of Chinese investments, they have got an opportunity to sideline political reforms and present themselves as the new gateways to the world in the economic sense. Here Chinese help comes in handy.
Chinese projects might ensure equitable growth and social equality which have eluded the people of the Middle East for long. China-funded Public-oriented projects are wide in scope throughout the Middle East. Due to constant wars Middle Easterners have not interacted with people from the other parts of the world.
But China’s Belt and Road Initiative is bringing to them opportunities to interact with the rest of the world. Middle Easterners have started partnering with people from different cultures which is providing them a chance to shed their conservative and insular image.
(Author Sidra Tariq Jamil is Lecturer, International Relations at University of Management and Technology, Lahore. She is also doing a PhD in Journalism and Communications at Tsinghua University in Bejing)