The Dilemma of China’s New Engagement with West Asia

Kishorchand Nongmaithem, Research Associate, ICS       

Traditionally, China has played little role in West Asia. However, in recent years it has become more active in its diplomatic engagement with the countries in the region. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s four-day visit to China commencing on 20 March 2017, just few days after China hosted Saudi Arabia’s king Salman bin Abdulaziz and signed an agreement worth US$65 billion, shows China’s increasing interest in the region’s politics. China’s diplomacy appears intended to increase its profile and facilitate its interests in the region. Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping also toured to three of the most important countries in West Asia—Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In 2014, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in an Al Jazeera interview had stated that ‘China’s political role in the Middle East will be enhanced and China is ready to have cooperation for mutual benefit with all countries in the Middle East’.[1] After former US president Barack Obama’s strategic “pivot to Asia” and more importantly, after Donald Trump became the new president, Saudi Arabia seems to be looking for an other friends. China is seen as an option in this regard since, China’s growing economy and its demand for oil is unlikely to end in the foreseeable future. Similarly, as Netanayahu declared during his Singapore visit, last month, Israel also intends to “pivot towards Asia”, including China and India.[2]

Indeed, for China, the significance of these visits is much beyond the few trade and investment deals signed, but confirms its strategic ambition to collaborate with as many countries as possible as a part of its ‘Belt and Road’ initiative.[3] That said, however, uncertainty still looms large in China’s West Asian approach.

An interesting element in the Netanyahu’s visit is that while the official press releases from Israel focuses on trade and commercial partnership between the two countries, which Netanyahu termed as “marrying Israeli technology with China’s capacity”[4], reports in China also highlighted Xi Jinping calling for peace between Israel and independent Palestinian state in his meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu saying that ‘a peaceful, stable and developing Middle East is the common interest of all parties’.[5] In a speech at the Arab League Headquarters last year, Xi also expressed his support for establishing a Palestinian state with the pre-1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital.[6]

Again, China’s relations with Israel are also complicated by the latter’s role as a principal partner of the US in West Asia, while China has always sided with the Arab world, including close relations with the Palestinians. Last month, the Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erikat also described China as a country with ‘remarkable political weight that has always supported the Palestinian legal rights’.[7] On the other hand, China also has a close relationship with Saudi Arabia’s biggest regional rival Iran, whose nuclear policy has also seriously alarmed Israel. When Xi visited Iran in January last year, China upgraded its ties with Iran to form a “comprehensive strategic partnership” for the promotion of the ‘Belt and Road’.[8] The two countries also agreed to expand its bilateral trade volume to US$600 billion over the next ten years.[9]

Apart from this, the more mundane reality is that China has little experience in dealing the West Asian affairs, which is known for its religious, sectarian and political instability. Even as the United States still has a strong presence in West Asia, China’s diplomatic course of action in the region seems to be a risky one heading towards a treacherous path, merely concentrating on economic prospects which may not prosper in the longer run.

No doubt, if China is successful in its growing involvement in the region, it would not only contribute in secure its oil sources but also strengthen its ‘Belt and Road’ connectivity strategy. However, in addition to the difficult nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Sunni-Shia sectarian feud and the long-standing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which China will have to negotiate, the unrest caused by ISIS also hinders China’s diplomatic and economic initiatives in the region.

Nevertheless, there is little choice for China’s growing economy but to secure its oil security interests. The expectation is that given its energy, investment, trade, diplomatic initiatives in the region, China’s role in West Asia is going to get bigger, and it will surely be to China’s advantage to do what it can to win greater influence in the region.






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