Saturday, May 27, 2017, 12:22 PM CST – China

International

China’s Middle East Agenda

Islamic State (IS) has put China on its long list of target countries after claiming “infringement of Muslim rights”, and has included Xinjiang on the map of IS’s envisioned ‘future caliphate.’

Chinese President Xi Jinping spent January 19 to 23 touring Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran, the first time a Chinese head of state has set foot in those countries for seven, 12 and 14 years, respectively. He was the first foreign head of state Tehran received after sanctions imposed on the country by the UN, US and EU were lifted on January 16. China’s State media said Xi’s Middle East visit signified that China’s diplomatic efforts now reached all corners of the globe.

China’s first Arab Policy Paper, unveiled on January 13, highlights the importance of the Middle East in China’s One Belt, One Road vision, an economic project that aims to link Asia and Europe as well as parts of Africa, making the Middle East literally central to the plan. When commenting on Xi’s trip, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi described Xi’s three destinations as “natural partners” for the One Belt, One Road initiative, due to their geographic locations and historical ties with China. All three countries are founding members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which will help finance One Belt, One Road projects.

Maintaining good relationships with Middle Eastern countries is crucial for China’s national security, both within and beyond its borders. The country’s northwestern regions, particularly the tumultuous Xinjiang, have large Muslim populations. Islamic State (IS) has put China on its long list of target countries after claiming “infringement of Muslim rights”, and has included Xinjiang on the map of IS’s envisioned “future caliphate.” On November 19, China’s foreign ministry confirmed that Chinese citizen Fan Jinghui was “kidnapped and cruelly killed by the Islamic State extremist group.” Hundreds of Chinese nationals, mostly ethnic Uyghurs from Xinjiang, have reportedly fought alongside IS combatants in Syria and Iraq, with some involved in violent attacks in Xinjiang after returning to China.

While the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states are China’s largest source of oil, lessening reliance on oil exports is an urgent task for Arab economies as global oil prices plummet. According to Saudi Arabia’s finance ministry, the world’s largest oil exporter has projected a US$87 billion budget deficit in 2016, following a record deficit of US$98 billion in 2015.

In this context, business and security were clearly the focus of Xi’s trip to the Middle East. China and all three of the countries Xi visited signed bilateral memoranda of understanding regarding the One Belt, One Road initiative. The parties reached a total of 52 bilateral deals on subjects ranging from trade, investment, energy and finance to aerospace, high-speed rail, telecommunications and climate change. In his January 21 speech at the League of Arab States headquarters in Cairo, Xi announced China would provide up to US$55 billion to support the industrialization process in Arab countries. In 2009, the GCC suspended all free trade agreement negotiations with 17 trading partners, including China, but, on January 17, China and the GCC announced the resumption of those talks and the intention to conclude them within the year. Xi also invited Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi to attend the G20 summit that will take place this September in the Chinese city of Hangzhou.

In its Arab Policy Paper, China clearly stated its stance on security issues in the Middle East, including the establishment of “an independent state of Palestine with full sovereignty, based on the pre-1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital,” and “political solution[s] to regional hotspot issues.” When speaking to the Arab League, Xi said China will hold a roundtable within the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, a body established in 2004, with the goal of opening dialog and moving toward expunging extremism. He also pledged US$35 million in humanitarian aid to Syria, Jordan, Lebanon Yemen and Libya, as well as US$300 million to fund counterterrorism efforts in Arab countries. During the trip, all three countries and the GCC agreed to build or consolidate their strategic partnerships with China.

Xi also stressed in his Arab League speech that China would not seek “a proxy” in the Middle East, nor would it attempt to “fill the ‘vacuum.’” Chinese analysts generally think China’s diplomatic advantage lies in the country’s development experience and good relationships with nearly all parties within regional conflicts. They also emphasize that China can only play a bigger role when those parties are drawn away from the fracas and shift their attention to economic development, or when they are strongly motivated to reach a deal at the negotiation table. For example, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi confirmed that China put forward “helpful” proposals for core issues during the Iran nuclear negotiations, including modification of Iran’s Arak heavy-water reactor. 

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