China’s Middle East Choice

March 30, 2015

The Chinese government thinks U.S. policy towards the Middle East is misguided.  Citing the invasion of Iraq, support for political transitions, and a willingness to embroil itself in regional conflicts, Beijing often implies that the United States destabilizes the Middle East.

Stability lies at the heart of China’s engagement in the Middle East.  Until now, China has enjoyed the benefit of both physical and political distance from the Middle East, having no interest in navigating political conflicts and dealing with unstable regimes.  This has given it the freedom to criticize the state of affairs, all the while increasing its economic footprint throughout the Gulf, Levant, and North Africa.  Over time, Middle Eastern petroleum and natural gas became essentials for maintaining China’s economy.  This resulted in the region becoming of greater strategic value.

To protect its interests in the region, China seeks to exert greater influence economically through both bilateral diplomacy and ambitious plans to increase connectivity between East and West Asia.  China’s intent is to exert influence without becoming a party to the region’s disputes.  Yet, if China is to have a stake in the future of the Middle East, then its interests will join a chorus of regional states and external powers seeking influence.  These other states will view China’s actions in relation to regional disputes.  The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) reveals how China’s greater engagement in the Middle East ensnares them in Middle Eastern conflict.  Even if it Beijing wishes to avoid it, one of China’s greatest challenges in the Middle East will be how to pick sides.

The Development of China’s West Asia Strategy

China’s foreign policy towards the Middle East centers on developing favorable economic relationships that avoid the conflicts of the region.  China has had the advantage of pursuing core economic interests relatively unhindered due to the fact that it could free ride on a host of security provisions provided by the United States.  China’s focus was to avoid disputes by working with all and offending none.

Upon President Xi Jinping taking office in 2013, two trends simultaneously culminated and changed how China views and engages the Middle East.  The first trend is that China’s economic modernization has made it the largest purchaser of Middle East petroleum and natural gas.  The second trend is that China’s actions in regards to East China Sea and the South China Sea have created mistrust among its eastern and southern neighbors.  While China manages disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan, among others, China’s western neighbors, however, openly seek closer ties with Beijing and welcome a growing Chinese presence.

As a result, Xi’s government created two strategic concepts related to a push westward: the Silk Road Economic Belt (or Overland Silk Route) and the Maritime Silk Road.  These concepts involve building greater economic connectivity between China and Central, South, and West Asia.  Such strategic plans are not new for China, but these two proposals are distinctly ambitious.  Both aspire to create a complex system of railways, roadways, communication networks, trade agreements, ports, and pipelines between East and West Asia.  These networks will require years to construct and billions to finance.  Both routes are meant to terminate in Europe, but the routes are designed to have a maximum impact in Central Asia and the Middle East.

Such networks bring with them obligations.  To be successful China will have to take on greater responsibility for stability in Eurasia, a region full of existing or potential conflicts.  The cost of providing or contributing such security may be greater than expected, if the past history of Eurasia is a guide.  These actions will lead to second and third order effects, and China’s reputation for being a benign partner could be undercut by a more activist orientation.

China and ISIL

ISIL is an example of the challenges facing China in the Middle East.  Since the emergence of the civil war in Syria, China has maintained that Bashar al-Assad and his government must engage in dialogue with the other side and until a resolution can be reached, Assad’s government remains Syria’s legitimate voice.  Along with Russia, China vetoed several United Nations Security Council resolutions intended to end the war within Syria and lead to a new unity government.  Yet, China has no substantial interests in Syria.  Trade volumes prior to the war’s outbreak in 2011 were small and China’s diplomacy towards Syria emphasized little of note.  Though having no real interests in the survival of the Assad regime, China did not want another Middle Eastern state to fall into political instability and radiate such instability outward.  If the Syrian civil war were to spread, it could disrupt China’s relations with key Middle Eastern states, such as those in the Gulf, and threaten China’s investments.

The irony is that China’s obstruction has helped to allow the Syrian civil war to spread instability throughout the whole Middle East.  ISIL’s rise in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere necessitated an international response due to its potential impact on the global economy and the further instability that it threatens to trigger.  China, heavily invested in the petroleum sector in Iraq and throughout the Gulf, faces real costs if ISIL survives.  While many regional states as well as the United States and much of Europe have gone to war against ISIL, China has not contributed to that fight.  It has voiced support for the actions of others, but still argue that the best way to defeat ISIL is by working with the Assad regime.  In other words, China has done what it usually does: engage diplomatically but avoid contributing its own blood and treasure to protect investment and enhance stability.

China will not enjoy such privileges for much longer. As it begins to form the Overland Silk Route in Central Asia and becomes ever more tied to the Middle East, security risks that threaten this ambitious plan will become more salient.  The security implications of the push west, both domestic and foreign, is debated within China’s strategic community, especially in light of reports that ISIL’s ranks now include a small contingent of Chinese citizens who may one day return home.

Beijing knows that as it grows in power, more and more actors will expect it to become a security provider.  Beijing will remain hesitant to take on such a role, but nevertheless is developing an ability to project power in West Asia.  The People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) has maintained ships near the Horn of Africa to conduct anti-piracy operations and provide protection for Chinese commercial vessels operating in that area.  This has proved China’s capability to operate far from its near seas.  Port visits in the Persian Gulf and South Asia by PLAN vessels have also increased.  Analysts expect the PLAN to increase its presence in these regions even further.

The rise of ISIL presented an opportunity for China to cooperate with a large international coalition and to stake out its position in a region critical to its future.  China let the opportunity pass.  Instead, it calls for the continuation of Assad’s regime until a political settlement is reached.  Save the support of Iran and Russia, this position is opposed by much of the international community due to Assad’s extreme tactics and refusal to engage in dialogue with the opposition.  China, by following its traditional preference for political continuity and avoiding foreign conflicts, has hurt its brand in the Middle East, annoyed many in the international community, done nothing to combat ISIL, and positioned itself as a core supporter of the Assad regime.

China has some decisions to make.  It cannot claim that it is a developing economy that bears no responsibility for stability outside its borders.  Rather, it is a global actor with an increasing international footprint.  Other powers will expect China to be involved in global crises and that expectation, even when it is not the preference of China itself, will either force it to pick sides or have its side determined by others.


Jeffrey Payne is the Manager of Academic Affairs at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, DC. The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.