Heavily dependent on Saudi Arabia and Iran for oil, China cannot afford a full-scale war in the region.
Xi Jinping’s first visit to the Middle East since becoming China’s president three years ago reflects three emerging, defining elements in the conduct of Beijing’s foreign policy in the region.
The expansion of economic ties has created an imperative for increased diplomatic engagement to protect and expand these relationships.
Middle East in China’s image
The duelling visits of Syrian government and opposition delegations to Beijing in December, when China offered to host discussions between the parties, is only the most recent evidence of this development which promises to raise China’s diplomatic profile across the board.
The globalisation of China’s own definition of national security has both a strategic and a security dimension in the region. More than half of China’s peacekeeping complement is based in the Middle East – principally patrolling off the Somali coast as part of a UN-mandated anti-piracy campaign.
China’s growing role in such multilateral efforts is increasingly being supplemented by sovereign expansion of China’s military capacity – the most prominent example being the creation of the first Chinese military base outside China’s borders – in tiny Djibouti, where the US and France also maintain military forces astride the critical maritime route from the Chinese mainland to its vital markets via Suez to the Mediterranean.
The international footprint of jihadi terror – both as a political and a domestic security issue, is symbolised by the ongoing detention of a Chinese national by Islamists in Syria as well as by the presence of Uighur radicals fighting in Syria and Iraq under the ISIL flag.
ISIL threats to Suez from Sinai are also viewed in Beijing as a threat to the safety of its trading routes and partners, forcing the subject on to the Chinese policy agenda as a critical element in discussions with Cairo and Riyadh, but also more broadly throughout the region – in Syria and Turkey.
China enjoys a standing in the region that none of the stronger and more veteran powers contesting for regional influence has managed. China’s relations with the Arab world are “ideal”, in the view of Arab League secretary-general Nabil al-Araby.
“China is the only major state in the world that always supports Arab rights and causes because they are rightful. China does not side with any party over another and it always seeks the common good.”
China’s no enemies policy
China’s emphasis on a classic conservative support for state sovereignty, noninterference in domestic affairs and a “no enemies” policy offer a stark contrast to the interventionist policies of the West in the past century. This policy reflects China’s own parochial interests as well as a formula that enables Beijing to enhance its economic and political power broadly, even in such polarised regions as the Middle East.
“Regarding some of the region’s problems, China has always taken a balanced and just position,” explained Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Ming when asked about tensions between Riyadh and Tehran.
“If the Middle East is not stable, I’m afraid the world can’t be very peaceful. If a country or a region is not stable, it cannot realise development. China firmly supports regional countries individually exploring a development path that suits their national conditions.”
The principles underlying this balancing act, which has produced dividends on both the economic and diplomatic front, appear in the first official policy paper on the Middle East released by Beijing days before Xi’s arrival in Riyadh.
“China’s Arab Policy Paper” – the first of its kind for the region – offers a broad historical, strategic and economic rationale for aggressive Chinese engagement across a broad range of “shared interests”, based upon “a new type of international relations featuring win-win co-operation”.
There are signs in Washington of a less charitable view of 'China's rise'...
“[Arab countries and China] share a broad consensus on safeguarding state sovereignty and territorial integrity, defending national dignity, seeking political resolution to hotspot issues, and promoting peace and stability in the Middle East,” the report notes.
“We share similar views on issues such as reform of the United Nations, climate change and Doha Round trade negotiations, and maintain sound co-ordination and co-operation. Cultural and educational exchanges are more frequent and people-to-people ties are getting closer with enhanced mutual understanding and friendship between the two peoples.”
Such a benevolent view of the effect of China’s reappearance on the international stage understates the degree to which Beijing’s growing presence in the region signals a challenge to the system shaped and dominated by the United States over three quarters of a century.
Until now, Washington has viewed China’s premier trading position and its large-scale infrastructure and development projects from Suez to Tehran with equanimity. But there are signs in Washington of a less charitable view of “China’s rise” – from unease about the creation of a military base in Djibouti to concern about the prospect of China’s participation alongside the Russian-led military campaign for Assad.
“The real question,” one US defence official asked, “is whose side will [China] be on.”
Geoffrey Aronson writes about Middle East affairs. He consults with a variety of public and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and development issues.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.