“Where the enemy advances, we retreat. Where the enemy retreats, we pursue,” Mao Zedong, China’s founding father, once famously said. As the Middle East enters a new brave world, marked by the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and an emerging detente between Iran and the West, China has begun to recalibrate its regional policy.
Beijing, which is no longer content with simply lurking on the sidelines, is intent on shaping the Middle East in accordance to its own interests. President Xi Jinping’s high-profile visit to the Middle East, the first by a Chinese leader since 2009, couldn’t be timelier. It came shortly after the full implementation of the Iranian nuclear accord.
Crucially, it also came after a dangerous flare-up in Saudi-Iranian tensions in light of the execution of prominent Shia scholar, Nimr al-Nimr earlier this year.
By choosing to visit the region’s three most powerful countries (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran), Xi signalled the beginning of a broader and more pro-active Chinese engagement with the Middle East. It was Xi’s visit to Iran, however, that marked the highlight of his regional tour.
Unshackled by the removal of most punitive Western sanctions, Iran is (once-again) poised to become the fulcrum of the Middle East, presenting both new opportunities and challenges for external powers such as China.
Beijing is intent on making sure that it will retain a robust strategic and economic foothold in post-sanctions Iran, which has been rapidly normalising relations with Europe and welcoming hordes of Western companies on its shore.
Marching West strategy
For centuries, the Middle East has been at the centre of Western imperial machinations. And more recently, it has been at the receiving end of US military interventions, which ended the reign of a few despotic regimes, but set the whole region on fire.
The Chinese leader underlined millennium-old relations between China and Iran, calling on his Persian hosts 'to seize the momentum and further elevate our relationship' as the two ancient friends 'usher in a new chapter' in their relations.
Viewing the Middle East as the graveyard of imperial ambitions, and intent on constraining China’s rising ambitions, the Obama administration has sought to recalibrate American grand strategy by launching the Pivot to Asia policy.
But as Washington struggled to disentangle itself from regional quagmires, China gradually stepped up its strategic presence throughout the continental Islamic sphere, stretching from Central Asia to North Africa, under the ” Marching West” strategy.
For Wang Jisi, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, this strategy allows China to hit multiple birds with a single stone. On the one hand, China needs to secure stable and affordable energy supply for its industrialising economy. On the other, a power vacuum in the Middle East and Central Asia would also strengthen transnational terror networks, which could directly hurt China in its western flank, specifically in places such as Xinjiang.
By playing a more pro-active role in managing the conflicts in the region, China would gain leverage over Western powers, which are “desperate for China’s assistance in stabilising” the region. No wonder then, that China tried to help resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis as well as, more recently, mediate Saudi-Iranian tensions, which have come to a head in recent weeks.
Courting the Middle East
During his visit in Cairo, Xi sought to court the Arab League by declaring his country’s support for an independent Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital. He declared China’s concern for the “legitimate aspirations of Palestine to integrate into the international community as a state.” In effect, he dispensed with China’s long-standing policy of neutrality and non-intervention in the Israeli-Arab conflict.
To charm his Egyptian hosts, the Arab world’s most powerful military state, Xi offered $1bn in economic assistance. In Saudi Arabia, China’s leading source of crude oil, Xi signed a comprehensive bilateral strategic partnership, offered to build a nuclear power plant, and sealed a $1.5bn energy deal.
The Chinese leader’s visit to Iran, however, was of key importance. It was the first visit by a Chinese head of state in 14 years. In Tehran, Xi met all key players in the Iranian political system, including the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who told his guest how Iran “will never forget China’s cooperation during the time of sanctions”,
Quite dramatically, the Chinese leader underlined millennium-old relations between China and Iran, calling on his Persian hosts “to seize the momentum and further elevate our relationship” as the two long-standing friends “usher in a new chapter” in their relations.
The Persian prize
Meeting his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, Xi talked about a “new season” in Sino-Iranian relations. The two countries signed 17 accords, focusing on infrastructure, energy, and revival of the ancient Silk Road, with Rouhani envisioning bilateral trade (currently at $50bn) reaching a whopping “$600bn in the next 10 years”.
They also discussed ways to coordinate their efforts in resolving the crisis in Syria and fighting against extremist groups. Beneath the veneer of what seems like a solid alliance, however, Beijing is worried that a post-sanctions Iran is intent on ending its economic dependence on China – which supplanted Europe as Iran’s top trading partner during Tehran’s isolation in the past decade – in favour of re-engaging in the world on its own terms.
After all, like never before, European companies and governments have been courting Iran, hoping to tap into the country’s pent-up demand for advanced technology, capital, and goods, as well as explore the prospects of a strategic partnership with the Middle Eastern powerhouse.
As Iran begins to host a growing number of Western leaders and businesses, China is beginning to realise that its “special relationship”, forged during Tehran’s years of isolation, will soon become not so special.
Amid Iran’s expected economic boom, China will most probably have to settle for a smaller share of a growing Persian pie as it competes with the West for every major project.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.