China’s Expanding Security Interests in the Middle East
China’s security footprint in the Middle East has rapidly expanded over the last six months. This is a region with which Beijing has traditionally had very limited ties, shying away from regional conflicts and complicated internal politics. But now, as the United States scales down its presence in the region under President Trump’s America First agenda, Beijing is moving to try and fill the power vacuum. Examples of the Middle East’s growing importance in Beijing’s list of foreign and security policy priorities range from more intense security diplomacy and mediation efforts to a more regular military presence.
Between February and July this year, for example, defense officials from Israel, Turkey, Pakistan and the UAE visited Beijing to discuss security cooperation with China. Beijing also sent the PLA Navy (PLAN) to visit the region on several occasions. Navy ships called on ports in several Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, Oman, Kuwait, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the UAE. Some of these port calls were the first such visits in years. The Navy maintains a permanent presence in the waters of the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea since 2008, as a result of its continued participation in counter-piracy operations. And this presence will only increase now that China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti has been officially established and troops have been deployed.
China has also signaled that it is willing to step up to the plate and help mediate in some of the region’s most intractable conflicts. Beijing has long been an active participant in multilateral efforts to broker peace in Syria and, although it is not strictly in the Middle East, in Afghanistan. In recent months, China has also offered to coordinate the improvement of relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it has held talks with both Israeli and Palestinian officials to discuss their conflict. Xi is even pushing China’s own four-point plan to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Besides, Beijing has offered to host talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the middle of the breakdown of relations between Qatar and the UAE – which was effectively a proxy conflict between longstanding rivals Riyadh and Tehran.
China is clearly invested in the Middle East’s stability, but why?
The Belt and Road Initiative: at the center of China’s Middle Eastern security push
Despite the high number of official Chinese statements to the contrary, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a project driven primarily by Chinese domestic interests. The goals of Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy project include exporting China’s industrial overcapacity and providing further avenues for Chinese economic growth, securing China’s access to energy and resources, and raising China’s profile in the international arena as a major, responsible player. With sizable oil reserves, an important role to play in the fight against transnational terrorism, a business and political environment conducive to higher Chinese investment, and above all a highly strategic location at the heart of the Belt and Road, the Middle East is thus becoming a priority region for Beijing.
The Middle East has been growing in importance for China since the 1990s, as rising domestic energy demand combined with China’s new geopolitical concerns. However, as the Belt and Road Initiative pushes growing numbers of Chinese companies and citizens, as well as increasing amounts of capital, into the region, security has become a major concern. Pursuing Beijing’s main interests in the region, especially protecting Chinese citizens and assets, securing continued access to resources and markets and dealing with the threat of transnational terrorism, requires stability. China’s huge investment and infrastructure push, therefore, comes hand in hand with a growing security presence, making the Belt and Road into the main overarching driver behind China’s growing security involvement in the Middle East.
Energy and markets
China’s foremost interest in the Middle East is securing continued access to the region’s energy resources and trade routes. As domestic production of crude slows down, China’s expanding economy is heavily dependent on imported oil. According to International Energy Agency (IEA) statistics, over half of the over 7 million barrels of oil that China imports per day come from the MENA region, and the IEA expects these imports to double by 2035. This has turned China into one of the biggest trade partners of several countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and the UAE. BRI infrastructure projects across the region are also meant to help China bypass the chokehold of the Straits of Malacca. Currently, over 80 percent of China’s Middle Eastern energy imports pass through the straits, but the hope is that Belt and Road projects across the Middle Eastern region and in Pakistan will eventually allow China to pump oil supplies through pipelines all the way to Xinjiang.
These close economic ties between China and Middle Eastern countries also mean that thousands of Chinese nationals work in the region, as Chinese firms expand their presence there. In April, for example, state-owned giant China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) signed a deal to build its Middle East regional headquarters in Dubai. Beijing is thus under pressure to step up its engagement in the region to secure Chinese imports and investment, and to and protect its citizens and assets.
One of Beijing’s main foreign and security policy concerns, transnational terrorism and its links with Xinjiang and Uighur militants, is also deeply linked to the Middle East. China is concerned that some of the Uighurs who traveled to Turkey to escape unrest in Xinjiang have ended up fighting with terrorist organizations in the region and that they may plan attacks on Chinese soil.
These concerns were strengthened by a recent report of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which estimated that some 3,000 Chinese Uighurs are fighting for the Al Qaeda branch in Syria, and that several hundred more have joined ISIS. Some of these Syria-based militants were reportedly behind the attack against the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan in August 2016, and an ISIS propaganda video released in February 2017 showed Uighur militants directly threatening China. Dealing with this threat requires that Beijing becomes more invested in the stability and security of the Middle East, and that it closely cooperates on counter-terrorism issues with countries in the region.
The Middle East: a high-risk, high-reward region
Securing a stable environment in the region is thus crucial to Beijing’s needs. China needs a stable Middle East if it wants to expand its Belt and Road Initiative, access the region’s energy and resources and deal with terrorist threats originating in Middle Eastern countries. Beijing has responded to these requirements by expanding its security presence in the Middle East. From high-level security diplomacy to mediation efforts, Chinese officials are very present in the region today.
A growing presence in the Middle East has many upsides for Beijing. However, it also comes with increased risks. The 2015 Strategic Review by the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Science noted that the implementation of BRI would extend China’s overseas interests into unstable regions, increasing exposure to security threats. These threats extend beyond the dangers of terrorist attacks against Chinese citizens and assets in the Middle East and pirate attacks against BRI trade routes. This region is fraught with geopolitical risk that can trip up Beijing’s efforts to turn China into an important global player.
Many Middle Eastern countries are historical rivals and their frayed relations have trapped many governments that have tried to get involved in the region. China’s lack of previous engagement in the region has allowed it to maintain friendly relations with most countries so far, and to appear as an honest broker. Beijing, for instance, maintains good relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia, and it has sold weapons to Israel for years while at the same time endorsing Palestinian statehood. This, however, will not last for long. As Beijing becomes enmeshed in highly complex and politically charged disputes with which it has little to no experience, China – and its interests in the region – will be exposed to increased risks.