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CHINA AND THE MIDDLE EAST: VENTURING INTO THE MAELSTROM
JAMES M. DORSEy
RAJARATNAM SCHOOL OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES SINGAPORE
18 MARCH 2016
China’s increasingly significant economic and security interests in the Middle East have several impacts. It affects not only its energy security but also its regional posture, relations with regional powers as well as the United States, and efforts to pacify nationalist and Islamist Uighurs in its north-western province of Xinjiang. Those interests are considerably enhanced by China’s One Belt, One Road initiative that seeks to patch together a Eurasian land mass through inter-linked infrastructure, investment and expanded trade relations.
Protecting its mushrooming interests is forcing China to realign its policies and relationships in the region.
As it takes stock of the Middle East and North Africa’s volatility and tumultuous, often violent political transitions, China feels the pressure to acknowledge that it no longer can remain aloof to the Middle East and North Africa’s multiple conflicts. China’s long-standing insistence on non-interference in the domestic affairs of others, refusal to envision a foreign military presence and its perseverance that its primary focus is the development of mutually beneficial economic and commercial relations, increasingly falls short of what it needs to do to safeguard its vital interests. Increasingly, China will have to become a regional player in competitive cooperation with the United States, the dominant external actor in the region for the foreseeable future.
The pressure to revisit long-standing foreign and defence policy principles is also driven by the fact that China’s key interests in the Middle East and North Africa have expanded significantly beyond the narrow focus of energy despite its dependence on the region for half of its oil imports.1 Besides the need to protect its investments and nationals, China has a strategic stake in the stability of countries across the Eurasian landmass as a result of its One Belt, One Road initiative and the threat of blowback in Xinjiang of unrest in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.
China has signalled its gradual recognition of these new realities with the publication in January 2016 of an Arab Policy Paper, the country’s first articulation of a policy towards the Middle East and North Africa. But, rather than spelling out specific policies, the paper reiterated the generalities of China’s core focus in its relations with the Arab world: economics, energy, counter-terrorism, security, technical cooperation and its One Belt, One Road initiative. Ultimately however, China will have to develop a strategic vision that outlines foreign and defence policies it needs to put in place to protect its expanding strategic, geopolitical, economic, and commercial interests in the Middle East and North Africa; its role and place in the region as a rising superpower in the region; and its relationship and cooperation with the United States in managing, if not resolving conflict.
1 United States Energy Information Agency (EIA), China, 14 May 2015,