China is contemplating greater political engagement in the Middle East in what would constitute a break with its longstanding effort to avoid being sucked into the region’s myriad conflicts.
The engagement would aim to embed the US defense umbrella in the Gulf in a multilateral security architecture that would include rather than exclude Iran and counter mounting US pressure to force Gulf states to curtail relations with the People’s Republic.
The move would involve a further shift away from China’s principle of non-interference in the affairs of others, a key pillar of Chinese foreign and defense policy, that until now was limited to attempting to prevent countries from adopting policies perceived as anti-Chinese.
If successful in engineering a more stable security framework in the Gulf, greater Chinese commitment could reduce the risk of Chinese arms sales to Middle Eastern nations adding to strained relations with their regional rivals. Many of such countries seek to walk a fine line in their interactions with nations at odds with one another.
The debilitating rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran also poses one of the greatest challenges to securing Chinese interests in the Middle East.
The debilitating rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran also poses one of the greatest challenges to securing Chinese interests in the Middle East. Coupled with Pakistan, which has long been balancing its long-standing alliance with the kingdom even as the country shares a 959 kilometer-long and volatile border with Iran and hosts the world’s largest Shia Muslim minority, complicates the matter.
Chinese engagement would not only serve to assuage Gulf apprehensions about the reliability of the United States as the region’s security guarantor but also give them greater flexibility in diversifying their purchase of weapons systems to include acquisitions from China.
To be sure, China has already sold ballistic missile and drone technology to Saudi Arabia. China could, however, be tempted to commercially exploit a potential nuclear arms race in the Middle East, sparked by Iran’s gradual withdrawal from the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
In a recently published book, international relations scholar Daniel S. Markey suggested that to avoid being seen as fueling a nuclear arms race, China could be tempted to use Pakistan as a conduit for the sale of warheads and delivery systems to the kingdom. Pakistan is a power long suspected of having developed its own nuclear weapons with Saudi backing.
Mr. Markey said Pakistan could facilitate Chinese sales by adding “dual-key” nuclear forces to its contingent in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Pakistan already supports the Saudis with troops based in the kingdom and a retired Pakistani general serving as commander of the Saudi-led, 41-member Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC).
Increased Chinese military sales to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern states would build on increasingly close economic cooperation.
Increased Chinese military sales to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern states would build on increasingly close economic cooperation involving — as in the cases of Pakistani and Kazak development plans — Chinese support for the kingdom’s effort to diversify and streamline its economy battered by the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
In the most explicit indication of a Chinese policy shift, scholars Sun Degang and Wu Sike argued in a respected Chinese journal, that the Middle East was a “key region in big power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics in a new era.”
Mr. Sun and Mr. Wu suggested that those Chinese traits would involve “seeking common ground while reserving differences,” a formula that implies conflict management rather than conflict resolution.
The scholars said Chinese engagement in Middle Eastern security would seek to build an inclusive and shared regional security mechanism based on fairness, justice, multilateralism, comprehensive governance, and containment of differences.
China’s preference for a rejiggering of the Gulf’s security architecture based on a regional non-aggression pact contrasts with options being weighed by the Trump administration.
“One option that was considered recently is a mutual pact of non-aggression. . . . It’s not a new idea. . . . In 95 something similar was tried between Saudi and Iran. It kept the peace for quite some years,” said Kirsten Fontenrose, a prominent Atlantic Council scholar who served as Senior Director for the Gulf on President Trump’s National Security Council.
Greater Chinese political engagement in the Middle East is not by definition a win-win proposition for China.
Beyond the risk of Iranian ire at Chinese arms sales to its detractors, China would likely risk losing some of its appeal of non-interference to illiberal and autocratic regimes.
Beyond the risk of Iranian ire at Chinese arms sales to its detractors, China would likely risk losing some of its appeal of non-interference to illiberal and autocratic regimes that felt pressured by the United States’ pre-Trump democracy- and governance-centric approach that a post-Trump administration would probably revive.
As it progressively seeks to shape policies of its regional partners, China would also find it increasingly difficult to camouflage its shift from protecting its overseas personnel and assets to interfering in the affairs of others.
Driving the degree of Chinese interference will be an assessment of whether it can help counter US efforts to force Gulf states to restructure their relations with the People’s Republic.
That is likely to be a long shot in an environment in which the United States appears to have opted for confrontation wherein distrust and suspicion rather than search for common ground is the name of the game.
Writing in the Chinese Communist party Global Times, Wei Zongyou, a scholar of the United States, suggested recently that “the future trajectory of China-US relations depends on how the two interact rather than the US [acting] one-sidedly. China can still seek strategic initiatives.”
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