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China's strategic push in the Middle East

January 19, 2016 08:52 IST

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, with his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao at the  parade in Beijing, September 3, 2015. Photograph: Wang Zhao/Reuters

IMAGE: Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, with his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao at the parade in Beijing, September 3, 2015. Photograph: Wang Zhao/Reuters

 

Why is Xi Jinping visiting Saudi Arabia, Egypt and China this week?

Former RA&W officer Jayadeva Ranade explains the significance of China's outreach to the Middle East.

Timed to coincide with expanding potential commercial opportunities and a gradually dwindling US interest, Chinese President Xi Jinping embarked on a five-day tour to the three key Middle Eastern countries of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran on January 19.

There are indications that Xi Jinping's visit will herald a phase of new and more active Chinese engagement with this region. China issued its first Arab Policy Paper on January 13. The five-part paper mentioned cooperation in 36 specific sectors including civilian nuclear co-operation, international affairs etc. and appreciated Arab nations for their support on Taiwan, which it noted is an area of China's 'national core interest.'

A Xinhua despatch of January 13 observed that 'Those calling China a bystander in the Middle East will see Beijing take a proactive approach to the region.'

A Chinese president has not visited Saudi Arabia since 2009 when Hu Jintao traveled to the kingdom. In August 2012, then Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi indicated China's importance for Egypt's foreign policy by travelling to Beijing to meet then Chinese president Hu Jintao before visiting Washington. It was also his first official trip outside the Middle East. Jiang Zemin was the last Chinese president to visit Iran and he travelled there in 2002.

A factor in the timing of Xi's visit is undoubtedly the broad negative opinion about the US in the Middle East. The visit comes at a time when the relations of these countries with the US has weakened and negative sentiment against the US among the local populace is high.

In Egypt, barely ten per cent of its people had a favourable view of the US in 2015. Elsewhere in the region too, those critical of the US significantly outnumber those with a positive attitude. In comparison, China overall has a substantively more positive image.

Since taking over as China's president Xi has adopted an assertive foreign policy aimed at furthering China's strategic and commercial interests and influence. He is already the most travelled Chinese leader since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 -- Xi visited 14 countries in 2015 alone and has visited 30 countries since 2012.

The inclusion of three vice-premiers and six ministers in Xi's entourage for this visit along with a large business delegation suggests that the focus will be on exploring strategic business opportunities, including the flagship 'One Road, One Belt.' As in the past with each of these countries, the sales of military hardware and technology will almost certainly be on the agenda.

Riyadh's concerns about the deterioration in its regional security environment and rapid development of its secretive Royal Saudi Strategic Missile Force make it reasonable to expect that agreements on sales and increased military cooperation between China and Saudi Arabia will be concluded.

China had clandestinely sold DF-3 missiles to Saudi Arabia in the late 1980s. Again in 2007, China secretly sold Saudi Arabia DF-21 solid-fuel, medium-range ballistic missiles.

The US acquiesced, if not connived, at these sales. Chinese entities have been noticed violating proliferation norms for ballistic missile components and technology till as recently as 2014 and the US Department of State imposed two-year sanctions on four Chinese entities in February 2013 for such sales.

An important item on the agenda is likely to be cooperation on terrorism, where China would hope to elicit Riyadh's assistance in staunching the flow of radical Islamic terrorists entering Xinjiang and other parts of China and the Uyghurs in Xinjiang receiving material and other support from Islamist terrorist outfits.

Xi's visit to Cairo coincides with the Sino-Egyptian cultural year launched last week to mark the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations. China's commercial ties with Egypt have increased since 2011 when it surpassed Egypt's trade with the US to touch $8.8 billion.

China, which has nurtured its relations with Cairo since 1955, views deeper ties with Egypt as necessary for expanding Chinese influence and commercial ties globally. Egypt's strategic location, open economy and relatively cheap labour force make it a gateway facilitating the flow and increase of Chinese exports of low-cost consumer goods throughout the European, African, Arab and sub-continental markets.

China will additionally perceive a robust Sino-Egyptian relationship as a counter-balance to any negative views occasioned by Beijing's firm diplomatic and military support for Bashar al-Assad's regime in Damascus.

China would hope that other Arab countries will follow Egypt's lead and establish stronger ties with China. Increased economic interconnectedness and China's popularity with Egypt's public will encourage increased Chinese investment in Egypt. Egypt is also keen on Chinese investment in the new Suez Canal.

It is likely that China will push Cairo to purchase two Yuan class submarines built by Wuchang Shipbuilding, which is part of the State-run China Shipbuilding Industry Corp, in preference to those offered by Germany. China supplied Egypt with four Ming-class diesel-electric submarines in the 1980s.

The decks were, additionally, cleared on January 16, just days prior to Xi's visit to Iran, with the lifting of international sanctions against Iran giving Tehran access to more than $50 billion in long-frozen assets and allowing it to sell its oil and purchase goods in global markets.

At the same dropping oil prices and the IMF's bleak forecast for Iran's economy with GDP growth for 2015-2016 at around zero, increase in unemployment by about 1.5 per cent and a 10per cent drop in imports, provide a potential major opening to China's State-owned energy companies to enhance involvement with Iran's oil and natural gas industries.

This would make Iran a more important export market for a range of Chinese products. Beijing could also offer to assist Tehran in building infrastructure as part of the Eurasian section of China's huge 'One Belt, One Road' initiative and offer financing through the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Concrete investment proposals are anticipated during Xi's visits to Egypt and Iran.

Teheran will probably express interest in reviving the old military relationship of the 1980s and early 1990s, when China supplied it tanks, fighter jets, fast-attack patrol craft, anti-ship missiles and advanced weapons.

Motivated by interests of establishing an enduring relationship and reducing US influence, Beijing could now sell a variety of advanced arms including J-10 fighters, the Houbei-class high-speed missile boat, UAVs and also transfer advanced cruise missiles and technical know-how which would allow Iran to improve its domestic cruise missile programme.

China is preparing for a lasting engagement with the Middle East. It views the Middle East as important for realisation of the 'One Road, One Belt' project and as offering immense commercial opportunities.

Increased influence in the Middle East will enhance Beijing's international influence and also position it better to push the US to accept its proposal for a 'new big power type relations.'

Jayadeva Ranade, a former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, is president of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.

Jayadeva Ranade