The Greater Middle East: China’s Reality Check

Abstract: If any one part of the world has forced China to throw its long-standing foreign and defense policy principles out the window and increasingly adopt attitudes associated with a global power, it is the greater Middle East, a region that stretches from the Atlantic coast of Africa to north-western China. The Middle East’s ability to influence Chinese policy stems from its decades-long, uncanny capability to foist itself high up on the agenda of the international community and its most powerful constituents.

The Middle East’s relevance was facilitated by China’s need to protect its growing economic and geopolitical interests bundled into the Belt and Road initiative, a US$1 trillion infrastructure-driven effort to tie Eurasia to the People’s Republic, coupled with China’s desire to take advantage of President Donald J. Trump’s damaging of US credibility by projecting itself as the defender of the world order.

Developments in the greater Middle East left China no choice but to either reinterpret or pile on more on to the dustbin of history principles of non-interference in the domestic affairs of others, an economically-driven win-win approach as a sort of magic wand for problem resolution, and no foreign military interventions or bases.

Nonetheless, hampered by its reticence to articulate a Middle East policy that goes beyond economic, technical, military and anti-terrorism cooperation, China’s progressive embrace of foreign and defense policies typical for a global power means that the People’s Republic is increasingly likely to be sucked into the Middle East’s multiple conflicts and disputes.

Introduction: Reality Kicks In

A series of incidents in 2011 during the popular Arab revolts sparked realization among Chinese policy makers and scholars that China’s existing foreign and defence policy kit would ultimately not allow it to protect its exponentially expanding Diaspora as well as its Belt and Road-related, mushrooming investments in a swath of land encompassing North Africa, the Levant, the Gulf, the Caucasus, Pakistan and Central Asia – territory that stretches to its strategic but troubled north-western province of Xinjiang with its ethnic and linguistic ties to the region.

It all started in Libya during the 2011 uprising where China initially breached its principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of others, de facto a different label for the US equivalent of long-standing support of autocracy in the Middle East in a bid to maintain stability, moved beyond its diplomatic relations with the regime of Colonel Moammar Qaddafi to forge ties with the opposition National Council.1

However, the outreach to the Council did not save it from being identified with the ancient regime once the opposition gained power. On the contrary, shortly after Qaddafi’s fall the Council made it clear that China would be low on its totem pole because of past Chinese support for the Qaddafi regime. The Council’s animosity was a response to China’s initial hesitancy to recognize the post-Qaddafi government and revelations that Beijing continued to discuss arms sales to Qaddafi as his grip on power was slipping

China’s vulnerability and the potential price for supporting autocratic rule in the greater Middle East was reinforced when China realized that its nationals and assets in Libya and other countries in turmoil could become targets. To ensure the safety and security of its nationals, China was forced to evacuate 35,000 people from Libya, its most major foreign rescue operation. The evacuation was the first of similar operations in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

The evacuations didn’t stop militants in Egypt’s Sinai from kidnapping 25 Chinese nationals, nor radicals in South Sudan from taking several Chinese hostages or the attacks on Chinese targets in Pakistan. The kidnappings sparked significant criticism on Chinese social media of the government’s seeming inability to protect its nationals and investments.4 China has since moved aggressively by beefing up private security companies and more recently asserting that its elite counterterrorism forces would play a bigger role overseas.

To make things worse, the limits of China’s traditional foreign and defense policy meshed with its increasingly repressive domestic approach towards Xinjiang province, as Uyghurs, an ethnic Turkic people, carried out knife attacks in 2011 in the cities of Hotan and Kashgar, rioted in Shache in 2014 leaving some 100 people dead,6 and joined jihadist groups in Syria.

Finally, the mismatch between China’s expectations and those of many in the greater Middle East were driven home in a brutal encounter between Arab businessmen and ethnic Chinese scholars and former officials in which the Arabs took the Chinese to task for wanting to benefit from Middle Eastern resources and trade relations without taking on political and geopolitical responsibilities that they associate with a rising superpower.

In addition to all this, since 2011 it has become increasingly difficult for China to remain on the sidelines of the Middle East’s multiple conflicts and rivalries. This is particularly true with President Donald J. Trump’s coming to office.

The greater Middle East’s problems have escalated with Mr. Trump’s abandonment of any pretence of impartiality in the IsraeliPalestinian conflict; his apparent initial backing of the Saudi-UAE led economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar;9 his heating up of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran by withdrawing from the 2015 international agreement curbing Iran’s nuclear program; and his toying with attempting to change the regime in Tehran that encouraged Saudi Arabia to step up Saudi support for Pakistani militants in the province of Baluchistan;10 t

he likely return of Uyghur jihadists in Syria to Central and South Asia that has prompted the establishment of Chinese military outposts in Tajikistan and Afghanistan and consideration of direct military intervention in a possible SyrianRussian assault on Idlib, the last rebelheld stronghold in Syria;11 and finally the potential fallout of China’s brutal crackdown in Xinjiang.

Tied up in knots

China’s potential policy dilemmas in the greater Middle East were enhanced by the fact that it doesn’t really have a clear Middle East policy that goes beyond its shaky, traditional foreign and defence policy principles and economics.

That was particularly evident in January 2016 when China on the eve of President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Middle East, the first visit by a Chinese head of state in seven years, issued its first Middle East-related policy white paper but fundamentally it contained no new thinking and amounted to a reiteration of a win-win-based approach to the region – a thin basis for a country that after an absence of ties for some 500 years maintained after the 1949 revolution relations primarily with socialist and revolutionary Middle Eastern regimes and movements. 

China’s network in the region only began to expand with its economic opening in 1978. It was then that the Middle East’s importance for the People’s Republic’s energy and maritime security and its impact on the international community and the Muslim world sank in. Yet, China continues to look at the Middle East primarily through the prism of economics and counter-terrorism and maintains an increasingly gradually changing military posture.

The region’s economic significance lies in the fact that almost half of China’s oil imports, mounting up to 3.6 million barrels a day, and 41 percent of its natural gas imports travel either through the Strait of Hormuz or Babel-Mandeb at the entrance to the Red Sea. An estimated 20 percent of Chinese exports to the Middle East, North Africa and Europe take the same journey in the opposite direction.13 T

he Middle East’s religious impact has grown in significance given that the Belt and Road stretches across a Eurasian landmass populated by numerous Muslim countries, several of which border on China’s restive and troubled Xinjiang province.

Moreover, with China dependent on the US security umbrella in the Gulf, Beijing sees itself as competitively cooperating with the United States in the Middle East. That is despite the US-Chinese trade war; differences over the Iranian nuclear agreement which the United States has abandoned and China is eager to salvage; and Mr. Trump’s partisan Middle East policy.

The Chinese interests are aligned with that of Gulf countries who walk a fine line focusing geopolitically on an increasingly unpredictable United States and economically on China as well as the rest of Asia, including Russia, Korea and Japan. 

China shares with the United States and especially with the Trump administration a fundamental policy principle: stability rather than equitable political reform. For all practical purposes, China’s principle of non-interference is little more than another label for the US equivalent of long-standing support of autocracy in the Middle East in a bid to maintain stability.

Outcomes of recent elections in Malaysia, Pakistan, the Maldives and Sri Lanka were likely to reinforce China’s predilection towards more authoritarian and autocratic regimes. Elections in all four countries produced governments eager to review Belt and Road-related projects and at the very least re-negotiate terms.

Nonetheless, China, in some ways, is learning the lesson, despite recent developments in Xinjiang, that US President George W. Bush and Condolezza Rice, his national security advisor and subsequent secretary of state, learnt on 9/11. Within a matter of weeks after the Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, Mr. Bush and Ms. Rice suggested that the United States was co-responsible for the attacks because of its support for autocracy that had fuelled anti-American and anti-Western sentiment. This was why Bush launched his ill-conceived democracy initiative.

China, as a result of its political, economic and commercial approach towards Belt and Road-related projects has started to have a similar experience. Chinese overseas outposts and assets have become targets, particularly in Pakistan but also in Central Asia.16 The kidnappings in 2011 in the Sinai and South Sudan were just the beginning.

Uyghurs joined groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda not because they were pan-Islamist jihadists but because they wanted to get experience they could later apply in militant struggle against the Chinese.17 Beyond profiling themselves in fighting in Syria, Uyghurs have trained with Malhama Tactical, a jihadist-for-profit Blackwater, the private military company created by Erik Prince.

Anti-Chinese sentiment in countries like Kazakhstan and Tajikistan is on the rise and also has a history in nations like Turkey and Iran that still walk a tightrope as they strengthen ties at the price of silence concerning the severe repression of Muslims in Xinjiang.19 In a report published in September 2018, Human Rights Watch identified 26 predominantly Muslim countries that China considers sensitive because of its crackdown in its north-western province.20

Included in the list of countries are former Soviet Central Asian nations as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan, many of which border on Xinjiang, Southeast Asian nations like Malaysia and Indonesia, and key Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey that have historic, ethnic and linguistic ties to China’s Turkic Muslims and for decades was empathetic to Uyghur aspirations.

The Muslim world’s silence constitutes for China a double-edged sword. China’s campaign in Xinjiang is effectively enabled by the silence, much of which is due to countries that are deeply indebted to China. This allows China to largely ignore criticism by Western nations, human rights groups as well as the Uyghur Diaspora.22

Moreover, China has so far benefited from the fact that Muslim politicians and leaders see more political mileage in pushing causes like the Palestinians rather than ones that have not been in the Islamic world’s public eye. “You gain popularity if you show you are anti-Zionism and if you are fighting for the Palestinians, as compared to the Rohingya or Uyghurs,” said Ahmad Farouk Musa, director of the Islamic Renaissance Front, a Malaysian NGO.

On the flip side, silence potentially gives Muslim countries a degree of leverage. Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad seemingly exploited that leverage with China treading carefully in the face of an anti-Chinese election campaign that returned the 93-year old to office in May and Mr. Maharthir’s subsequent suspension of US$22 billion of Chinese-backed, Belt and Roadrelated infrastructure projects.24

The leverage could also factor in financially troubled Pakistani intentions to review or renegotiate agreements related to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a crown jewel in China’s Belt and Road initiative and at US$50 billion,its single largest country investment.

The risk for China is enhanced by mushrooming publicity about its crackdown in Xinjiang that includes pressure on Uyghurs abroad to return to the Chinese province and risk incarceration and has led to countries like Egypt, Turkey, Afghanistan the United Arab Emirates, and Malaysia, extraditing or moving to deport Uyghurs to China, will make it increasingly difficult for Muslim countries to remain silent.26

The risks are further magnified by black swans such as a recent court case in Kazakhstan that has forced the government in Astana to walk a fine line between avoiding friction with China and shielding itself from accusations that it is not standing up for the rights and safety of Kazakh nationals.

Kazakhs were taken aback when 41-yearold Sayragul Sauytbay, a Chinese national of Kazakh descent, testified in an open Kazakh court that she had been employed in a Chinese re-education camp for Kazakhs with 2,500 inmates. She said she was aware of two more camps reserved for Kazakhs.28 Ms. Sauytbay was standing trial for entering Kazakhstan illegally.

She said she had escaped to Kazakhstan after being told by Chinese authorities that she would never be allowed to join her family because of her knowledge of the camps. Ms. Sauytbay was given a six-month suspended sentence and allowed to stay in the country where her recently naturalized husband and children reside.

The inclusion of ethnic Kazakhs, a community in China that consists of 1.25 million people, in the crackdown sparked angry denunciations in Kazakhstan’s parliament. “There should be talks taking place with the Chinese delegates. Every delegation that goes there should be bringing this topic up… The key issue is that of the human rights of ethnic Kazakhs in any country of the world being respected,” said Kunaysh Sultanov, a member of parliament and former deputy prime minister and ambassador to China.

Anti-Chinese sentiment in the Pakistani Chinese border province of GilgitBaltistan ran high earlier this year after some 50 Uyghur women married to Pakistani men were detained on visits to Xinjiang as China refused to renew the visas of their husbands.30 Another 350 Uyghur spouses are also being detained. 

A delegation of Pakistani businessmen travelled in September 2018 in small groups to avoid being barred from Beijing, to lobby Chinese authorities for the release of their loved ones.31 At about the same time, Pakistan’s religious affairs minister, Pir Noorul Haq Qadri, demanded in a meeting with Chinese ambassador Yao Jing that the Chinese ease restrictions on Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.

For their part, Iranians are grateful for Chinese support not only in the current battle over the 2015 international agreement that curbs Iran’s nuclear program that the United States effectively wants to see cancelled and China is eagerly trying to salvage, but also in the previous round of international and US sanctions. However, they feel that the last time around they were taken for a ride in terms of high Chinese interest rates for project finance, the quality of goods delivered, and a perceived Chinese laxity in adhering to deadlines.

Long-term stability or volatility?

Resentment in various countries of the fallout of the Belt and Road investment taps into the broader threat involved in supporting stability by backing autocratic regimes. That is nowhere truer than in the greater Middle East, a region that is in a period of volatile, often bloody and brutal transition. It’s a transition that started with the 2011 Arab revolts and has been prolonged by a powerful Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led counter-revolution. Transitions take anywhere from a quarter to half a century. In other words, the Middle East is just at the beginning.

China, like the United States has been doing for decades, ignores the rumblings of discontent just below the surface even if the global trend is toward more authoritarian, more autocratic rule. The events of 9/11 were a result of the United States and the West failing to put their ear to the ground and neglecting to take note of those rumblings.

Of course, current rumblings may never explode. But the lesson of the people’s power movement in the Philippines in 1986, the video of a fruit and vegetable vendor in Tunisia who set himself alight in late 2010 that sparked the Arab revolts, months of street and online protests in Morocco in the last year,34 the mass protests in Jordan earlier this year against a draft tax bill that have now restarted because of the legislation’s resurrection,35 and recent protests in the Iraqi city of Basra are all indicators of what could come.36 All it takes is a black swan.

The Chinese crackdown in Xinjiang could just be said black swan on multiple fronts given the fact that its fallout is felt far beyond China’s borders. For starters, the wall of Western and Muslim silence is cracking with potentially serious consequences for China as well as the Islamic world.