While some Western media have characterized Chinese President Xi Jinping’s just-concluded Middle East visit, his first since becoming President, as a “tilt” towards Iran, the reality is that President Xi Jinping decided that this was not the right moment to wade into the middle of the Middle East conflict by attempting to assert a Chinese role as “honest broker.” Last week, MEB reported that this was the critical question, going in to the Chinese leader’s visits to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran.
For the moment, China decided to maintain its historic posture of non-interference, choosing instead to sign economic deals in all three countries, while arguing in general terms that “rapid economic development is the key to defeating jihadists.” While this formulation, which dominated Xi Jinping’s speech before the Arab League in Cairo, is obviously true, President Xi Jinping made no direct pitch, either in his public statements or in his closed door meetings with Saudi, Egyptian or Iranian leaders, suggesting that China was offering to mediate any of the multiple conflicts threatening the region.
The key features of Xi Jinping’s three visits were: emphasis on the long continuity of friendly Chinese relations with each country; the expansion of bilateral economic cooperation; and specific offers of sales of nuclear power technology and Chinese weaponry.
By staying away from the regional conflicts, and generally avoiding taking sides, Xi Jinping was able to successfully deepen economic ties in all three countries. Saudi Arabia was not principally interested in the kind of Chinese investments and aid that were top priorities for both Egypt and Iran. For Saudi Arabia, the number one objective of the Xi visit was to secure Saudi Arabia’s market share of oil exports. This is something that the Saudis were not taking for granted. In the first 11 months of 2015, Saudi oil sales to China, by volume, only increased by two percent, while Russia’s sales increased by 30 percent. It will be several years, at least, before Iran poses any kind of direct challenge to Saudi Arabia’s supremacy over Gulf oil production. Iran plans to boost oil exports by 500,000 barrels per day in the next year, but that will only bring Iran’s export totals to 1.5 million barrels per day. Given the dismal state of the Iranian economy, Iran needs 1 million barrels a day for bare-bone domestic energy consumption.
While Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tried to hype Iranian-Chinese relations, telling Xi Jinping that “Iranians never trusted the West… and that is why Tehran seeks cooperation with more independent countries,” the Iranian leadership was clearly unhappy that, during his Riyadh meetings, President Xi gave his support to the Yemeni government, which is backed by the Saudis. The announcement at the end of the Tehran visit that China and Iran intend to boost trade tenfold in the next decade to $600 billion a year, is a generality that will take much work to come close to realizing. Furthermore, China did express an interest in expanding weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.
China has strong and growing interests in the Middle East, and it was demonstrated by President Xi Jinping’s decision to make his first international trip of 2016 to the region. The Chinese government is truly committed to its One Belt, One Road (otherwise known as the New Silk Road and Maritime Silk Road) program, and all three countries where Xi visited are pivotal to that program’s success. Egypt is vital to the Maritime Silk Road routes, which run from the South China Sea into the Indian Ocean, along the Horn of Africa and up through the New Suez Canal into the Mediterranean.
Iran is a key bridge to Central Asia, bordering on Afghanistan. To make the Silk Road project succeed, China must have cooperation in bringing stability to Central Asia. During his Tehran visit, Xi made clear that China is prepared to accelerate Iran’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). With both India and Pakistan recently admitted as full members, the SCO states encircle Afghanistan. Some leading US military strategists have proposed handing over the security of Afghanistan to the SCO, as the US and NATO continue the draw-down of military forces there.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia is another key player in the Central Asia/South Asia picture, given the Kingdom’s long-standing special relationship with Pakistan, something that China also enjoys.
The Xi visit was received positively in all three stops, where economic cooperation was upfront, and where the Chinese leader refrained from over-asserting China’s commitment to actually make the region more stable, through direct intervention into the complex crisis spots.
For the time being, the United States and Russia are the two “great states” that are attempting to manage the Middle East mess, starting with the Geneva/Vienna process. It remains to be seen whether the US and Russia can become sustained partners in that effort—or will remain geopolitical rivals. If there is any measurable success in ending the Syria war through some combination of combat and diplomacy, and if the Islamic States is seriously crushed, or at least crippled and contained, China will be there to put substantial resources into the region’s reconstruction. That was Xi’s message to the Arab League.
It remains to be seen whether the Chinese decision to maintain a status quo foreign policy towards the Middle East was a wise conclusion or a badly missed opportunity.