Russia, Iran and even Daesh — from Syria and Iraq to Libya and Yemen — have made inroads in recent years in pursuit of their respective goals, contributing decisively to, among other crises, the catastrophe in Syria, the biggest the region has witnessed in recent decades. The substantial American military presence in the region, these days focused primarily on counterterrorism, seems to have offered little in the way of dissuasion.
But an often more discreet but certainly no less relevant player continues to enhance its influence in the Gulf and the wider Middle East: China. The last few weeks reveal the ever-faster pace with which the Asian giant is establishing its presence.
In July, on the 90th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army, China opened its first overseas military base, in Djibouti. Although labelled a logistics facility, designed to support the Chinese navy’s participation in humanitarian and counter-piracy missions, the base is strategically located at the door of the Red Sea leading to the Suez Canal.
This month, Chinese banks lent over $3.5 billion to Oman, crucial for the sultanate to cover this year’s budget deficit and proceed with its austerity plans following the slump in oil prices. China’s financial heft had already played a key part — together with Saudi Arabia and the UAE — in unblocking the IMF’s bailout program for Egypt in November last year. In 2016, China became the largest investor in the Arab world, with 32 percent (almost $30 billion) in foreign direct investment. The US, the third largest foreign direct investor in Arab countries, accounted for $6.9 billion.
Equally in August, and according to Iranian press, China’s Special Envoy to Syria submitted to Ali Akbar Velayati, Senior Foreign Policy Adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei, the plan for Chinese involvement in Syria.
In March, a small contingent of Chinese troops were deployed in Syria to train and advise the Syrian army. Yet in Syria, Chinese priorities seem to have evolved, from initial concerns with stability and jihadists (mostly from the Uighur minority from Xinjiang) returning home, to broader geostrategic and economic considerations.
Beijing’s influence in the Middle East is growing, but its aims and methods may be incompatible with those of Iran.
Dr. Manuel Almeida
As the prospects of military defeat for the Assad regime have declined dramatically, speculation about a central Chinese role in the reconstruction of Syria has grown. The problem for Russia and Iran is that they now own the Syrian crisis, which is far from being resolved. With their limited capacity to invest in the Syrian economy, China’s involvement is a potential life saver — and it comes with the added value that, like Iran and Russia, the large-scale war crimes committed by the Assad regime seem not to be a primary concern.
The Chinese willingness, confirmed by China experts, to play a role in the stabilization of Syria, is certainly not unrelated to the role China envisions for Iran.
China has long seen Iran as a vehicle to counter US influence in the Middle East. Then Iran became an essential piece of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and the nuclear deal unlocked the remaining obstacles to this part of the plan. In February last year, in a highly symbolic event, the first cargo train departing from eastern China arrived in Tehran via Kazakstan and Turkmenistan, in just under two weeks.
Also after the nuclear deal, China is allegedly supporting full Iranian membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which Iranians have pursued for years. The SCO is considered the Central Asian equivalent and rival to NATO.
However, as China grows ever more involved in the Middle East, it is likely to look at the region beyond the perspective of great power competition with the US. This may come to raise some questions about how China will be able to find an accommodation with most of Iran’s regional policies, one the greatest sources of regional instability.
China’s first Arab policy paper, published last year, starts by praising China’s longstanding ties with Arab countries and advances various broad initiatives to strengthen these ties. It emphasizes shared goals such as safeguarding state sovereignty and territorial integrity, and fighting extremist and terrorism.
The revolutionary policy of Iran since 1979, based on overthrowing neighboring governments, building militias with transnational loyalties and supporting militant groups (Shiite and Sunni), contrasts sharply with the basic principles of Chinese foreign policy. The question is: will China’s Belt and Road Initiative speak louder.
• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Twitter: @ManuelAlmeida