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Why the ‘new Silk Road’ leads to the Middle East

When the Communist Party of China convenes in Beijing this week for its 19th national congress, all eyes will be on a leader described on the current cover of The Economist magazine as the most powerful man in the world. 
Xi Jinping will be confirmed for a second five-year term as president, strengthening his status as one of the most influential Chinese leaders since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
Historically, party conferences have focused on domestic issues, particularly economic development and political stability. However, China’s rise over the past three decades has turned it into the world’s second largest economy and a military and political force to be reckoned with.
As President Xi consolidates his power and vision, China’s rise to becoming a global superpower seems unstoppable, despite all the surrounding issues about mounting debts and slowing economic growth. Certainly, the rise of China as a global power may be inevitable and could have significant implications for the Middle East and beyond.
In this context, several factors could play an important part in deepening the Chinese economic engagement in the Middle East.
First, there is strong political will on both sides to improve their relations at all levels. Second, despite increasing competition in global energy markets, the region will remain a strategic area, especially in terms of energy resources, regardless of the increase in production of other regions.
The growing importance of China represents a fundamental shift in global geopolitics and provides Arab countries with an important “new friend.” Indeed, Arab states see China as a superpower in the making and expect that it will soon become their first economic partner. It would thus make sense to strengthen ties with this rising power.
However, Chinese experts do not expect (at least in the short and medium term) any significant changes in China’s policies toward the Middle East or Arab countries over the coming years, as President Xi will ensure a policy of continuity in the region and more support for the “new Silk Road” – China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a massive $1 trillion infrastructure project connecting about 60 countries in Asia and Europe. 
“I don’t think there will be a great change in China’s Middle East policy. Usually, the final policy decision is made by top leaders of the Politburo, but suggested by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Commerce,” said Wang Zhen, associate professor and secretary general of the Center for West Asia and North Africa Studies at Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

As Xi Jinping consolidates his grip on power, China’s inexorable economic and political rise will have consequences in the Arab world.

Dr. Naser Al-Tamimi

Zeng Ji, chair of the Department of International Affairs at Sun Yat-sen University in China, said: “The conference will further consolidate China’s Middle East policy which it has been implementing so far, with more attention on the region but without any radical change. The Middle East is becoming increasingly important in the context of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.” 
While the initiative is the centerpiece of President Xi’s global vision, other countries are not so sure. Certainly, many in the US, India, Japan and Europe are still looking at the issue through the prism of power politics or their fears that the Belt and Road Initiative will enable China to expand its geopolitical influence and economic prominence over the coming years and decades as it becomes more powerful and assertive.
However, the Chinese look at the issue from a different angle. They see the Belt and Road Initiative as an effort to diversify their country’s trade routes in order to boost its energy and trade security.
“China will certainly play a more active role in Middle East issues, but unlike those played by other powers as it will not take any interventionist approach,” Ji said. “China will continue to emphasize, or participate in, political solutions to conflicts, and economic development as the basis of regional stability.” 
After the conference, there are expectations that the Chinese leadership will adopt a more assertive foreign policy in many parts of the world, including the Middle East. “China will be more active than before to protect its increasing interest in Middle East, but its role will be very different from other powers like the US, since it has no intention and capability to do that,” Zhen said.
All the indicators from China are clear: Its interests in the Middle East will grow steadily. Ultimately, the Chinese military presence will surely grow to protect these interests and ensure the safety of hundreds of thousands of Chinese living and working in the region.
This may open the door to several possibilities for China-Arab relations, including the security of the Gulf region and the Red Sea, fighting terrorism, and reconstruction in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya. More importantly, rising Chinese military activities in the region and increasing the quality and sophistication of Chinese weapons could push military cooperation to higher levels.
• Dr. Naser Al-Tamimi is a UK-based Middle East researcher, political analyst and commentator with interests in energy politics and Gulf-Asia relations. Al-Tamimi is author of the book “China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance?” E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @nasertamimi