China’s conduct in the Middle East has so far been a straightforward affair. As a host of Asia experts enunciate, China’s regional activism has been ‘exclusively economic’. Between 2004 and 2014 the country’s trade with the region grew by more than 600 per cent. Needless to say, this economic dynamism has had no military parallel. The authors set out to investigate whether this will remain the case. To this question, there is hardly an unequivocal response.
What is clearer, however, is China’s increasingly multifaceted view of the region. The latter is increasingly viewed in terms of meeting an insatiable demand for energy, as an extension of the country’s periphery, as a region pivotal to the development of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and, encompassing all of the above, as an arena where China’s great power status is likely to be tested, and asserted.
In line with the multiplicity of its interests, China’s approach to the Middle East has been highly nuanced. For example, while in theory the US is its regional competitor, China has been happy to leave the security remit of the region to the US, both because security is a precondition for carrying out its regional tasks and because more US focus on the MENA region equals less focus on the China Seas.
At the same time, China has been exhibiting a type of geostrategic reticence; Jon B. Alterman debates whether this is due to patience or benign intent. But according to Andrew Scobell’s contribution, the Chinese state has been perennially distrustful of other states and hence averse to alliance-making. Regardless of the correct explanation, to the extent there is one, it is beyond doubt that the Chinese way of doing things has so far been in stark contrast to that of the occidental powers. Even the ‘Four Nos’, the theoretical principles underpinning the country’s strategic approach, speak volumes: no interference in others’ domestic affairs, non-alignment, no political conditions attached, no foreign military bases abroad. Whether this mindset will be subject to change remains to be seen; Scobell predicts that China’s regional military footprint is bound to become more tangible in the coming years.
In a highly original and trenchant chapter, Mehran Kamrava investigates the Chinese model’s appeal for Middle Eastern states. While for many Middle Easterners China is seductive because of its focus on development and the latter’s undertones of power, Kamrava does not see the model adopted in the region any time soon. The latter’s autocrats’ politics are simply not conducive to the transferability of such a model: an underdevelopment or uneven development of the state’s institutions, a very narrow crony capitalism and the state’s inability to articulate a clear developmental agenda all militate against a Middle Eastern version of the Chinese model. In addition, other talking points surround the model: its durability remains to be seen, while its contingency on certain temporal and cultural/civilizational factors might restrict its transferability. After all, Chinese Communist Party equivalents do not exist in the Middle East.
China’s role in the now emaciated Iran nuclear deal has been under-researched. China expert John W. Garver does a great job in elucidating Chinese policies’ driving forces and their impact. As it turns out, China managed to aptly navigate a treacherous and volatile issue by drawing red lines while conversing to everyone: it played along with the US by supporting successive UN resolutions. And it minimized damage to Sino-Iranian economic ties while doing so. Thus, while the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran was always out of the question, China’s strategy has always been one of intense engagement rather than outright coercion. In any case, in today’s increasingly nuanced world politics among great powers, this type of coercion seems to lose ground by the day. It should not come as a surprise that, according to Garver, China’s role in crafting the deal was possibly second only to that of the US and Iran.
If China’s policy vis-à-vis the region is still unclear, then China’s Belt and Road Initiative relation to the Middle East is even more so. As Andrew Small points, the traditional decoupling of China’s trade and economics from politics is contravened by the BRI’s quintessence. The latter is meant to deploy economics in the service of strategic and political ends. In addition, BRI-related activities play a prominent position in China’s first ever Arab Policy Paper of 2016, yet how the first might dovetail with the second is as yet unfathomed. As Small reminds, a number of structural problems render the region problematic in terms of attracting economic activity: bureaucracy and political obstacles, lack of viable investments, direct security threats. The same author concludes that it is not totally unthinkable that the BRI will bypass the Middle East altogether.
Although the book’s title leaves no doubt as to its scope, the inclusion of a chapter on the northern shore of the Mediterranean would have been constructive in shedding more light on the Middle East’s importance for the completion of the Belt and Road Initiative, which by all accounts ends in Europe. The European Mediterranean, especially Greece and Italy, have been the focus of major Chinese investments and for many, the Chinese gateways to Europe. In addition, in 2015 China and Russia carried out joint naval exercises, which for Stephen Blank might be an indication of China’s will to project power into the Middle East. Given its prowess and importance, some thoughts on China’s relations with Israel would also have been pertinent. Overall, however, the book is a sober and much needed contribution to the bibliography on China’s Middle East politics in the form of an anthological debate.