The Middle East is a region not known for its stability. It has often stood as the mixing pot of many of the worlds civilisations, which continued from the 19th century into the 20th and 21st. From the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Bush administrations in Iraq and tomahawk launches into Syria by Trump, there is deep-rooted involvement from a number of parties. Now with Belt and Road, China is looking to turn the region into a platform to buy its oil and a pathway to sell its goods.
So, what is Chinas endgame?
The short answer is stability, and you can see this in several regions in the Middle East.
Most prominently Iran, which often finds its way into the news because of development of a nuclear programme and the sanctions that the West have been negotiation for some time now. In fact the tense situation has been to Chinas advantage.
While sanctions were imposed, China had dominance in investment in Iran, but with the lifting of sanctions after an agreement in 2015, the Chinese are now facing competition with the West. Iran does well from this, Western technology, leadership, and markets are all appealing, as well as a counterweight to assert themselves against Chinese influence.
However Chinese investment is more respectful of Iran as a regional player. Going with the ethos of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, China has not sought to influence the way Iran operates, rather reinforce the way its integrity. Take for example ballistic missile development, which many parts have been imported from China.
This is something the United States has been quick to recognise and in the most recent wave of sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, over missile development, Chinese officials have found themselves as targets.
Thus, Iran has found itself in a position where it can use its position on the crossroads between East and West to advance its own interests, and assert its own identity, not just in the wider world but importantly in the tumultuous region.
Turkey is acting in a similar way to Iran, balancing the offers from the West and and in a unique case the EU, with external offers from China. There has been talk of Turkey joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which Russia and Kazakhstan along with a number of other countries are already part of. The accession of Turkey into the EU has long been toyed in Europe and now with China becoming more outward looking, Turkey is again affirming itself in the region along with Iran. Is this what China wants?
To answer this, it is important to consider the wider region. What is China doing and how is belt and road changing that?
Well in 2016 they published the Arab Policy Paper that gives an insight into Chinas aims in the Middle East. The paper focused a lot on the 1+2+3 approach that accompanies Belt and Road. One being energy cooperation, which China has been continually seeking in Belt and Road; Two being the twin pillars of investment and infrastructure development and the three major strides in nuclear energy, satellite development and new forms of energy.
Outside of this, the document talks an awful lot about peace. This is again important to consider China’s aim in the region. While some commentary on current affairs are looking for indications that China are prepared to get directly involved in the region as the West and Russia has done in the past as well as the present, but for now it seems the Chinese have little intention in doing so. Direct intervention might not just drag China into a war, but it would also be very disruptive of the economic opportunities the Chinese are seeking to gain in the Middle East.
One clinch point of Chinese commitment to peace is in Syria where the Chinese have recently, along with Russia, exercised a veto on the UN security council over sanctions that were to be put on Syria. China said that the investigation had not yet been concluded but they opposed the use of chemical weapons.
Again, this shows some commitment to the region, and opposition to more western interference. If China is going to continue to invest in the Middle East, stability will be its key.
Thus, China is not getting directly involved, but through diplomacy, and through Belt and Road it is propelling regional actors. How this will result will only be seen in time, will possible aggression by emboldened Turkey and Iran disrupt the Chinese hope for stability in the Middle East? Or will the dust finally settle after decades of storms?
Photo Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_Republic_of_Iran_Army_Ground_Forces