Chinese President Xi Jinping's first official visit to the Middle East next week is a signal of Beijing's intention to be a major player in Mid East affairs. Against the background of extremely intensive international contacts since the assumption of the Chinese presidency in March 2013, Xi Jinping’s first Middle East tour from Jan. 19 to Jan. 23 will include Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran.
The Chinese leader has chosen the Middle East to be his first foreign destination of the year 2016 – a status generally used to indicate China’s focus on a particular region or country. The preparations for the visit started about a year before the Saudi-Arabia-Iran spat and many things have happened since then. The Iran nuclear talks ended up in agreement, Russia launched its military operations in Syria and the Sunni-Shia stand-off exacerbated.
Until recently, China’s Middle East policy used to boil down predominantly to buying oil in exchange for investments. With no military presence and direct military involvement, Beijing became the largest hydrocarbons consumer. But the program of the first visit of the Chinese top leader since the start of the region's turmoil goes far beyond energy security. Now Beijing gets involved in the region on a much broader basis.
Economic cooperation, the refugee crisis and, especially, terrorism are the issues to top the visit’s agenda. Just ahead of President Xi's trip, China published its Arab Policy Paper, reaffirming the strategic significance that Beijing attaches to the region.
It says that China strives to consolidate and deepen China-Arab traditional friendship.
China’s involvement into the Middle East affairs becomes a factor to exert significant influence on the events. With no particular country chosen as an ally, Beijing tries to create favorable geo-political climate, and that’s a positive trend.
«If you are able to make a difference in the Middle East, you will be regarded as a major country. China faces restrictions in the Middle East, but it is ready to play its role», said Li Shaoxian, vice president of Institute of Contemporary International Relations, a government-run think tank.
Xi Jinping’s visit to Egypt is scheduled for January 20-22 – the first such visit by a Chinese leader in 12 years. During Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s state visit to China in late 2014, the two sides upgraded their relationship to a «comprehensive strategic partnership». Agreements from that visit, including an electric rail project and construction of a new power plant in Suez, were finalized when the Egyptian President attended the military parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Egypt has also indicated it will seek Chinese investment and participation in its New Suez Canal project. Egypt is friendly to Saudi Arabia, but it’s not part of anti-Iran coalition. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi went to Moscow and Beijing to take part in V-Day festivities. The trade between China and Europe goes through the Egyptian Suez Channel.
Iran is a special case. A visit to Iran has been on the cards for a year. Xi Jinping would become the first Chinese leader to visit Iran since President Jiang Zemin paid a state visit to that country in 2002. Buying oil from Iran, China provides it with weapons, investments and technology. Beijing takes part in the construction of the 2,775 km (1,724 mi) long Iran–Pakistan gas pipeline, also known as the Peace pipeline, to deliver natural gas from Iran to Pakistan.
For Iran, China is a source of crucial investments, a reliable consumer and a country of great importance in geopolitical terms. With the sanctions expected to be lifted soon, Iran faces the prospects of broader cooperation with China and Russia – the two countries with similar interests in Iran. Tehran expresses a desire to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and become part of the political and economic alliance led by Russia and China. With sanctions lifted, Iran may be invited to join the SCO this summer to become a full member a year later. The same summit is expected to provide full membership to India and Pakistan and thus create the Moscow-Beijing-Delhi axis.
The tour will include the first China-Saudi Arabia summit since 2009. China and Saudi Arabia formed diplomatic relations in 1990. However, since then ties have expanded rapidly as China’s reliance on foreign oil has grown. In the fall of 2013, China officially overtook the United States as the largest net importer of oil. In particular, China is expected to soon become the largest importer of oil from OPEC, resulting in more reliance on the OPEC nations, including Saudi Arabia. While energy cooperation remains a bulwark of China-Saudi Arabia relations, it’s clear that both countries are seeking to expand their relationship.
Saudi Arabia’s historic ties with the United States have frayed somewhat in recent years, partially due to the US response to the Arab Spring and as a result of the nuclear deal with Iran that the Kingdom opposed so much. Increased China-Saudi Arabia cooperation makes sense for both Beijing and Riyadh. As China’s dependence on foreign oil grows, Beijing will need to ensure good relations with the powerful oil countries in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is the most important of those. Further, a good relationship with Riyadh would allow China not just to secure oil imports from Riyadh, but to create a partnership dedicated to «stabilizing» the region, ideally keeping all Middle Eastern oil flowing smoothly. Recently Riyadh has been making numerous outreaches to balance out its foreign policy, avoiding overreliance on the US support.
China sides with Russia on all major issues related to the Middle East, including its support for the Bashar Assad’s government in Syria. If peace is ever restored there, Chinese and Russian investments will play a big role in making the country get back on track. Iran, Russia and China are in the same boat on Afghanistan. Beijing realizes that the New Silk Road dream will never come true without stable Central Asia and Pakistan. For Russia and Iran, stability in the region is an issue of vital importance as both countries are facing hostilities taking place in the vicinity of their borders.
The consensus between Russia and China seems to allow the two parties to seek further coordination of their actions in the Middle East. Such consensus includes Syria, Iran, the opposition to the strategy of «regime change» and «color revolutions».
Moscow and Beijing have common interest in the joint fight against terrorism, extremism and separatism. Muslim extremists from Russia and Chinese Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region fill the ranks of the Islamic State and pose a real threat for their respective countries in case they return home.
Russia and China are the common denominators in the contemporary world. Both countries are important actors in the Syrian peace management process. The recent return of Russia to the Middle East and China’s emergence as an active Middle East actor constitute a counterweight to the United States influence in the region. By coordinating their activities, both countries can fill the void left by the recent failure of US Middle East policy and make a significant contribution into turning the region away from the abyss of chaos and permanent conflicts.