China Watch

China’s increasing influence in West Asia: A realist interpretation

By Prashant Sahu

Introduction

The West Asian region has been a site by superpower rivalry for regional control and influence. Before Second World War (1939-45), the primary actors were Great Britain and France, but after the War, the USA and USSR have been the primary contending superpowers.

Image Courtesy: The Atlantic

However, since the 1980s and particularly after the end of the Cold War, China’s presence in the West Asian region has been steadily growing. This has been possible because of China’s economic growth, military modernization, and increasing diplomatic influence worldwide.

This article would examine why the West Asian region is an essential constituent of China’s foreign policy

A brief overview of China’s West Asia policy

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First, we would briefly look at China’s West Asia policy’s broad contours since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. The newly established PRC was part of the communist bloc and largely followed an isolationist foreign policy as it engaged itself in nation-building. The Bandung Conference (1955) was the first platform where Premier Zhou Enlai called for Afro-Asian unity. The Sino-Soviet split (1956) also provided a window to China for looking at other regions of the world. However, domestic campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) and Cultural Revolution (1966-76) disrupted China’s foreign relations.

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A significant event was PRC’s entry into United Nations in 1971, when China established diplomatic ties with Iran, Kuwait, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership, China initiated the ‘Reforms and opening-up policy’ and by 1992 had established diplomatic relations with all states of West Asia. A significant driver of this dynamic was China’s growing need for investments and importing energy resources from the region.

China-West Asia relations were institutionalized in 2004 with the creation of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF).

Importance of West Asia in Chinese Foreign Policy

According to the Realist framework in international relations, states are concerned with their security and act to pursue their national interests to maximize their power. Seen through this lens, China’s engagement with the region is determined by China’s national self-interest. This article would look into three components of China’s national interests: Energy security, National security, and Diplomatic status, besides the overall geostrategic importance of the West Asian region.

Energy security

Over the past few decades, the energy demands of the growing Chinese economy have made West Asia the primary source of petroleum, natural gas, and crude oil for China. In 2019, China was the world’s largest oil importer at $239 Billion, accounting for 22.6 percent of the total oil imports[1]

The West Asian region consists of several oil exporter countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Iran, and UAE. Concerning China, in 2019, Saudi Arabia and Iraq were the leading contributors to China’s import basket, respectively making up 16.8 percent and 9.9 percent of the total oil imports.[2]

National security

China’s policy in West Asia is strongly influenced by the ethnic unrest in China’s Western provinces and the increasing spread of radical Islam in the Western neighbourhood of Central Asia and Afghanistan. Moreover, as the US announces the withdrawal of its military from Afghanistan, the stability of this region would be threatened.

China is apprehensive that the Uighur separatist movement could quickly gain sympathy and backlash from the West Asian countries. Additionally, the Arab Spring and the consequent urban unrest in these countries could have a demonstration effect in Han-dominated areas of China’s eastern provinces. These security concerns also shape China’s diplomacy with West Asia.

Diplomatic Importance

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An essential determinant of China’s foreign policy is the concept of “face” (lian  脸). Creating and managing a respectable “face” is vital in Chinese society. In this light, engagement with this region is essential for China to achieve ‘great power’ status in world politics. As China has emerged as an economic powerhouse, it increasingly seeks other realms of power such as diplomatic and soft power.

Given that this region is one of the most conflict-ridden regions in world politics, it has become a site of great-power rivalry. The West Asian region had been an essential theatre of Cold War politics between Capitalist and Communist blocs. However, a power vacuum was created after Soviet disintegration, which is being filled by other regional powers, including China.

China’s increasing presence in the region is seen through extensive investments and trade relations with the countries of the region. China’s credibility is further enhanced by its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Geo-Strategic Importance

Finally, the West Asian region has tremendous geostrategic importance as it acts as a gateway to the West European markets. Consequently, the region is an essential factor in China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) megaproject[3]

China is widely regarded as a regional power with global influence, and engagement with this region is an attempt to shed this image and come out as a ‘great power’. In this context, the West Asian region, with its important geostrategic location, may emerge as an important area for China beyond its traditional zone of influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Further, the “Pivot to Asia” strategy of the Obama Administration (2009-16) to increase the US’s influence in East Asia and Southeast Asia and reduce its presence in West Asia has provided ample space for China to enter into this zone.

Conclusion

To sum up, China’s West Asia policy is becoming an increasingly important constituent in its overall foreign policy architecture. This article has examined this dynamic through the framework of realism and looked at three particular factors driving China-West Asia relations. As the world is undergoing a pandemic situation and global interactions are at a standstill, it remains to be seen what trajectory this significant relation would follow. As countries emerge out of the pandemic and engage in economic reconstruction, China, with its economic heft, would play a significant role in shaping the post-Covid world order, and China-West Asia relations would be an essential part of the new world order.

(The views and opinions expressed are those of the author)

References

Scobell A. and Nader A. (2016), China in the Middle East: A Wary Dragon, RAND Corporation, Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR1200/RR1229/RAND_RR1229.pdf

Chen, Xi (2018). ‘China in the Post-Hegemonic Middle East: A Wary Dragon?’, Retrieved from https://www.e-ir.info/2018/11/22/china-in-the-post-hegemonic-middle-east-a-wary-dragon/

Zhu, Zhiqun (2009). China’s New Diplomacy in the Middle East and its implications for the United States, Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies (in Asia), 3:4, 41-52, Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/19370679.2009.12023141

[1] http://www.worldstopexports.com/crude-oil-imports-by-country/

[2] https://www.worldstopexports.com/top-15-crude-oil-suppliers-to-china/

[3] https://www.topchinatravel.com/silk-road/one-belt-one-road.htm

Author’s Profile

Prashant Sahu is a PhD candidate in the Chinese Studies division of Center for East Asian Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University. His area of interests include Chinese Science, Technology and Innovation (STI), Chinese Foreign policy and Chinese Politics. He can be reached at prashantsahu13@gmail.com.

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