As Vladimir Putin’s declining Russia flaunts its power in the Middle East, Xi Jinping’s ascending China eludes the attention it deserves. But the Communist Party of China has begun investing money and gaining influence in ways that have vast – and worrisome – implications.
“After years of relative passivity [Beijing] is now making a concerted effort to expand its strategic presence and economic clout” in the Middle East, writes Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, in the current issue of the Middle East Quarterly. (I rely extensively on his fine analysis in what follows.) Berman rightly calls this “one of the most consequential … trends of recent years.”
Two motives – energy and ideology – explain China’s regional ambitions. As the country becomes more prosperous, its growing energy consumption leads to more dependence on Middle Eastern suppliers. China imports more than half of its crude oil and of that, nearly 40 percent comes from the Middle East, with the proportion continuing to rise. In Berman’s estimation, the region “is quickly becoming a key engine of Chinese economic growth,” which in turn implies an imperative for Beijing to gain more influence over what happens there.
Beyond this practical need, asserting Chinese power has become an end in itself since Xi took power in 2013, leading to what Berman calls “an increasingly aggressive, expansionist foreign policy.” This includes an attempt at global economic dominance via the Belt and Road Initiative that involves 100 countries.
In the Middle East, this has meant that the Chinese government’s ambitions have grown in the past five years from merely buying energy and selling arms to a far deeper involvement. Symbolic of this transformation, annual Chinese investment in the region a decade ago amounted to $1 billion; at just a single forum recently, it pledged $23 billion in loans and development aid. In August, it sent a $1 billion cash infusion to Turkey alone.
Militarily, Beijing become a leading contributor to UN peacekeeping operations, sent the People’s Liberation Army Navy on visits to many ports, and opened its first regional base in Djibouti in 2015. The future presumably holds many more Chinese military bases.
As Beijing begins to “alter politics and security in the region,” Berman notes “tremendous consequences.” Here are three:
U.S.-Israel ties: China’s leaders so appreciate the Jewish state’s technological prowess that they invested $3.2 billion in the first half of 2019 and now are estimated to control or have influence over as much as one-quarter of Israel’s tech industry, including military contractors working on confidential projects with American firms. Indeed China may soon replace America as Israel’s single largest source of investment, a prospect that not only has official Washington “increasingly alarmed” but could damage a decades-long, particularly close and productive bond.
Xinjiang: China’s massive repression of its Muslim population, especially of the Uyghurs in its far western province of Xinjiang, has met with a collective shrug from such Muslim notables as Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This inexcusable lack of concern contrasts dramatically with the Muslim world’s prolonged tantrum over little Israel’s far milder treatment of the Palestinians, It also signals that China’s size, power, and ruthlessness renders it free to repress Islamic religion and culture within its domains and perhaps beyond.
High-tech dictatorship: The “China model” of surveillance, censorship, monitoring, and repression has become an important export commodity. It also has terrible implications: the ChiCom ability to control every aspect of its subjects’ lives (think smartphones as spy devices and 200GB photographs) through innovative and ubiquitous technologies hugely enhances the power of the state.
Not surprisingly, these find a ready market in the Middle East. Chinese companies have helped Iran’s mullahs to stay in power since the Green Movement of 2009. They have taken over nearly all of Egypt‘s telecommunications, giving President Sisi vast controls to stifle his population. They are also worryingly active in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia (and elsewhere too, such as Africa and Latin America).
Faithful to communist anti-imperialist dogma, Xi strenuously denies that his government seeks to develop a sphere of influence in the Middle East, instead proclaiming an innocent intent merely to help with economic development. Ignore the puffery: Beijing not only “holds the power to alter alliances, political discourse, and even domestic freedoms throughout the region,” as Berman puts it, but it intends to exploit that power to the maximum.