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China’s step into the maelstrom of the Middle East

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The Middle East has a knack for sucking external powers into its conflicts. China’s ventures into the region have shown how difficult it is to maintain its principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.

China’s abandonment of non-interference is manifested by its (largely ineffective) efforts to mediate conflicts in South Sudan, Syria and Afghanistan as well as between Israel and Palestine and even between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is even more evident in China’s trashing of its vow not to establish foreign military bases, which became apparent when it established a naval base in Djibouti and when reports surfaced that it intends to use Pakistan’s deep sea port of Gwadar as a military facility.

This contradiction between China’s policy on the ground and its long-standing non-interventionist foreign policy principles means that Beijing often struggles to meet the expectations of Middle Eastern states. It also means that China risks tying itself up in political knots in countries such as Pakistan, which is home to the crown jewel of its Belt and Road Initiative — the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Middle Eastern autocrats have tried to embrace the Chinese model of economic liberalism coupled with tight political control. They see China’s declared principle of non-interference in the affairs of others for what it is: support for authoritarian rule. The principle of this policy is in effect the same as the decades-old US policy of opting for stability over democracy in the Middle East.

It is now a risky policy for the United States and China to engage in given the region’s post-Arab Spring history with brutal and often violent transitions. If anything, instead of having been ‘stabilised’ by US and Chinese policies, the region is still at the beginning of a transition process that could take up to a quarter of a century to resolve. There is no guarantee that autocrats will emerge as the winners.

China currently appears to have the upper hand against the United States for influence across the greater Middle East, but Chinese policies threaten to make that advantage short-term at best.

Belt and Road Initiative-related projects funded by China have proven to be a double-edged sword. Concerns are mounting in countries like Pakistan that massive Chinese investment could prove to be a debt trap similar to Sri Lanka’s experience.

Chinese back-peddling on several Pakistani infrastructure projects suggests that China is tweaking its approach to the US$50 billion China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. The Chinese rethink was sparked by political volatility caused by Pakistan’s self-serving politics and continued political violence — particularly in the Balochistan province, which is at the heart of CPEC.

China decided to redevelop its criteria for the funding of CPEC’s infrastructure projects in November 2017. This move seemingly amounted to an effort to enhance the Pakistani military’s stake in the country’s economy at a time when they were flexing their muscles in response to political volatility. The decision suggests that China is not averse to shaping the political environment of key countries in its own authoritarian mould.

Similarly, China has been willing to manipulate Pakistan against its adversaries for its own gain. China continues to shield Masoud Azhar (who is believed to have close ties to Pakistani intelligence agencies and military forces) from UN designation as a global terrorist. China does so while Pakistan cracks down on militants in response to a US suspension of aid and a UN Security Council monitoring visit.

Pakistan’s use of militants in its dispute with India over Kashmir serves China’s interest in keeping India off balance — a goal which Beijing sees as worthy despite the fact that Chinese personnel and assets have been the targets of a low-level insurgency in Balochistan. Saudi Arabia is also considering the use of Balochistan as a launching pad to destabilise Iran. By stirring ethnic unrest in Iran, Saudi Arabia will inevitably suck China into the Saudi–Iranian rivalry and sharpen its competition with the United States. Washington backs the Indian-supported port of Chabahar in Iran — a mere 70 kilometres from Gwadar.

China is discovering that it will prove impossible to avoid the pitfalls of the greater Middle East. This is despite the fact that US President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman seem singularly focussed on countering Iran and Islamic militants.

As it navigates the region’s numerous landmines, China is likely to find itself at odds with both the United States and Saudi Arabia. It will at least have a common interest in pursuing political stability at the expense of political change — however much this may violate its stated commitment to non-interference.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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East Asia

Chinese Game: U.S. Losing Asia and Africa

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As the US sanction pressure on Russia intensifies, the US economic and political competition with their most important economic partner, China, is noticeably getting more fierce. Simultaneously, Washington has been exchanging direct and indirect economic strikes with Turkey and the EU. (In the case of the European Union, an exchange of blows occurs in connection with Washington’s threat to punish European companies that are set to ignore the US ban on cooperation with Iran.)

Two Lines of Confrontation

The aggravation of the US-Chinese rivalry proceeds along two lines: first, the rates in the “tariff war” between the two countries are rising; second, the struggle between Washington and Beijing for lucrative markets in Asia and Africa is intensifying. Both these processes are interrelated, but in the current circumstances the main focus of the second line  is the fight for markets.

In the first place, I would like to talk briefly about the “tariff war” between the US and China as an important element in relations between the two countries, without which it is impossible to understand all the subtleties of competition between these two countries in Asia and Africa. As is known, the “tariff war” worsened after the US president first introduced a 25-percent duty on the import of 818 products from China, the total value of which was estimated at 34 billion dollars a year. Then came the even more threatening statement of the US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer: “On July 18, the President instructed me to compile the list of Chinese goods worth 200 billion dollars for imposing additional duties of 10 percent … The President ordered me to consider an increase in the proposed level from 10 to 25 percent “. After China responded with a 25-percent duty on 34 billion dollars’ worth of American goods, Trump did not rule out the possibility of raising duties on all Chinese imports in the US. The total value of Chinese commodities in the US is currently estimated at about $ 500 billion.

Simultaneously, the United States has loudly announced its intention to compete with China in influencing countries that participate in the Chinese transport project “One Belt, One Road”, which is designed to revive the Great Silk Road, which ran throughout the whole of Eurasia in the Middle Ages. As he set off for  the Regional Cooperation Forum in Singapore in July this year, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced his intention to counteract China’s so-called “silk” influence. According to Pompeo’s plans, the appropriate measures should cost the US budget a trifling $ 113 million against China’s hundreds of billions which is exactly the amount Beijing is planning to allocate for the implementation of “One Belt, One Road” project.

Influence at Low Cost

If the United States intends to squeeze China out of Asia at such miniscule costs, they obviously underestimate the rival. At least two factors work for Beijing: first of all, China is one of the region’s oldest “aborigines”; besides, Washington, waging a “tariff” war against Beijing, can thus deprive itself of a part of the Chinese oil market, making China even more attractive for oil traders from Iran and Russia – the key players in the project “One Belt, One Road”.

The American Oil Price news site has described the impact of the US-China “tariff war” on the Asian oil players as follows: “China has threatened to impose a 25- percent import tariff on crude oil and oil products from the United States. If this threat comes into effect, crude oil from the US can become non-competitive in terms of value. Such a tariff from China will not only reduce the income of oil exporters from the US, forcing them to look for new markets … it can become a source of additional revenues for the OPEC countries. And the OPEC countries are the suppliers that the US has pushed into the background in recent years”, says Oil Price researcher Irina Slav. oilprice.com

Considering that for the American oil industry China is the largest export market after Canada, it becomes clear that this matter is fraught with so huge losses, billions in fact, that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with his 113 million dollars sounds ridiculous.

Psychological Error

Judging by Pompeo’s statements, Americans are committing a psychological mistake in Asia. This is the mistake that led to China pushing the US to the sidelines in many countries of Africa. The matter is that the US is trying to replace genuine assistance by self-praise, flaunting any of its measures as valuable and corruption-free, alleging that whatever it does is a good example to follow. “The world knows that with American companies you get what you see. Honest contracts, honest conditions, there is no need for behind-the-scenes machinations. Decency in business is the pillar of our economic vision in the Indo-Pacific Region”, the Secretary of State told CNN.

Meanwhile, South-East Asian nations know only too well about the US policy in this region. Alas, it is simply impossible to describe this policy as ever humanistic, open and devoid of corruption – it would mean contradicting the historical truth. The brutal war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, the support of the dictatorial and corrupt regime of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines (1965-1986), the “secret wars” of the CIA in Laos and Cambodia during military operations in Vietnam – the memory of all these is still fresh in the region. All the countries affected (Vietnam, the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia) are members of ASEAN. In such circumstances, the self-praising speeches by American officials at ASEAN forums trigger a skeptical attitude, to say the least. And although many ASEAN countries may feel wary of China and are unlikely to have cloudless relations with Beijing in the near future, the US’ psychologically wrong tactics have already antagonized many of these states pushing them toward Russia and China. This is proved by the recent attempts by Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte to diversify the traditionally pro-American policy of his country, enlisting the support of Russia and even China, a long-term rival. Duterte’s historic visit to China in 2016 showed who had actually won the fight for the “heart and mind” of the Philippine leader – a struggle in which the United States initially had very strong positions. aljazeera.com

The anti-Duterte media campaign, which was launched in the US and the EU soon afterwards, has no direct consequences so far. American accusations against Duterte in connection with an excessively fierce fight against the drug mafia sounded hypocritical amid the “war on drugs” which was imposed by the United States on Mexico and Colombia in the 2000s and in which at least 45,000 people were killed.

Lost In Asia – Will Lose In Africa

As far as Africa is concerned, in recent years China has outplayed not only the Americans, but the seemingly familiar with the local specifics former colonial masters of this region – the French and the British.

After the first Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2000, the Chinese side found the right approach to its African partners – without instruction, without interference in internal affairs, with investment proposals supported by the banking sector of the Middle Kingdom. The first ministerial meeting of FOCAC attracted representatives of 44 countries from 53 states of the African continent. Fairly soon, China made these forums pan-African by removing Taiwan. Until the middle of the 2000s Taiwan had its diplomatic missions in several African countries (including Chad and Senegal), which excluded the possibility of communication between these countries and the PRC.

Orientation – Bandung

The African-Chinese “union of values” began with the Bandung Conference of 1955, during which 29 countries of Asia and Africa proclaimed the principles of non-interference, respect for each other’s sovereignty and comprehensive economic cooperation. The figures of the Indian Jewaharlal Nehru, the Egyptian Gamal-Abdel Nasser and the Chinese Zhou Enlai, which live in the memory of many in connection with their participation in the Bandung Conference, have ‘sanctified’ a new approach to China’s cooperation with Africa. All three became heroes in their countries, and the Chinese leadership, headed by the then Secretary-General Hu Jintao, was not mistaken in the choice of a model: in the coming years China will most likely gain an economic foothold in Angola, South Africa and the Congo-Brazzaville state. According to the long-term president of this country Denis Sassou Nguesso, “Africans for the first time do not expect foul play from people with a different skin color who build their roads and power lines.” (Source: the book by French journalists Serge Michel, Michel Beuret “Cinafrica, Pechino qalla conquista del continente nero” – “Beijing in the process of conquering the black continent.” Milano, 2009, p. 23)

At present, Africa’s trade with China amounts to 220 billion dollars, with the US – 37 billion. Foreign direct investment from China to African countries is estimated at $ 50 billion, although many experts claim that the real figure is higher: too much infrastructure, new plants and modern services have appeared in Africa for such “modest” Chinese money. (Source: book by French journalists Serge Michel, Michel Beuret “Cinafrica, Pechino qalla conquista del continente nero” – “Beijing in the process of conquering the black continent.” Milano, 2009, p. 22).

It should be noted that Africa did its best to repay all their benefactors with loyalty: together with China, leaders of the African Union reacted negatively to the armed, violent overthrow of the leader of the African Union – Libyan Muammar Gaddafi. China knows that it can count on the majority of African votes in the UN. But the main thing is gratitude, which in the case of Africa-China relations is absolutely sincere.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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The Uyghur militant threat: China cracks down and mulls policy changes

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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China, responding to United Nations criticism, academic and media reports, and an embarrassing court case in Kazakhstan, has come closer to admitting that it has brutally cracked down on the strategic north-western province of Xinjiang in what it asserts is a bid to prevent the kind of mayhem that has wracked countries like Syria and Libya.

The Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times charged in its Chinese and English editions that the criticism and reports were aimed at stirring trouble and destroying hard-earned stability in Xinjiang, China’s gateway to Central Asia and home to its Turkic Uyghur and ethnic minority Central Asian Muslim communities.

The crackdown, involving introduction of the world’s most intrusive surveillance state and the indefinite internment of large numbers of Muslims in re-education camps, is designed to quell potential Uyghur nationalist and religious sentiment and prevent blowback from militants moving to Central Asia’s borders with China after the Islamic State and other jihadist groups lost most of their territorial base in Iraq and Syria.

Concern that national and religious sentiment and/or militancy could challenge China’s grip on Xinjiang, home to 15  percent of its proven oil reserves, 22  per cent of its gas reserves, and 115 of the 147 raw materials found in the People’s Republic as well as part of its nuclear arsenal, has prompted Beijing to consider a more interventionist policy in the Middle East and Central and South Asia in contradiction to its principle of non-interference in the affairs of others.

The Global Times asserted that the security situation in Xinjiang had been “turned around and terror threats spreading from there to other provinces of China are also being eliminated. Peaceful and stable life has been witnessed again in all of Xinjiang… Xinjiang has been salvaged from the verge of massive turmoil. It has avoided the fate of becoming ‘China’s Syria’ or ‘China’s Libya,’” the paper said.

Five Chinese mining engineers were wounded last week in a suicide attack in the troubled Pakistan province of Balochistan, a key node in the US$ 50 billion plus China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) intended to link the strategic port of Gwadar with Xinjiang and fuel economic development in the Chinese region. The attack was claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) rather than Uyghurs.

The Global Times admitted that the Chinese effort to ensure security had “come at a price that is being shouldered by people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang.”

China has not acknowledged the existence of re-education camps but the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said last week that it had credible reports that one million Uyghurs, were being held in what resembled a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy.”

The UN assertion of the existence of the camps is corroborated by academic research and media reports based on interviews with former camp inmates and relatives of prisoners, testimony to a US Congressional committee, and recent testimony in a Kazakh court by a former employee in one of the camps.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, US Republican Senator Marco Rubio, the chair of the congressional committee, called for the sanctioning of Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary and Politburo member Chen Quanguo and “all government officials and business entities assisting the mass detentions and surveillance”. He also demanded that Chinese security agencies be added “to a restricted end-user list to ensure that American companies don’t aid Chinese human-rights abuses.”

Stymying the international criticism and demands for action before they gain further momentum is imperative if China wants to ensure that the Muslim world continues to remain silent about what amounts to a Chinese effort, partly through indoctrination in its re-education camps, to encourage the emergence of what it would call an Islam with Chinese characteristics. China is pushing other faiths to adopt a similar approach.

Concern that Uighur militants exiting Syria and Iraq will again target Xinjiang is likely one reason why Chinese officials suggested that despite their adherence to the principle of non-interference in the affairs of others China might join the Syrian army in taking on militants in the northern Syrian province of Idlib.

Syrian forces have bombarded Idlib, a dumping ground for militants evacuated from other parts of the country captured by the Syrian military and the country’s last major rebel stronghold, in advance of an expected offensive.

Speaking to Syrian pro-government daily Al-Watan, China’s ambassador to Syria, Qi Qianjin, said that China was ‘following the situation in Syria, in particular after the victory in southern (Syria), and its military is willing to participate in some way alongside the Syrian army that is fighting the terrorists in Idlib and in any other part of Syria.”

Chinese participation in a campaign in Idlib would be China’s first major engagement in foreign battle in decades.

China has similarly sought to mediate a reduction of tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan in an effort to get them to cooperate in the fight against militants and ensure that Uyghur jihadists are denied the ability to operate on China’s borders. It has also sought to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Chinese officials told a recent gathering in Beijing of the Afghan-Pakistan-China Trilateral Counter-Terrorism dialogue that militant cross-border mobility represented a major threat that needed to be countered by an integrated regional approach.

Potentially, there’s a significant economic upside to facilitating regional cooperation in South Asia and military intervention in Syria. Post-conflict, both countries offer enormous reconstruction opportunities.

Said Middle East scholar Randa Slim discussing possible Chinese involvement in the clearing of Idlib: “You have to think about this in terms of the larger negotiations over Chinese assistance to reconstruction. Syria doesn’t have the money, Russia doesn’t have the money. China has a stake in the fighting.” It also has the money.

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Sino-American Strategic Rivalry

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From a strategy point of view, Clausewitz and Sun Tzu are similar in least in one respect: Sun Tzu’s idea of moving swiftly to overcome resistance is similar to the one endorsed by Clausewitz and practiced by Napoleon.

The modern day example can be traced to the 2003 “shock and awe” campaign by the U.S. in Iraq and the Iraqi reliance on a strategy similar to Russian defense against Napoleon’s attack in his Russian Campaign of 1812. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was the beginning of the end of his ambition. He won many battles but lost the war.

And America is suffering from the same fate as the struggle for a new Iraqi political identity is not going to go the American way. The same can be said about Afghanistan.

This is precisely why discussions on war must be assessed from a geopolitical point of view as Clausewitz has noted that “war is an extension of politics”. And the reverse is also true, one may add.

A quick tour of modern history reveals the true winners and losers of wars, by comparing a country’s power before and after a war. The United Kingdom and Germany were both losers of the two World Wars. And the difference of losses between them is a matter of degree.

But the U.K. suffered greater and irreversible losses than Germany.  The British ceded its number one geopolitical leadership position in the world to the United States. But Germany has been able to regain its position as Europe’s great economic and political power, while the prospects of the U.K. taking back the world leadership position from the U.S. are next to none.

America has been a geopolitical winner overall since the two World Wars. But its power has been in relative decline. It has failed to advance its power after the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and most recently Syria. It has failed so far to advance the momentum created by the Arab Spring as it has since become the Arab Winter, or to make much headway in Latin America, in Ukraine, and in Africa.

America’s key failures in the past decade are failures in being able to offer tangible economic benefits to target countries while expanding its military involvements. The country can win military battles because of its overwhelming fire power but has not been successful in its after-war “nation building” efforts.

Despite China’s numerous shortcomings, many developing countries quietly wish they could become a mini-China economically. They want to live better with more consumption but they probably want to do it by being able to build up their country’s infrastructure and an industrial base.

America’s recent announcement that it will invest $113 million in technology, energy and infrastructure initiatives in the Indo-Pacific as part of a new strategy to deepen ties with the region has received jaw-dropping reception – sarcastically speaking.

As an example, a survey of North American light rail projects shows that costs of most LRT systems range from $15 million to over $100 million per mile. So how far $113 million or even $1.13 billion can go even if one is to factor in some discounts if projects are implemented in lower cost Indo-Pacific countries? Remember, $113 million is for countries as in plural!

This pales in comparison to China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) that ranges between $1 trillion and $8 trillion. BRI is not without its problems and critics. Concerns have been raised about increases in some participating countries’ level of national debt as a result of massive infrastructure building. But because of the scale of the initiative, even if it could only succeed at the lowest end of the range, would offer some real and substantial benefits to countries that can benefit from it.

While freedom and democracy are ideals that have universal support in the abstract – the key words here are “in the abstract” – successful nation-building efforts are realized in the nitty-gritty of people’s everyday economic well-being. This is particularly true among developing countries.

Cheap Chinese smart phones have enabled Africans to get market information to transact with one another more beneficially, to acquire news and information, to lower transaction costs through mobile payments. Inexpensive Chinese motor bikes have become life-saving vehicles for rural populations carrying goods to markets as well as the sick to clinics or hospitals many miles away that they previously could not do.

While the U.S. is no doubt keen on promoting democracy, it is the Chinese that provide affordable smart phones to the masses that allow the spread of information.

While some of the best and the brightest, the elites, the upper middle class in developing countries may desire to have an opportunity to earn an Ivey League degree, to emigrate to the U.S. for better opportunities, to acquire an American passport as an insurance policy, it’s the Chinese that are doing the grunt work of building and training local personnel to conduct trains, to train electrical power linemen to install and repair of overhead or underground power lines as well as to maintain and repair of other electrical and hydro-electrical subsystems and components.

Regardless of how one’s view of China’s strategic intents in its international involvements, the strategies between the U.S. and China cannot be more different. China builds and America destroys.

But many countries especially in the Indo-Pacific region are taking advantage of the rivalry between these two powers to extract the best deals for themselves and you can’t blame them. Economically they want to cooperate with China but militarily they want to get a free ride from the U.S. and the U.S. does not mind that as long as it falls within America’s China Containment strategy.

And time will tell which strategy will work better – economic cooperation or military encirclement?

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