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How Academics and Educational Institutions help the realisation of BRI in the Gulf

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The roles of academics and educational institutions in the implementation of China’s Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) should not be neglected. From the time the initiative was introduced, academic intellectuals and institutions have indeed played a crucial role in promoting and socialising the BRI.

When drawing up the plan for the BRI and the AIIB, Xi and his teams seemed to acknowledge the importance of intellectuals and academic establishments in the implementation of the project. Vision and Action of the BRI states that the initiative will involve academic efforts, such as sending “more students to each other’s countries”, granting “government scholarships”, and establishing “cooperation in jointly running schools”. Such objectives have manifested in the implementation of the BRI in the Gulf as a means to create legitimacy for the initiative.

One important institution is the Qatar-PKU Chair in Middle Eastern Studies, which was established during the Emir of Qatar’s visit to Beijing in mid-2014, between the Qatar government and Peking University (PKU). The most noticeable initiative by the centre was a public lecture entitled: “China’s Foreign Policy and the GCC” at Qatar University. The main topic of the discussion was the BRI; one of the speakers, Professor Wu, talked about the BRI, and how the initiative would benefit Qatar and the Gulf.

Shanghai University also played a role in inciting public debate about the initiative in the Gulf. In March 2016, the university cooperated with the Centre for Turkish Studies, the Maltepe University, and Sociology of Islam Journal to organised a conference titled: “Neoliberalism with Chinese Characteristics in the Middle East” at Qatar University  where topics related to the BRI, the AIIB, and the Chinese Dream were discussed, including the Chinese model of development and the implications of the BRI in the Gulf.

Academic institutions are also crucial in forming moral and intellectual legitimacy for the financial aspect of the BRI. For example, the China-UAE Conference on Islamic Banking has been held in China since 2015. The conference, which is organised by various Chinese and Gulf institutions, such as China Islamic Finance Club as well as the Dubai Centre for Islamic Banking and Finance, discusses issues such as ways to enhance the Islamic finance aspect of the BRI’s implementation in the Gulf.

Confucius Institutes

The Confucius Institute is another academic institution that plays an important role in the consensus-building efforts behind the initiative. At a conference in summer 2015, the Confucius Institutes’ Chief Executive proclaimed that the Institutes, which are the Chinese Ministry of Education-affiliated institutions founded to teach Chinese language and other China-related courses globally, involve themselves in the implementation of the BRI and the AIIB.

Internationally, the Confucius Institutes have organised several training programs for the construction of infrastructures related to the BRI. Additionally, the institutes have held public

conferences and seminars on the initiative as an effort to socialise the project.

In the Gulf, such efforts have also been increasingly apparent. It is vital to note that several

branches of the Confucius Institute have been established in the Gulf since the beginning of China’s internationalisation in the region. The first branch was established at Zayed University in 2010 and was followed by the second at the University of Dubai in 2011. The third branch of the Confucius Institute in the region is located at the University of Bahrain, and was founded in 2014.

One notable BRI-related activity of Confucius Institutes in the Gulf was a conference held at the Abu Dhabi branch in March 2017, in cooperation with the Emirates Policy Centre. It was entitled “Prospects of Partnership between China and the UAE under the One Belt, One Road Initiative”. In May of the same year, the Confucius Institute in Bahrain held the first “Belt and Road” International Seminar, attended by over 500 scholars from seven countries. At such events, topics related to how the BRI and the AIIB are being implemented in the region were presented, such as the importance of energy in the initiative and the various projects that are currently being pursued in the Gulf.

Another role of the Confucius Institutes in the implementation of the BRI in the Gulf is through promoting the Chinese language across the region. Such language efforts have taken the

form of offering Chinese language classes to the Gulf’s peoples, who in recent years have experienced an increase in the number of students. Other institutes have also become involved in this effort. For instance, in 2015 the Chinese Embassy in Qatar signed a MoU with the Translation and Interpreting Studies Faculty at Qatar’s Education City to collaborate in language teaching and cultural activities. The deal has manifested in Chinese language classes being offered to the Qatari public.

The increasing interest in the Chinese language among the Gulf society not only helps the implementation of the BRI and the AIIB in the Gulf by raising people’s awareness of China. It has also improved communications among relevant stakeholders in the implementation of the initiative.

Intellectuals

In addition to academic institutions, the role of academics should also be noted. In most cases, these intellectuals contribute to the promotion of the BRI through their publications. For example, Wang Jinglie published an article for Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies (in Asia), in which he asserts that the Chinese “wish that when we realise the ‘Chinese Dream,’ the Arab countries will not only be happy for us, but will also achieve their own ‘Arab Dream’”. Sun Degang of the Shanghai International Studies University and Yahia Zoubir of Kedge Business School in France also wrote an article in the same journal, where they stated that “Chinese and Arabs share similar dreams of achieving their respective national rejuvenation in the 21st century. As two great civilizations, the ‘Chinese Dream’ and the ‘Arab Dream’ share similarities”.

Impacts

The growing efforts by educational institutions and academics have not been without

consequence. In the recent years, there has been a rise of individuals from within the region, who, directly or indirectly, are involved in the promotion of the BRI.

Academic institutions in the Gulf have increasingly published studies and held seminars on the BRI, the AIIB, and the Chinese Dream. In May 2016, for example, the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies in Qatar held a conference: “The Arab World and China: Future Prospects of Relations with a Rising Power”. 

Aside from publishing studies and organising conferences about the BRI and the AIIB, these regional institutions have also become interested in bolstering partnerships with Chinese institutions. In September 2017, the UAE University concluded an agreement with Zhejiang University to cooperate in student exchanges and collaborative research, and in academic activities such as courses and seminars. 

Academics and public intellectuals in the Gulf have also increasingly engaged in promoting public debates on the BRI and the AIIB. For example, the GCC’s Assistant General Secretary, Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg, wrote an article on the BRI for Saudi-based newspaper Arab News, whereby he stated that: “the initiatives could usher in a new economic and political alliance between China and the rest of Asia, including the Middle East” .

The rise of the pro-China intellectuals from within Gulf society is also rooted in the offering of scholarships to regional intellectuals.

Since the beginning of China’s entry to the Gulf, many intellectuals from the Gulf have been given scholarships to study in China. These scholarships are offered mainly by the China Scholarship Council (CSC), which is the Chinese Ministry of Education’s non-profit organisation that offers financial aid and scholarship to both Chinese and non-Chinese to study overseas or in China. The CSC has worked with different Gulf universities and ministries, and funded students from the region to study in China since the early years of China’s presence in the Gulf.

Such efforts have been complemented by Chinese academic institutions which participate annually in educational exhibitions across the region. These include the International Education

and Conference on Higher Education in Riyadh and the Dubai International Education Exhibition, which have led to Gulf students becoming interested in studying in China.

When the BRI and the AIIB were introduced, Xi also pledged to increase the number of scholarships to students from the countries along the routes. Gulf students are included as recipients of this scholarship. As Xi announced in his speech at the Arab League headquarters, his government intended to provide 10,000 scholarships and 10,000 training opportunities to Middle Eastern students.

The China-Oman Industrial Park at Duqm has also cooperated with the Omani government

to offer scholarships to Omani students to study in China with funding from the park. In the last few years, many of the scholarship recipients have returned to the Gulf. As an example, in June 2018, the first batch of 39 Omani students returned, following completing vocational training at Ningxia Polytechnic, to work at the Duqm park.

This has resulted in the emergence of intellectuals from within the Gulf who are acquainted with Chinese politics, economics, and cultures, and are well-versed in the Chinese language. Even though not all of them are pursuing careers as academics, the experiences of living and studying in China have made these scholarship recipients not only very interested in imitating the Chinese way of life, but also in educating the public about China and what they have learnt there.

Due to the increasing interest in China among politicians, intellectuals, and the general public, numerous universities in the Gulf have begun to offer China-related courses. Qatar University, for example, now teaches classes on Chinese politics and philosophy in Arabic. China-related courses are also offered by several regional universities, such as at Kuwait University, the American University of Sharjah, and the University of Sharjah.

Similarly, since mid-2016, Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) in Oman has been teaching Chinese language courses. It was also reported in mid-2014 that SQU planned to establish a Confucius Institute. In July 2018, the UAE Ministry of Education announced that it began offering Chinese classes in 100 schools.

Overall, in the realisation of the BRI in the Gulf, the roles of the academics and educational institutions has not only contributed to the growing creation of consent for the initiative, but has also resulted in the rise of pro-China intellectuals and institutions who have been directly or indirectly involved in not only socialising the initiative but also in gathering support from the people.

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Middle East

A New Era in US-Jordan Relations

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President Joe Biden meets with Jordan's King Abdullah II in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, July 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

King Abdullah of Jordan is the first Arab leader who met American President Joe Biden at the White House. The visit has reaffirmed the strong and long-standing Jordan-US strategic partnership and reinvigorated the bilateral engagement for working together on security issues, and economic development on the basis of shared values and priorities. The King’s visit to Washington reaffirmed Jordan’s value as a reliable ally who plays a critical role for stability in a highly volatile region.

Jordan’s value is multi-dimensional and ranges from bilateral military cooperation, intelligence sharing and joint global counterterrorism operations including as a member of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS and the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve to deployment of almost three thousand (3,000) American troops to Jordan as part of the ongoing campaign to combat regional terrorism. The US has expanded military footprint to Jordan after Washington’s decision to withdraw forces from Syria and reduce military presence in the Turkish airbase of Incirlik. In addition, the kingdom’s geopolitical position in the heart of the Middle East provides a viable alternative for logistical support to the American military taking into consideration the US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and close three bases in Qatar. Notably, the remaining supplies from the three Qatari bases along with the Support Mission have been transferred to Jordan and have become part of the Area Support Group-Jordan that operates as the Base Operations Support Integrator to back contingency operations and military-to-military engagements within the US Army Central Command’s area of responsibility.

Jordan’s value also stems from its critical role in addressing the overwhelming humanitarian needs created by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq as well as in hosting almost two million registered Palestinian refugees.

Support of Two-state Solution

The fact that Jordan remains at peace with Israel and is a key interlocutor with the Palestinians adds to the kingdom’s reliability to mediate and advance initiatives that support the two-state solution. This presupposes the resetting of Jordan-Israel relations. Washington is well-placed to offer its good offices and help restore trust between the two neighboring countries. The twenty-seventh year Jordan-Israel peace treaty shows not only the possibilities for coordination and co-existence but also the ceilings to peace with Israel in the absence of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A “cold peace” and quiet, limited cooperation are currently the maximum possibilities vis-a-vis a “warm peace” that will unlock Jordan-Israel cooperation and potential.

It is nevertheless noteworthy that the last five years have been discerned by the previous American administration’s lack of appreciation of the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Trump peace proposal, known as “the Vision”, not only undermined the long-established aim of a two-state solution but also reinforced discussions over alternatives including a one state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; different measures of annexation, such as Israeli annexation of Area C in the West Bank; “exotic options” such as a federation in which Israel and Palestine share certain aspects of sovereignty; potential unilateral Israeli initiatives with most prevailing a Jordanian model, in which Jordan takes control of the West Bank and Palestinians are given Jordanian citizenship; and, reinforcement of the notion that “Jordan is “Palestine””.

Practically, Jordan can serve as honest broker in any future Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but as the late King Hussein stated in an interview with The New York Times in 1991 “Jordan should not be, cannot be, will not be a substitute for the Palestinians themselves as the major aggrieved party on the Arab side in a process that leads to peace”. The cited statement is fully embraced by Jordan’s current leadership.

Acknowledgment of Jordan’s Custodianship

The public acknowledgement by the American President of the kingdom’s special role as custodian of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem is translated into a vote of confidence and a commendation for Jordan’s efficient safeguarding of religious sites for decades.  As known, Amman pays the salaries of more than one thousand (1,000) employees of the Jerusalem Waqf Department and its custodianship role is carried out on behalf of all Islamic nations. The kingdom holds the exclusive authority of the Jordanian-appointed council, the Waqf, over the Temple Mount/ Haram Al Sharif and has spent over 1 billion dollars since 1924 for the administration and renovation of Al Aqsa mosque.

Jordan has admittedly served at multiple occasions as credible intermediary for Israel and the Palestinians to suspend tensions in the old city of Jerusalem, particularly at the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif and pursues a successful administration of religious funded schools favoring moderate religious education and religious tourism. Jordanian moderation has guaranteed co-existence of the three monotheistic religions in Jerusalem at a time when on the contrary, counties like Turkey funnel millions of dollars in charity projects in Jerusalem promoting the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Overall, Jordan’s custodianship has proved to be successful in maintaining delicate arrangements for the benefit of all religions and parties involved.

American Loan Guarantees

The King’s discussions with the American President also centered on the economic challenges exacerbated by the effect of the pandemic and the enhancement of bilateral economic cooperation. Admittedly, Jordan showed strong leadership and governance with early actions that reduced the coronavirus pandemic pressure on the kingdom’s health system. The Jordanian government imposed a nationwide lockdown and severe social distancing measures at a much earlier stage of the pandemic than other Middle East countries.

Jordan withstood the pandemic’s impact with minimal loss of life but with a significant cost to its economy. As of June 2020, most restrictions on economic activity were lifted turning Jordan into one of the first Arab countries to reopen. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has contracted in 2020 by 3.5 percent after growing 2 percent in 2019 due to losses in state revenues because of fewer remittances and a weakened tourism market.

To cope with the direct negative effects of the pandemic on its state budget, the Kingdom received $396 million from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The amount of finance has specifically helped address the country’s balance of payments needs and allowed for higher spending on healthcare, and assistance to households and companies most affected by the pandemic. Despite that the IMF provided in March 2020 another multi-year $1.3 billion loan package to Jordan, the pandemic has caused a $1.5 billion shortfall in its balance of payments.

This complex economic reality along with Jordan’s moderation in the Arab world justify continued robust annual American economic assistance to the kingdom in the form of budgetary support (cash transfer), USAID programs in Jordan, and loan guarantees. US cash assistance should increase in the coming years taking into consideration that it is directed to refugee support and to segments of the economy that are mostly affected by the pandemic like foreign debt payments and fuel import costs. Overall, a pledge should be made for Jordan in American congress for the authorization of moreUS sovereign loan guarantees that will help the kingdom weather the pandemic’s adverse medium-to-long-term effects on its economy. US sovereign loan guarantees will allow Jordan to issue debt securities that are fully guaranteed by the American government in capital markets, effectively subsidizing the cost for the Jordanian government to access financing.

It is also noticeable that in a genuine effort to help the kingdom contain the pandemic and safeguard public health, the American administration proceeded with the delivery of over 500 thousand covid-19 vaccines to Jordan highlighting American commitment to international vaccination programs including that of the kingdom.

US-Jordan Defense Partnership

The strategic US-Jordan defense relationship was reflected in the discussions that were conducted between the Jordanian King and the American President. American support for the modernization of Jordan’s F-16 fighter jets has been at the forefront of the agenda with the aim of achieving greater interoperability and effectiveness for the Jordanian Armed Forces.  The American President recognized Jordan’s contribution to the successful international campaign to defeat ISIS and honored as an example of heroism the memory of captain Muath al-Kasasbeh who was executed in 2015 by the terrorist organization’s militants.  

Jordan has suffered avowedly from terrorism throughout the years and works collectively at regional and international levels to eliminate all its forms. The kingdom lost two prime ministers, Haza’a Al-Majali and Wasfi Al-Tal, as victims of terrorism and experienced a series of terrorist attacks like the simultaneous suicide bombings against three hotels in Amman in November 2005 that led to the loss of life of American, Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian nationals.

In effect, Jordan is the third-largest recipient of annual American foreign aid globally, after Afghanistan and Israel. A Memorandum of Understanding on American foreign assistance to Jordan commits the United States to providing $1.275 billion per year over a five-year period for a total of $6.375 billion (FY2018-FY2022). Renegotiations on the next such agreement for FY2023-FY2027 is estimated that will aim at increasing the American commitment to Jordan, a key ally in the fight against international terrorism whose military should be in position to procure and maintain conventional weapons systems.

On the whole, Jordan is a steadfast security partner of the United States in the Middle East whose moderation and pragmatism helped the kingdom weather regional and world challenges. As 2021 and past years have showed, Jordan’s position as a bridge between the Levant and the Persian Gulf provides it a unique geopolitical standing, in a way that nowadays Amman is granted with a significant security, diplomatic and humanitarian role that signals a new era in US-Jordan relations.

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Chinese FM Wraps Up his Visit to Egypt

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Wang Yi, the Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister, visited Egypt on July 18, 2021, in El Alamein City, northwest Egypt. The Chinese Foreign Minister is the first foreign official to visit this strategic city.

Wang Yi met with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, during his visit to Egypt, and they discussed bilateral relations between the two countries. This year marks the 65th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Egypt and China. Egypt is the first Arab country to establish diplomatic relations with China and the first African country to do so. In the Arab world, the Islamic world, Africa, and developing countries, Egypt has long been one of China’s most important strategic partners. At the international level, the two countries mutually support one another. The meeting between Egypt’s Foreign Minister and China’s Foreign Minister focused on three main issues: the Covid-19 vaccine, the One Belt One Road Initiative, and international and regional issues such as Palestine and Syria

Covid-19 Vaccine

Both Egypt and China have a long history of cooperation and friendship. Before the outbreak of the Covid-19, the two countries’ relations were based on economic and trade cooperation, with China being Egypt’s first trading partner for the eighth year in a row since 2013, and the volume of trade exchange between the two countries exceeding $14.5 billion in 2020. However, as the outbreak Covid-19, cooperation between the two countries expanded to include medical cooperation. Egypt and China worked together to combat the virus. Egypt sent medical supplies to China, and China sent medical supplies and Chinese vaccine to Egypt. In addition, in December 2020, the two sides signed a cooperation agreement on COVID-19 Vaccine Production and China dispatched technical teams to Egypt to assist in the vaccine’s local manufacture. As a result, Egypt is considered Africa’s first vaccine manufacturer.

One Belt One Road Initiative  

Egypt is an important strategic partner in building the Belt and Road Initiative. According to CGTN, the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al- Sisi, stated that:” Egypt supports the Belt and Road Initiative(BRI).” He added that Egypt is ready to strengthen cooperation with China in the fields of economy, trade, industry, science and technology, and expand human exchanges within the framework of the “Belt and Road Initiative.” One Belt and One Road Initiative is one of the most important initiatives of the twenty-first century, announced by President Xi Jinping during official visits to Indonesia and Kazakhstan in 2013. Egypt was one of the first countries to participate in this initiative. In 2014, Egyptian President al-Sisi expressed in an interview that China’s One Belt and One Road Initiative was an “opportunity” for cooperation between China and Egypt. Egypt was willing to participate in it actively.

International and Regional Issues

Regarding the international and regional issues, the two sides exchanged views and coordinated positions on some issues as Palestine, Syria issues. It’s worth mentioning that Wang Yi paid a visit to Syria the day before his trip to Egypt, marking him the first Chinese official to visit Syria since the country’s civil war began. China supports the Syrian sovereignty and rejects foreign interference in Syria, and also rejects the regime change. The Egyptian Minister Sameh Shoukry also discussed with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi the GERD issue. According to Sky News, Shoukry explained Egypt and Sudan’s positions as two downstream countries, the importance of preserving the interests of all parties and not jeopardizing the downstream countries’ water security, and the importance of engaging in intensified negotiations under the auspices of the African Union presidency. The two sides signed an agreement on the Egyptian-Sino Intergovernmental Cooperation Committee at the end of their meeting.

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Greater Middle East may force China to project military power sooner rather than later

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China may have no short-term interest in contributing to guaranteeing security in parts of a swath of land stretching from Central Asia to the East coast of Africa, but that does not prevent the People’s Republic from preparing for a time when it may wish to build on long-standing political and military relationships in various parts of the world to project power and maintain an economic advantage.

Determined to exploit the principle of allegedly win-win relationships that are underwritten by economics, trade, and investment as the solution to problems, China has so far delayed if not avoided bilateral or unilateral political and military engagement in conflicts beyond its borders.

The question is how long it can continue to do so.

China took a first baby step towards greater power projection with the creation in 2017 of its first overseas military base in the East African state of Djibouti, a rent-a-base nation that hosts multiple military facilities for among others the United States, France, and Japan and potentially Saudi Arabia. The base signals the importance China attributes to regions like the Gulf and the Horn of Africa.

A recent article in a Chinese military publication sheds further light on Chinese preparations for a day when it may have to project military might in different parts of the world. The article laid out Chinese thinking about the virtues of offering Middle Eastern, Asian, and African militaries and political elites training and educational opportunities.

“Students who can study in China are mostly local military and political elites or descendants of notable families. After they have studied and returned to their country, they have a high probability of becoming the top military and political leaders of the local country. This is very beneficial for China to expand its overseas influence and corresponding armaments exports,” the publication, Military Express, said.

The publication asserted that Chinese military academies were more attractive than their Western counterparts that impose “political conditions,” a reference to students having to hail from countries aligned with the West.

“Chinese military academy does a better job in this regard. There are no political conditions attached here. Foreign military students here learn Chinese strategies and tactics and learn to operate Chinese weaponry by themselves,” the publication said.

The publication failed to mention that China unlike Western producers also refrains from attaching political conditions to its arms sales like adherence to human rights.

Recent months have not been necessarily kind to Chinese aspirations of remaining aloof to conflict beyond its borders, suggesting that reality on the ground could complicate China’s strategic calculations.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan threatens to put an ultra-conservative religious regime in power on the border with Xinjiang, the north-western province where China is attempting to brutally Sinicize Turkic ethnic and religious identity.

Recent Taliban military advances have already bolstered ultra-conservative religious sentiment in neighbouring Pakistan that celebrates the group as heroes whose success enhances the chances for austere religious rule in the world’s second-most populous Muslim-majority state.

Our jihadis will be emboldened. They will say that ‘if America can be beaten, what is the Pakistan army to stand in our way?’” said a senior Pakistani official.

Nine Chinese nationals were killed last week in an explosion on a bus transporting Chinese workers to the construction site of a dam in the northern mountains of Pakistan, a region more prone to attacks by religious militants than Baloch nationalists, who operate from the province of Balochistan and are responsible for the bulk of attacks on Chinese targets in the South Asian nation.

It was the highest loss of life of Chinese citizens in recent years in Pakistan, the largest recipient of Chinese Belt and Road-related infrastructure and energy investments. China’s sees Pakistan as a key to the economic development of Xinjiang and part of its effort to Sinicize the region.

Indicating Chinese concern, China last month advised its citizens to leave Afghanistan and last week evacuated 210 Chinese nationals on a chartered flight. China last week delayed the signing of a framework agreement on industrial cooperation that would have accelerated implementation of projects that are part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Complicating Chinese calculations is the fact that both Russia and Turkey are maneuvering for different reasons to strengthen Turkic identity in the Caucasus that potentially would be more sympathetic to the plight of the Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims.

Turkey moreover may see Afghanistan as another stepping stone towards recreating a Turkic world. Turkey has reportedly asked Azerbaijan, whom Ankara supported in last year’s Caucasus war against Armenia, to contribute forces to a Turkish contingent that would remain in Afghanistan after the US and NATO withdrawal to secure Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.

Turkish influence among Afghanistan’s Turkic minorities has been bolstered by the operation of Turkish schools, an increased number of Turkish scholarships, training of Afghan military and police personnel, the popularity of Turkish movies and television series, and efforts to mediate an end to conflict in the country.

The Taliban have rejected the continuation of a Turkish military presence that for the past six years was part of the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission. The Taliban insisted that Turkish soldiers were “occupiers in Afghanistan” who should leave with NATO and US forces even if they were also representatives of a “great Islamic nation.”

In anticipation of a threatening development in Afghanistan, China quietly established a small military post in 2019 in the highlands of Tajikistan, a stone’s throw from where Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor meets Xinjiang.

More recently, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Ji advised his interlocutors during a visit last week to Central Asia that going forward Chinese private military companies would play a greater role in securing Belt and Road-related strategic infrastructure projects.

Some analysts suggested that the Chinese companies would also be employed to train Central Asian militaries – a domain that was until now largely a Russian preserve.

In a similar vein, France’s withdrawal of its forces from West Africa steps up pressure on China to defend its overseas nationals and interests. Three Chinese construction workers were among five foreigners kidnapped by gunmen this weekend in southern Mali. No group has so far claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.

All of this leaves aside the question of how long China will feel that it can rely on the US defence umbrella in the Gulf to secure the flow of energy and much of its trade against the backdrop of a reconfigured US regional commitment and increasingly strained relations between Washington and Beijing.

It also does not consider China’s ability to manage expectations of the People’s Republic’s willingness to engage, in some cases not only politically or militarily, but also economically.

That was evident during Mr. Wang’s most recent visit to the region, and particularly Syria, which for much of its civil war was home to Uighur jihadists who distinguished themselves in battle.

It was Mr. Wang’s second visit to the Middle East and North Africa in four months. Furthermore, Mr. Wang last week discussed Afghanistan and Gulf security with his Saudi counterpart on the sideline of  a regional cooperation meeting in Uzbekistan.

Syrian officials have for domestic and foreign policy reasons long touted China as the imaginary white knight that would come to the rescue in the reconstruction of the war-ravaged country.

China is far less interested in Syria than Syria is in China… Syria has never been a priority in China’s economy-driven approach to the Middle East,” noted scholars Andrea Ghiselli and Mohammed Al-Sudairi.

The scholars cautioned however that “the significant potential impact of narratives created by local actors in the context of international politics,” a reference to Syria’s projection of China as its saviour, cannot be ignored.

Implicit in the scholars’ conclusion is the notion that Chinese policy may in future increasingly be shaped as much by decision-making in Beijing as developments on the ground in a world in which powers compete to secure their interest and place in a new world order.

Ultimately, the fundamental question underlying all these push factors is, according to Financial Times columnist Gideon Rahman, whether China has not only the capability and aspiration to become a superpower but also the will.

“If China is unwilling or unable to achieve a global military presence that rivals that of the US, it may have to find a new way of being a superpower – or give up on the ambition,” Mr. Rahman argues.

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