Authors: Yunis Sharifli and Gandab Valiyeva*
Sino-Iranian diplomatic relations have developed in various fields since 1971. During this period, mutual visits played an important role in the development of bilateral cooperation. An example of this is the start of discussions on the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement during the visit of the leader of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping to Iran on January 19, 2016. The agreement provides for an investment of about $ 400 billion by China to modernize Iran’s oil, gas and petrochemical industries and improve the country’s land and water transport. In recent years, various discussions have been held on the progress of Sino-Iranian relations towards strategic cooperation. When relations are based on strategic partnership, economic relations between states come to the fore and a certain level of trust is established between the parties. On the contrary, in a partnership that we can call a limited partnership, the security interests of the states take precedence over the economic interests, which leads to a limited level of relations (Røseth, 2018). This article will analyze whether Sino-Iranian relations are in line with strategic cooperation in the context of economic, energy, and security factors, and analyze how the “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” Agreement will affect the future of relations.
China is important in terms of economic power, and Iran in terms of resources, both globally and regionally. In this regard, the development of Sino-Iranian economic relations has always been important for the two countries. This was due to Iran has rich energy resources and the key role of energy resources in China’s economic development. In addition, China has been a major industrial supplier to Iran which has been under Western sanctions since 2008.
Thus, Western companies began to withdraw from the Iranian market, especially after the financial sanctions imposed on Iran in 2012. In the same year, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration announced Iran’s “Look East” policy (Shariatinia və Azizi, 2019). The main goals of this policy were to ease the pressure of Western sanctions, to establish relations with the rising economic powers of East Asia to ensure Iran’s economic development and to attract investment from these countries. During this period, the expansion of relations with Asian countries has always been the most important priority, and China has been at the center of this strategy.
Especially since 2008, when Western countries imposed sanctions on Iran, trade between the two countries has grown rapidly. Thus, between 2010 and 2014, despite sanctions, China’s exports to Iran increased by 29% annually. In terms of trade, the peak of bilateral relations was reached in 2014, when the trade turnover between the two countries amounted to $ 51 billion. After 2014, trade relations declined, despite the gradual lifting of Western sanctions. The reason for this was the gradual normalization of Iran’s relations with the West and the revival of trade relations with European countries in 2015 as a result of the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action”. In this context, the trade volume between the two countries decreased in 2016 to $ 30 billion (Teer və Wang, 2018).
Looking at the trade relations between the two countries from a broader perspective, we can see that trade relations are developing to a limited extent, in fact, the development of China-Iran trade relations is developing in parallel with China’s trade relations with other Middle Eastern countries. For example, China’s exports to Iran increased by 16.9% annually between 2004 and 2018. During the same period, China’s exports to Saudi Arabia increased by 16.1% year on year and to Turkey by 16.8%. Another example is China’s $ 18 billion worth of exports to both Iran and Saudi Arabia between 2010 and 2018 (Garlick and Havlova, 2020). In this sense, it can be said that China is trying to maintain a balanced relationship with the countries of the Middle East in terms of economic relations in the region.
China’s investment in Iran increased rapidly in 2016-2017 after the gradual lifting of sanctions on Iran, but after the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran in 2018, China’s investment in Iran decreased (Garlick və Havlova, 2020). In terms of foreign direct investment, Sino-Iranian relations are balanced compared to other regional countries. For example, in 2018, China’s foreign direct investment in Iran was $ 3.23 billion, in the UAE – $ 6.23 billion, and in Pakistan – $ 4.24 billion.
The Trump administration’s withdrawal of the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018 and the application of a strategy of maximum pressure have further weakened the development of Iran-China trade relations. In this context, China’s oil exports from Iran fell sharply, which led to a further decline in trade between the two countries. In 2019, trade between the two countries fell to $ 23 billion.
The weakening of economic relations between China and Iran in recent years and the development of economic relations within a limited framework, rather than a strategic one, can be explained by several reasons. The first reason for this limited cooperation is the tough sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States since 2018. In this context, China does not want to further strain the already problematic Sino-US relations by developing relations with Iran. The second reason is the uncertainty of Iran’s long-term economic future and the weak business environment in the country. Chinese companies usually prefer to invest in stable countries. In addition, economic sanctions deter Chinese companies from entering the Iranian market. The third reason is that China’s investment is gradually shifting from developing countries to developed countries that have advanced technologies and extensive industry experience. Finally, another reason for the weakening of trade is China’s diversification of energy imports with different countries.
One of the developed aspects of economic cooperation between Iran and China is energy relations. The main reason for the development of this sector is that Iran has rich energy resources, and China needs energy resources such as oil and gas for economic development (K. Damianova, 2015). Sanctions on Iran limit the development of energy relations between the two countries, but nevertheless, Sino-Iranian energy relations have developed during this period, and China has increased its influence in terms of Iran’s energy resources.
Following the financial sanctions imposed on Iran, Western and US companies have suspended most of their oil and gas projects. This created a new opportunity for China. Although Chinese oil companies have been active in Iran since 2002, a number of upstream and downstream energy projects have been contracted since the sanctions. In total, China’s Sinopec and CNPC companies (China National Petroleum Corporation) have signed a number of projects with Iran to explore and develop oil and gas fields worth $ 14 billion (Davis, Lecky and et al, 2013). One of the fields invested by Chinese companies is the Azadegan field, one of the largest oil fields in Iran. This field is divided into two parts: North and South Azadegan oil fields. China’s CNPC and Iran’s NIOC reached an agreement in 2009 to develop the North and South Azadegan fields. Under the agreement, the project would be implemented in two phases and would produce 260,000 barrels of oil. However, 150,000 barrels of oil were produced in the first stage and 11,000 barrels in the second stage. Iran was forced to cut ties with CNPC in 2014 due to delays in oil production (Khan və Guo, 2017:22). Another important project is the agreement on the development of the Yadavaran oil field, signed in 2007. The first phase of the project produced 25,000 barrels of oil, and the second phase produced 100,000 barrels. It is planned to increase this production to 300,000 barrels in the third stage (Khan və Guo, 2017:21).
In addition to mega-projects, Chinese companies are implementing smaller projects in Iran. CNPC and Iran signed an agreement in 2005 to operate the Kudasht bloc. CNPC has also signed an agreement with the Iranian Oil Company to develop the Masjid-e Suleiman field. China prefers small projects such as the Masjid-e-Suleiman oil field because Chinese companies do not have the technology required for larger and more complex projects, such as North Azadegan and Yadeveran (Dubowitz və Grossman, 2010).
In addition to oil fields, the two countries also cooperate on gas fields. One of Iran’s most important natural gas fields is the South Persian gas field. Following the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015, French company Total and China’s company CNPC signed a joint agreement to develop the 11th section of the field. For the development of the field, 50.1% fell to Total, 30% to CNPC and 19.9% to Pars Oil and Gas. However, in 2018, Total officially announced its withdrawal from the contract due to the heavy sanctions imposed on Iran by the Trump administration. CNPC saw this as an opportunity and agreed to buy a 50.1% stake in Total. However, due to increasing international pressure, problems with coordination between the National Iranian Oil Company and CNPC, and the fact that CNPC did not have enough technology to develop the field, the company was forced to withdraw from the natural gas project for the second time. The continuation of the project fell on the Pars Oil and Gas Company.
Along with multilateral cooperation, new relations are being established between the two countries in the field of alternative energy. Cooperation in the field of alternative energy began in 2016 and covers the production of hydropower, wind energy and biomass.
In recent years, although China has become Iran’s largest energy trading partner, Iran ranks seventh in energy supplies to China. In 2020, China imported 542.386 million tons of oil and 101.661 million tons of natural gas from Iran. In 2021, the level of imports increased sharply. However, despite all this, the energy relations between the two countries are limited and there are various problems, which leads to limited cooperation. The main reasons for this situation can be listed as follows.
The first factor here is Washington’s position. Although Iran-China relations are developing, US-China and US-Iran relations have a significant impact on Sino-Iranian relations. The second reason is China’s energy diplomacy. The main aim here is to diversify energy importers and energy routes. Therefore, China is a place of balanced policy in the Middle East region and imports oil and gas from other energy-rich countries in the region. The imposition of sanctions on Iran restricts oil imports from Iran and leads to an increase in imports from other countries in the region. The third reason is that Chinese energy companies are technologically inadequate and inexperienced compared to Western companies. The last reason is that Chinese companies are reluctant to invest in Iran, which is politically and economically unstable and lags behind other countries in the region in terms of a business environment.
China-Iran security cooperation has been developing since the 1980s. The first line in this relationship is arms sales. Thus, since the 1990s, China has always played a strategic role in Iran’s arms imports, and in most cases, the main share in imports was Chinese weapons (Conduit və Akbarzadeh, 2018). China accounted for 75% of Iran’s arms imports in 2005 and 68% in 2012, and this trend continued in 2014 and 2015. Following the gradual lifting of sanctions on Iran in 2016, Iran’s arms imports from China fell sharply, while imports from Russia increased by 100% (Teer and Wang, 2018). This trend continued between 2016-2019.
A comparison of the arms trade between the two countries with that of other countries in the region shows that the Sino-Iranian arms trade is largely limited and that China lags behind in the arms trade with other countries in the region. For example, China exports drones to Iraq, Pakistan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, but does not export drones to Iran. In addition, although Iran accounts for the bulk of Iran’s arms imports from China in the region in certain years, there is no agreement on joint arms production between the two countries. In return, China has a joint drone production agreement with Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. Given that China does not export drones to Iran and has no joint arms production agreements with Iran, it can be argued that Iran lags behind other countries in the arms trade with China. In recent years, sanctions and Iran’s imports of weapons from Russia have further weakened the arms trade.
In terms of joint military exercises, security relations between the two countries are limited. In the last ten years, China and Iran have held only three joint military exercises. The first of these exercises was held in 2014 against piracy, the second in 2017 in the eastern Strait of Hormuz, and the third in 2019 between China, Russia, and Iran in the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean. China has held joint military exercises with other Middle Eastern countries since 2010, including Turkey, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, especially in 2017 and 2019, China conducted separate joint military exercises to maintain balance in relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. As can be seen, China is conducting joint military exercises not only with Iran but also with other countries in the region. The goal is to develop China’s relations with the countries of the region, as well as to increase arms exports through military exercises.
In general, as in economic cooperation between the two countries, security cooperation remains limited. It is expected that this trend will continue in the short and medium-term. This situation can be explained by various reasons. The first reason is China’s reluctance to deepen security relations with Iran. Thus, any military conflict between Iran and the United States could bring China face to face with the United States. This is also true of the arms trade, for example, China prefers to be cautious about developing an arms trade with Iran because of the possibility of arms being transferred to Iranian-affiliated groups in the region or using them against the United States or its allies in the region. Second, China is developing relations in the region not only with Iran, but also with other powers in the region, such as Egypt, Israel, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, so it is trying to secure its interests by acting in a balanced way in the region. The deepening and deepening of security relations with Iran towards strategic cooperation could upset China’s balanced relations with other countries in the region, increase China’s perception of threats, and undermine China’s interests in the region. Finally, a highly armed Iran is not in China’s interests, as it could increase Iran’s aggression in the region and threaten the energy security of China and other countries in the region.
Taking all this into account, we can assume that security relations between the two countries are based on limited cooperation and will not develop towards strategic cooperation in the short and medium-term.
The future of bilateral relations in the framework of the “Comprehensive StrategicPartnership“
Negotiations on “Comprehensive Strategic Cooperation” began in 2016. The deal is expected to cost $ 400 billion and allow China to invest in Iran’s oil, gas, petrochemical, and transport sectors. The agreement provides for investment in the development of the ports of Chabahar and Cask, which could play a strategic role in diversifying Iran’s oil exports. Although the agreement provides for investment in various areas, it is doubtful that relations between the two countries will develop towards real strategic cooperation after the signing of this agreement. First of all, the persistence of sanctions on Iran and the strained relations with the United States, which prevents Chinese and Chinese companies from investing in Iran. Second, China’s balanced policy in the Middle East and its pro-Iranian stance on regional cooperation are likely to hurt its regional and global interests. Third, the fact that various projects that have been closed since 2013 are still on paper, and some have been suspended after they begin, raises doubts about the viability of all projects under this new agreement.
As a result, although Sino-Iranian relations have developed over the past 10 years in terms of economic, energy, and security relations, and the two countries have similar views on the international system, the security interests of the two countries, especially China, outweigh its economic interests with Iran. For China, maintaining limited relations with Iran is important in terms of its regional interests in the Middle East, its avoidance of confrontation with the United States, and its ability to prevent the growing perception of the “Chinese threat” in the Middle East. In addition, even if the conservatives, who are more pro-reform than pro-reform, win the June 18, 2021, presidential election in Iran, Sino-Iranian relations are likely to remain limited in the short to medium term for a variety of reasons.
*Gandab Valiyeva has done Bachelor of International Relations at the Azerbaijan State Economic University. She was an intern Center of Analysis of International Relations ( AIR Center). She is an intern Caucasian Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies (QAFSAM). Gandab Valiyeva is interested Middle East politics through the internship program, especially Iran’s foreign and energy policy with global and regional powers. Her areas of expertise cover Iran’s foreign policy in the context of South Caucasus and China-Iran relations.
A New Era in US-Jordan Relations
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.
Chinese FM Wraps Up his Visit to Egypt
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
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.
Greater Middle East may force China to project military power sooner rather than later
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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