This article first appeared here on ForeignPolicy.com on September 13, 2018.
Almost two decades ago, I went to dinner at a restaurant called Peking in the Zamalek neighborhood of Cairo to celebrate the Chinese New Year. During what I vaguely remember being a raucous dinner, the crowd at the restaurant was asked to hush because a special guest had arrived. It was China’s ambassador to Egypt, who took the floor with a young Chinese woman—his translator—who effortlessly turned Mandarin into flawless classical Arabic. My dinner companions, a mix of American grad students, Egyptians, and Egyptian-Americans, were blown away at the translator’s skills. After all, few Americans could accomplish a similar feat. We then resumed celebrating the Year of the Rabbit.
Looking back, the young Chinese woman’s beautiful Arabic symbolized Beijing’s long term investment in building China’s regional role. The country’s leaders at the time understood that at some point they would want a greater voice in the region. Back in the late 1990s, this idea seemed plausible, but well over the horizon. When China came up in conversation, Egyptian officials would often declare, “China is not a replacement for the United States.” Then they would wait two long beats and with add with a smirk, “Yet.”
Have we now arrived at that moment? On July 10, China’s President Xi Jinping opened the Eighth Ministerial Meeting of the China-Arab Cooperation Forum with a lengthy and rousing speech about collaboration, cooperation, and “win-win” solutions for Beijing and the Arab world. A few weeks later he flew to Abu Dhabi for a three day state visit to the United Arab Emirates, the first by a Chinese leaders in almost three decades, and signed a raft of mostly economic agreements. The conference and Xi’s trip come at a time when there is a lot of interest in the Middle East and beyond in President Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative—an amorphous plan to put China at the center of global governance and in the process reverse the flow of goods, services, and ideas that have made the West paramount over the last few centuries.
If you are an economic determinist, the Chinese have indeed become players in the Middle East. But broaden the scope of analysis and Chinese’s grand plans haven’t moved much beyond the beautiful-Arabic stage.
No doubt China’s economic state-craft is real and has the potential to be profoundly consequential for the Middle East. In his July speech before about 300 attendees —including at least one Arab head of state and a handful of Middle Eastern foreign ministers—in Beijing, Xi committed $20 billion worth of loans to the region, an additional almost 90 million in aid to Syria, Yemen, Jordan, and Lebanon for reconstruction and care for displaced people, and another billion dollars to the Arab world toward building “social stability.” This comes on top of major Chinese investment in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, where about 60 percent of China’s exports are re-exported to Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. China has also targeted non-Arab Turkey and Saudi Arabia as central pieces to the Belt and Road that will provide access to the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf, respectively.
There has been some backlash to the Chinese in Southeast Asia and Africa about a ‘new colonialism,’ but less so in the Arab world and certainly not among officials there. In the early and mid-2000s, Egyptian diplomats would get misty eyed when talking about China. This wasn’t surprising. The Chinese Communist Party had solved a riddle that had proven beyond the apparatchiks of Egypt’s National Democratic Party—how to generate long term economic growth without upending social cohesion and maintaining the power of the party. More recently, a senior official from a Gulf country noted that Washington’s political polarization made it an unreliable and even risky partner in the Arab world’s quest for economic development and declared, “If you sat where we sit, you too would base your economic future on partnership with China.”
The Chinese can bring a lot of resources to bear for what they call “win-win” cooperation in the Middle East. The new ports, airports, logistics “hubs,” and economic zones that are being planned or are under construction stand to benefit these countries (unless they are saddled with huge debt like a number of Beijing’s client states in Africa) while China gets to enjoy the benefits of new infrastructure and the copious energy resources of the region that will facilitate its continued development.
Yet to infer, as a fair of amount of reporting and analysis suggests, that China’s financial investment in the Middle East means that Beijing will become a geo-strategic player in the region may be getting out ahead of even the Chinese. Of course, there is historical precedent for this evolution: The British occupation of Egypt came about in part to collect Khedive Ismail’s debts to European banks.
Still, the Chinese seem more interested in opportunistic mercantilism than becoming a problem solver and provider of regional security. A close look at Xi’s July speech or China’s 2016 policy statement on the Middle East reveals a detailed discussion of economic statecraft, but the barest minimum of boilerplate on politics, diplomacy, and security in the region. Reflecting these official statements, the Chinese foray into these areas has been tepid, at best. They’ve declared their support for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; have resisted American efforts to cut off Iran’s oil exports, which, given how much energy Beijing imports from Tehran, is to be expected; and declared their opposition to extremism and terrorism. There is a certain logic that given China’s dependence on Middle Eastern hydrocarbons, it will have to get involved in the security and politics of the region.
All that said, what have the Chinese actually done? They hosted relatively low-level delegations of Palestinians and Israelis in Beijing in 2017, reiterating their support for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders and East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state—a starting point that is doomed to fail. Beijing set up a naval base in Djibouti—strategically located at Bab el Mandeb where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden—and their warships have made port calls in parts of the Middle East. Maybe these activities presage a more active role in the future, but at the moment, it isn’t even clear that the Chinese have the military resources for a sustained presence in the region. Beijing’s answer to fighting extremism seems to be rounding up ethnic Uighurs into re-education camps, an issue on which Middle Eastern governments have remained silent.
No one in the Middle East expects the Chinese to be a provider of security, that is what the United States does and the Chinese are all too happy to benefit from it. As Washington has demonstrated less appetite to get involved militarily in the region, Middle Eastern countries have looked to Moscow or taken it upon themselves to secure their interest in Syria and Yemen.
Contrary to the often breathless commentary about China as a rising power in the Arab world, Beijing’s minimalist approach to the dramas and traumas of the Middle East in favor of economics issues is shrewd in terms of China’s broader ambitions. A day after the United States launched 59 cruise missiles at Syria, while Presidents Trump and Xi were enjoying chocolate cake at Mar a Largo, I called a friend in Beijing to get a sense of the Chinese reaction. He laughed and told me that no one in the Chinese capital was impressed with the American display of 1980s-era technology. “Besides,” he said, “anything that keeps the United States bogged down in the crises of the Middle East is good for China. It’s less resources Washington can spend on the South China Sea.” That makes sense—and it’s time the rest of the world realizes it.