Con­nect­ing to the Arab world China should tap co­op­er­a­tion po­ten­tial in theMid­dle East and con­tinue to build trust through more ex­changes

China Daily (Canada) - - COMMENT -

The grow­ing blood­shed in Iraq and Syria is be­ing watched as keenly in China as any­where else in the world. In­deed, the greaterMid­dle East is be­com­ing a greater fo­cus of Chi­nese for­eign pol­icy. At the just-con­cluded sixth min­is­te­rial con­fer­ence of the China-Arab States Co­op­er­a­tion Fo­rum, held in Bei­jing, Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping called upon his Arab coun­ter­parts to up­grade their strate­gic re­la­tion­ships with China, by deep­en­ing bi­lat­eral co­op­er­a­tion in ar­eas rang­ing from fi­nance and en­ergy to space tech­nol­ogy. This re­flects China’s broader goal – es­tab­lished partly in re­sponse to the United States’ “pivot” to­ward Asia – of re­bal­anc­ing its strate­gic fo­cus west­ward, with an em­pha­sis on the Arab world.

Of course, eco­nomic ties be­tween China and Arab coun­tries have been grow­ing stronger for more than a decade, with the trade vol­ume in­creas­ing from $25.5 bil­lion in 2004 to $238.9 bil­lion in 2013. China is now the Arab world’s sec­ond­largest trad­ing part­ner, and the largest trad­ing part­ner for nine Arab coun­tries. Within 10 years, the vol­ume of China-Arab trade is ex­pected to reach $600 bil­lion. En­gi­neer­ing con­tracts and in­vest­ment have also en­hanced ties.

Un­der Xi’s lead­er­ship, China is at­tempt­ing to re­shape its re­la­tion­ships with Arab coun­tries ac­cord­ing to its new “march west” strate­gic frame­work. The most no­table com­po­nent of this strat­egy is the Silk Road eco­nomic belt, which is to run along the an­cient Cen­tral Asian Silk Road, and the mod­ern mar­itime Silk Road – ini­tia­tives that Xi pro­moted heav­ily at the re­cent meet­ing in Bei­jing.

This ef­fort high­lights China’s goal of es­tab­lish­ing hub-and-spoke re­la­tion­ships with the key de­vel­op­ing economies around it. To this end, Pre­mier Li Ke­qiang has pro­posed an eco­nomic cor­ri­dor link­ing China to Pak­istan, and has spo­ken of other cor­ri­dors run­ning through Bangladesh, In­dia, andMyan­mar.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, en­ergy has been a key fac­tor in eco­nomic ties with the Arab world. From 2004 to 2013, China’s crude oil im­ports from Arab coun­tries grewby more than 12 per­cent an­nu­ally on aver­age, reach­ing 133 mil­lion tons per year. And China’s west look­ing strat­egy fur­thers its goal of safe­guard­ing ac­cess to these re­sources. As the di­rec­tor of the State Coun­cil’s De­vel­op­ment Re­search Cen­ter, Li­Wei, pointed out in Fe­bru­ary, at the cur­rent rate, China will be con­sum­ing 800 mil­lion tons of oil an­nu­ally, and im­port­ing 75 per­cent of its petroleum, by 2030.

In this sense, China’s tra­jec­tory con­trasts sharply with that of the US, where the rapid growth in out­put of shale oil and gas, to­gether with en­ergy-sav­ing mea­sures, has brought en­ergy in­de­pen­dence closer than ever – a point that Pres­i­dent Barack Obama em­pha­sized in his most re­cent State of the Union ad­dress. In fact, ac­cord­ing to the US En­ergy In­for­ma­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion, China sur­passed the US as the world’s largest net oil im­porter ear­lier this year.

More­over, the US is grad­u­ally dis­en­gag­ing strate­gi­cally from the greaterMid­dle East, cre­at­ing a vac­uum that China can fill. But to suc­ceed, China will need to be­come more at­ten­tive to the re­gion’s com­plex dy­nam­ics, find cre­ative ways to par­tic­i­pate in con­flict-res­o­lu­tion ef­forts, and re­spond en­thu­si­as­ti­cally to­Mid­dle East­ern gov­ern­ments’ grow­ing de­sire to con­nect to Asia.

Do­ing so would help re­al­ize the goal of de­vel­op­ing the coun­try’s vast in­land ar­eas; and specif­i­cally the Ningx­i­aHui and the Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gions, which have sub­stan­tialMus­lim com­mu­ni­ties, could ben­e­fit more from deeper links with Arab economies.

En­hanced in­flu­ence in the Arab world would also pro­mote the per­cep­tion of China as a leader of the de­vel­op­ing world – a po­si­tion that could boost China’s strate­gic and eco­nomic re­silience con­sid­er­ably. For starters, it would en­able China to cap­i­tal­ize on the de­mo­graphic heft of the de­vel­op­ing world, which will house more than 80 per­cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion in 2020. More­over, it would al­low China to max­i­mize its gains from bur­geon­ing trade among de­vel­op­ing economies, which surged from 8 per­cent of global trade in 1990 to 24 per­cent in 2011.

To be sure, not all Arab gov­ern­ments are wel­com­ing China with open arms. In­deed, many of the Mid­dle East’s most pow­er­ful ac­tors – in­clud­ing Turkey and Saudi Ara­bia – are sus­pi­cious of China’s longterm in­ten­tions.

But China can take steps to gain these coun­tries’ trust. For ex­am­ple, China’s lead­ers should work to ad­dress the un­rest in theMus­lim­dom­i­nated Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion more ef­fec­tively.

China’s “march west” into the Arab world is a bold ef­fort to trans­late its eco­nomic might into en­dur­ing re­gional – and, ul­ti­mately, global – in­flu­ence. This is a daunt­ing task, but it is one that can help to se­cure China’s long-term fu­ture, and per­haps bring greater weight to bear in re­solv­ing the re­gion’s im­mense chal­lenges. The au­thor, a re­search fel­low at the Charhar In­sti­tute, a Chi­nese for­eign-pol­icy think tank, is also an ad­junct fel­low with the Cen­ter for In­ter­na­tional and Strate­gic Stud­ies at Pek­ing Univer­sity and the ex­ec­u­tive edi­tor of China In­ter­na­tional Strat­egy Re­view. Project Syn­di­cate

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