When in autumn 2011 ‘Foreign Policy‘ (FP) published then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton‘s essay ‘America’s Pacific Century‘, the rationale behind US foreign policy adjustment was clear. Worn out after a decade of catastrophic military involvement in the Middle East, the United States were now willing to turn to an emerging region dense with economic and trade ferment: Asia, from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean – or, at least, that was the idea. Today, it is fair to say that the so-called ‘pivot to Asia’ was far less sensational than originally planned. The trans-Pacific deal is still in the making while disengagement from the Middle Eastern quagmire is far less simple than Obama would have hoped.
Anyway, US desire to turn its attention elsewhere did not go unnoticed in the Middle East. Qualitatively, US commitment in the region shifted markedly since the Bush administration. The icing of the cake is the prospective nuclear deal with Iran. Traditional allies have started looking at Asia themselves. The Chinese – whose no-nonsense character means they are rather consistent in following a carefully designed foreign policy strategy, compared with Obama’s and other administrations incongruous course – were already working on their relationship with the countries in the greater Middle East. It goes without saying that the cornerstone of these relations is energy procurement.
David Rothkopf, writing for FP, noticed comings and goings from China to the region and the other way round. These visits testify to the readiness of regional leaders to turn to a superpower different from the United States. On the other hand, they testify to China’s willingness of insinuating in the cracks of American hegemony. However, the United States and China have very different approaches. While the United States tend to flex their muscles and find themselves militarily involved in situations they can hardly pull out of (Afghanistan and Iraq) or, even worse, they come out broken (Somalia), China skilfully handles the weapons of ‘soft power‘ and weaves together very carefully the threads of commercial relations, expanding the volume of its trade and its influence. China’s energy demand grows steadily, and it is likely to continue doing so in the near future, making the Middle East a nodal point of Chinese interests. On the other hand, China became the main exporter in the region in 2009.
Al-Sisi’s Egypt lures investors in the alluring setting of Sharm el-Sheikh (Egypt Economic Summit, March 2015.) Israel openly states its willingness to approach Chine to counterweight US-Iran unwelcome rapprochement. (Incidentally, it should be remarked and applauded how China easily manages to maintain incompatible relationships with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel while the United States find it so very hard.) In fact, says Rothkopf, China is both Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s main trading partner (did you know that the missiles Saudi Arabia used in Yemen are made in China?), and Israel’s and Pakistan’s second trading partner.
The alliance with Pakistan has a long tradition and is based on the ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ formula (the common enemy is, of course, India.) It is a rather sound alliance which aims not only at surrounding India but also at gaining a precious outlet on the Arabian Sea: the Chinese financed and built Gawdar port and recently acquired 40-year management rights.
The relations with Iran are particularly interesting in prospect: (if and) when the sanctions against Iran will be lifted, China (and India will follow suit) is going to rush into it voraciously. If those two Asian countries will cooperate on nuclear energy as well, their relationship could get really strong. Iran and China have already started joint naval exercises as early as last autumn.
Many considerations can be drawn from this peculiar Middle Eastern declination of the ‘pivot to Asia’. The most trivial revolve around economic and commercial interests of both China and the countries in the greater Middle East. Beijing is building a commercial and energy route, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, that will grant access to the Middle East and Europe. Essential for this new Silk Road is the so-called ‘string of pearls’, a network of ports from the China Sea to the Gulf – Gadwar being one of the pearls. The Chinese Navy is already discreetly sailing the waters of the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden as well as Somali waters. Middle Eastern strategic reasons have already been cited: in the face of American disengagement, these countries turn to the one emerging power.
More in-depth analysis should consider Chinese foreign policy as a whole. Beijing has long been inward oriented hence, deliberately chose to focus on internal dynamics and avoided to get involved in the complex management of the world system. More recently, it has started appearing on the various scenarios with its peculiar strategy and operational mode. Chinese presence does not assert itself as Western does (sometimes with ill-advised and counter-productive interventionism). On the contrary, it avoids tying cooperation to political conditioning. The Chinese carefully avoid getting involved in its partners’ domestic affairs. This is partially due to the fact that the Chinese mindset deems sovereignty sacred. On the other hand, it is evidence of political foresight and shrewdness.
Compared with American (or even Western) Atlas syndrome of holding the whole world on the shoulders and taking up the task of global sheriff, Chinese conception of foreign relations is pragmatic and based on the abstention of judgement on its partners’ domestic sphere – especially in terms of human rights. (Chinese idea of human rights is collectivist instead of individual: it means that the economic welfare of society as a whole is more important than individual political or civil rights.) This has granted China a warm welcome in those African countries long tied to IMF, WB and in general Western conditional aid. The very same charm conquests those Arab countries often scolded on human rights issues and civil liberties. China is a far less intrusive guest delivering huge investments and infrastructure, a rather attractive partner and patron.