China Steps up Diplomacy and Economic Partnerships in Middle East

Over the course of Jan-10-14, Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi held separate meetings in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province with his visiting counterparts from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, as well as with the Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), followed by two other meetings with the foreign ministers of Turkey and Iran. In reviewing the results with media on Jan. 15, Wang said he found a great deal of unity on the notion that no single form of “democracy” or economic model should be imposed on others, in an obvious reference to the Anglo-American policy.

In particular in his talks with the Saudi and Iranian ministers, it was stressed that China – which enjoys good relations with both the Gulf countries and Tehran — will play a more active role in promoting peace talks in the region. In addition, increased trade and investments were on the agenda in all the meetings, as China has already become the largest trading partner and foreign investor in South-West Asia.

That subject was taken up by Chas Freeman, a former U.S. diplomat for 30 years, including as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, in an article posted Jan. 22 on the Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft website. He notes that Middle East countries are looking for “more, not less Chinese engagement” to defend their own interests and regardless of the growing US-China conflict. The reasons are obvious: “China is now so big economically that it cannot help but be a growing factor in the regional worldview. Between 2000 and 2020, China’s GDP quintupled in size. Its industrial economy is now twice as large as America’s, though its services economy remains much smaller. China has become the world’s largest consumer market and its biggest importer of hydrocarbons.”

One third of its energy imports, as Freeman explains, come from the GCC, with the largest portion from Saudi Arabia. “Chinese companies buy one-sixth of GCC oil exports, one-fifth of Iran’s, and half of Iraq’s.” Moreover, China is an “emerging technological superpower” in any number of fields.

How does China’s policy toward the Middle East contrast to that of the United States? Freeman answers: “Like America a century ago, China has no apparent imperial or ideological agenda in the Middle East. Unlike today’s United States, China does not ask countries in the region to change their political systems and values, punish them for failing to do so, or demand exclusive relationships with them. It has yet to profess opposition to continuing American involvement in the region. Instead, it has suggested the formation of a multilateral dialogue on security issues and, when the time is ripe, a regionally managed collective security mechanism for the Gulf.” If Washington sticks to its current policy instead of opting for cooperation with China, Freeman concludes, it can’t win.

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