In 2008, the American academic Robert Keohane said, “Multilateral institutions do not overrule powerful states – and rarely if ever try to do so. But they can change how states act.”
China is generally seen as exerting little political influence in the Middle East. While China’s diplomats pursue economic resources like petrochemicals, consumer markets and advanced technology, they avoid getting their hands dirty in the region’s many political issues. This reluctance to play politics largely stems from a conservative dogma enshrined in Chinese foreign policy by Deng Xiaoping. Unless an overseas resource is essential to China’s national security, Chinese policy is to avoid taking aggressive political action.
The Middle East has a single resource that directly impacts Chinese national security: petrochemicals. Fortunately for Beijing, access to the region’s oil and gas is secured by global energy markets that favor consumers and by the might of the United States military. China’s diplomats and companies are free to chase profits and forge close ties with regional adversaries. And so, it is no surprise that trade and investment is the mainstay of Chinese activity in the Middle East, rather than tanks and treaties.
The consequence and conceit of this activity is that from China’s perspective, the Middle East is irrelevant as a cohesive region. Politically and commercially, China disaggregates the Middle East. The Arab bloc, Iran, Israel and Turkey are distinct customers, and Beijing pays only passing attention to region-wide geopolitics.
This region-less perspective can be seen throughout China’s interactions in “West Asia,” the colloquial Chinese term for the region. Intellectually, Israel and Turkey are not traditionally included as part of West Asia curricula in Chinese universities. The West Asia division in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has focused on the Arab states, with separate officials assigned to cover Israel, Iran and Turkey. China’s lone international organization in the region until recently was the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF), an institution designated for Arab states only. Ignoring regional geopolitical issues is what allows Chinese diplomats to maintain strong ties with enemy states like Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Chinese companies like China Harbor and Huawei follow a similar blueprint, divorcing their commercial activities in Israel from projects in Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
For the first time, this blueprint is now changing. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), whose defining role for China’s Asian strategy is expected to escalate in the coming years, is returning the cohesive geography of the Middle East to China’s playbook. These ports, rails and pipelines are designed to knit together the region under China’s benign suzerainty – or at least, to enhance regional trade to China’s political and commercial benefit.
Organizations such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization recognize the cohesive integrity of the Middle East and can address the region’s geopolitical concerns
The less obvious shift, and the one with more political implications, is the emergence under the BRI umbrella of new – or newly empowered – regional organizations. Organizations such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) recognize the cohesive integrity of the Middle East and can address the region’s geopolitical concerns. And unlike the CASCF, the AIIB and (according to reports, soon) the SCO include the region’s adversaries within their membership roll. When Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia are serving on a single committee, chaired by China, tasked with distributing infrastructure capital or writing a white paper on regional security concerns, China’s political imprint on the region will no longer be limited to diplomatic showmanship.
At a recent conference on China and the Middle East, numerous speakers dismissed the political implications of BRI for the Middle East. As one ex-general said, “When Chinese diplomats choose to intervene with Hamas and Hezbollah, I will agree that China is exerting political impact in the region.” This conventional realpolitik analysis ignores that through the BRI, China is shifting its approach from a disaggregated to an integrated engagement with the Middle East.
By engaging the region as an integrated whole, and by establishing organizations composed of all regional states, Beijing and the companies that follow the government’s lead are for the first time embracing geopolitical concerns and by extension, increasing and supporting cooperation between states. Effectively, China in the Middle East is beginning to replicate a strategy that it recently began pursuing internationally, which is to reshape norms and organizations to its own advantage. For Israel and others in the Middle East, the application of these norms and organizations creates new political resources that will, for better or worse, involve China more directly engaging in the complex politics of the region.