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New Approaches to Old Problems – Russia and China on Middle East (2 of 4)

Written by Amb. (ret.) Doru Costea, Ph.D

 

What follows is the second of four chapters which are to be published in the next days. The full paper will be published on June 18, exclusively on the TrueStoryProject website in the TrueStoryPapers section.

This paper develops remarks made by H.E. Amb. Doru Costea at the 3rd edition of the Atlantic – Black Sea Security Forum that was organized by Aspen Institute Romania and the Bucharest Office of the German Marshall Fund in Bucharest, Romania, on June 1, 2021.

 

Executive summary

The common and deeply entrenched perception of the Middle East reads that it is the most dynamic and challenging region in terms of security and stability. Consequential changes occurred that have moved the center of gravity of their causes from interference of foreign powers to the domestic/regional dimension and the interaction between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ is intensifying. Known problems sprout new issues, while attempts at addressing them linger in the conflict-management stage, instead of resolutely aiming to finding and implementing durable solutions. New players (China), join traditional actors in the region, even as the performance of traditional forces (Russia, USA) is also changing, and regional powers (Saudi Arabia, EAU, Turkey, Iran) turn more assertive. Romania’s strategic interests are integrated with EU and NATO objectives and can be supported by its intellectual assets and diplomatic knowledge of the region.

 

As for Russia’s Middle East record, the situation could not differ more now from what it used to be not very long time ago. For more than a decade after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia had been all but absent from the region, with the notable exceptions of its political involvement in the Barcelona and Oslo processes and, later on, in the Iranian nuclear file. The dramatic change occurred with the outburst of the Syrian war, with Russia’s expanding use of the Tartous naval facility (est. 1971) and the opening of the Khmeimim Air Base (est. 2015), to mention just ‘boots-on-the-ground’ aspects; add to that the presence and performance of military personal, including private contractors, in combat operations in various areas of the country. Moreover, unlike American stances, Russia embarked upon opening and maintaining channels of communication with all local and regional players, both state- and non-state actors, and introduced various initiatives to address regional security and stability challenges – including a ‘new process of bilateral and multilateral consultations between key stakeholders, including the UN Security Council, the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation[1].

Against the background of continuous convulsions in the region, another actor has quietly and steadily made its presence felt that used to be less visible for decades: China[2]. As the Cold War had barely started when the People’s Republic was proclaimed, at the beginning China’s involvement in the Middle East was marked by the ‘Bandung Spirit’ in the 1950s, to be followed by the isolationist trend a decade later, the Three Worlds Diplomacy in the 1970s and by DENG Xiaoping’s teaching of ‘keeping a low profile’ in the 1980s. The 1990s witnessed China countering the US , then the country’s ‘peaceful rise’ in a ‘harmonious world’ at the beginning of the 20th century and Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese Dream’ – and all these loosely labeled stages include various ways and means that China resorted to as far as developments in the Middle East are concerned[3]. To put it in a nutshell, China’s general outlook of its interests in the region shifted from ideological argumentation to pragmatic initiatives, devoid of political considerations and strongly focused on meeting those interests, particularly in the economic fields and, as situations demanded, on securing cooperation of regional partners in fighting religion-based terrorism and extremism. The overall picture of China’s Middle Eastern policy shows 13 bilateral strategic partnerships and the country’s first place in the region’s trade since 2016. Moreover, in dealing with some of regional states, like Iran and Egypt, China frequently refers to similarities among its partners’ ancient and contemporary history as they used to be, in turn, ‘major powers’ and targets of disruptive foreign interferences.

‘The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched in 2013, is at the heart of this approach. BRI reaches the Middle East by land and sea segments alike, from the North-East and South, respectively, with a particular focus on the both banks of the Red Sea. The Djibouti-based military base is a first in China’s sea strategy, while multi-billion US dollar-projects are under various stages of negotiation and implementation in the countries of the region. In 2016, a formal Chinese Arab Policy Paper was adopted, ‘establishing a “1+2+3” cooperation pattern (to take energy cooperation as the core, infrastructure construction and trade and investment facilitation as the two wings, and three high and new tech fields of nuclear energy, space satellite and new energy as the three breakthroughs), and industrial capacity cooperation[4].

China’s plans in the area are comprehensive in terms of domains, yet they do not necessarily amount to a coherent regional strategy per se, even if there are discourses and messages that allude to such an approach. In March 2021, China’s minister of Foreign Affairs toured six Middle Eastern countries[5] and summed up his country’s principles of addressing its relationship with the area in what he called a ‘Five-Point Initiative’ on achieving stability and security in the Middle East: advocating mutual respect; upholding equity and justice; achieving non-proliferation; fostering collective security; accelerating development cooperation. Said principles were detailed to refer to challenges specific to the region, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran’s nuclear file[6]; however, their contents are equally valid for other areas as well, due to the generality of the wording, which, at the end of the day, is a trademark of China’s diplomacy.

Local reception of China’s actions has been rather welcoming, for a number of reasons that range from lucrative trading in energy sources, to financial and Chinese investments and, last, but not least, military equipment – Saudi Arabia is known to have used Chinese drones in the conflict in Yemen and Chinese surveillance equipment is increasingly present in various countries in the area. All in all, ‘China’s regional influence is growing, and over time, willingness for Beijing to offer and Gulf states to welcome a range of strategic initiatives is likely to increase.’[7]

China’s relations to Israel and Iran make for outstanding landmarks in the country’s Middle Eastern policy, albeit with easily discernable differences. A common denominator of China’s actions is the careful, yet consistent approach of these two states as it keeps an attentive eye on possible reactions from the US that would harm its projects, or hinder their implementation. The Chinese concern proved right in more than one instance in connection to plans of investing in Israeli harbors and the well-known anti-Huawei calls; however, these apprehensions did not prevent the China from signing of a ‘Strategic Cooperation Agreement’ with Iran on March 26, 2021, which reveals the joint readiness to expand the bilateral relationship for the next 25 years, based on Chinese investments worth over US$ 400 billion, including in military-related fields[8]. In this latter respect, it is worth mentioning that China’s share in Iranian military imports reached 24% between 2010-2019, as per SIPRI data[9]; likewise, one would recall the joint Chinese-Russian-Iranian military exercise of December 2019 – a first and reportedly worrying occurrence[10].

 

Previous chapter: Changes and “Mega-changes” in the Middle East (1 of 4)

 

Bibliography

[1]We should try and launch a process akin to the Helsinki Process and accomplish something similar in the region in the hope that, unlike the pan-European Helsinki Process, we could achieve better results’. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s answers to media questions during a special session of the Valdai International Discussion Club on the Middle East, Moscow, March 31, 2021, https://www.mid.ru/en/web/guest/foreign_policy/international_safety/conflicts/-/asset_publisher/xIEMTQ3OvzcA/content/id/4660109 .

[2] The last decade has seen a substantial growth of the literature dealing with China’s performance in the Middle East: between 2016 and 2019, at least 8 books were published on this topic. See Guy Burton, China and Middle East ConflictsResponding to war and rivalry from the Cold War to the present, Routledge, 2020,.

[3] Based on an instructive image of this evolution in Guy Burton, op. cit., p. 218.

[4] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, China’s Arab Policy Paper, January 2016, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1331683.shtml

[5] Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman.

[6] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, Transcript of State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s Exclusive Interview with Al Arabiya, 2021/03/26, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1864531.shtml

[7] Almost 45% of China’s imported crude oil originates from nine Middle Eastern countries, with Saudi Arabia on the top of the suppliers’ list. Qatar supplies around 30% of China’s natural gas needs. See Christian Le Miere, Increasing mutual dependence in Sino-Gulf relations is changing the strategic landscape, Atlantic Council, 11 May 2020, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/energysource/increasing-mutual-dependence-in-sino-gulf-relations-is-changing-the-strategic-landscape/

[8] Assessments of this document vary from being the birth certificate of a ‘new Axis of Evil’, to downplaying it as Iran’s new hot-air weapon. See, for instance, W. Figueroa, China-Iran Relations: The Myth of Massive Investment, The Diplomat, 6 April 2021; https://thediplomat.com/2021/04/china-iran-relations-the-myth-of-massive-investment/.

[9] Quoted in Hiddai Segev, China and Iran: Resurging Defense Cooperation?, The Institute for National Security Studies,Tel-Aviv, 10 May 2021, https://www.inss.org.il/publication/china-iran/?INSS&utm_source=activetrail&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Special%20Publication%20|%20China%20and%20Iran:%20Resurging%20Defense%20Cooperation?

[10] Iran called this drill ‘a new triangle of power’, while China referred to it as ‘normal military cooperation. Quoted in Jonathan Fulton, China’s response to the Soleimani killing, Atlantic Council, 6 January 2020, https://atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/chinas-response-to-the-soleimani-killing/

 

Photo source: Army Now

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