As a result, these scholars warn that China cannot afford to further avoid factoring into its policies profound processes that are shaking the fundaments of the Middle East and North Africa’s nation state structure, post-colonial borders, and security architecture. Scholars like Israel expert Yiyi Chen noted that protection of Chinese economic interests had already forced Beijing to become more flexible in its adherence to the notions of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence that were adopted in 1954 in a joint statement on peaceful cooperation by the leaders of China, India, and Burma.[lxv]
Chen cited as an example Chinese shuttle diplomacy between Sudan and South Sudan on the back of Chinese investments in Sudanese oil fields and South Sudanese infrastructure.[lxvi] Similarly, Chen argued that it was not a question of if but when China would seek to mediate in the Israeli Palestinian conflict.[lxvii] China has recently also sought to arbitrate in Afghanistan and Syria.
China’s greater flexibility was evident in both its attempts to mediate and in instances in which China felt forced to breach its non-interventionism by establishing ties to opposition forces in countries wracked by internal violence and conflict like Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan in a bid to hedge its bets in situations of potential political change. Libya served as a first indicator of the possible cost attached to remaining aloof despite maintaining contacts with anti-Qaddafi rebels. Qaddafi’s immediate successors threatened in 2011 to disadvantage China in the reconstruction of the country because it maintained its ties with the ancien regime to the bitter end.[lxviii] Libya has since asked Chinese businessmen to return to Libya, according to Pan. “We told our businessmen that it is not yet time. Libya has yet to pay for previous work,” Pan said.[lxix] Chinese analysts estimate that China suffered US$18.8 billion in losses as a result of the Libyan crisis.[lxx]
Potential friction as well as China’s experience in Libya coupled with the kidnappings in Sudan[lxxi] and Egypt prompted a number of articles, including in the Communist Party’s Global Times, that called for a loosening of the principle of non-intervention and greater Chinese assertiveness.[lxxii] “The Chinese government is not only familiar with but also fond of developing relations, including economic relations, with ruling parties, but somehow neglects to foster ties with the opposition forces or rebel groups in countries with civil conflict. Accordingly, once an opposition force or rebelling group in an African country decides to put pressure on the ruling authority by kidnapping foreigners, unarmed Chinese people can fall easy prey. On the other hand, where China also fails to develop strong relations with civil society in an African country, this often leads to some misunderstanding. Potential conflict is easily made use of by rebels as an excuse to kidnap Chinese as hostage. As a result, Chinese workers in Africa are also victim to civil conflicts in Africa or less sophisticated relations between China and African countries. …The increase in the number of cases of threats either to Chinese workers or projects being forced into suspension imply that the Chinese government has yet to enhance efforts to protect its overseas interests,” noted Fudan University political scientist Jian Junbo.[lxxiii]
Changing patterns in China’s foreign policy driven by events in the Middle East and North Africa were also evident in recent years in the constructive role China played in UN deliberations that led to the adoption of the principle of the right to protect provided the use of force had been endorsed by the Security Council[lxxiv] and in the evolution of Chinese defence policy. A Chinese defence white paper identified in 2013 the protection of overseas energy resources and Chinese nationals abroad as a major security concern to be shouldered by the Chinese military.[lxxv] The shift in Chinese policy was facilitated by the fact that China had never clearly defined what would constitute intervention in the domestic affairs of another country,[lxxvi] a vagueness that allowed China in the 1950s and 1960s to support revolutionary movements in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia.[lxxvii]
Building on the evolution of China’s positions, Middle East scholar Liu Zhongmin warned that “the deep political changes in the Middle East, the restructuring of the regional system and the strategy adjustment of the U.S., Europe and other Great Powers…suggests that it is urgent for China to work out a mid-term and long-term diplomatic strategy toward the Middle East and corresponding mechanism and measures.”[lxxviii] This, Liu argued, would have to involve adhering to the principle of non-intervention “with an innovative mind” that would “enrich the connotation of the principle from time to time.”
Liu suggested China could increase its influence in the region through increased aid, investment and efforts to mediate in disputes. China should “dare to propose to the related states more practical and specific resolutions in line with international morality” and expand its contact with opposition groups in the region, Liu argued. In line with the near consensus among Chinese scholars and officials that puts the Middle East in the context of China’s relations with the United States and determines the international posture China should adopt, Liu maintained that China for a considerable time to come would have to compensate for structural limitations of its power and political disadvantages. These limitations include the lack of the kind of soft and hard power available to the United States and persistent tension with the Uighurs.
Zhu Weilie, another Middle East scholar, proposed adding religious diplomacy to China’s diplomatic toolkit. Religious diplomacy, Zhu reasoned, could be based on Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s call in 2009 for respect for the diversity of civilisations and on the fact that former Prime Minister Zhou Enlai included an imam in his delegation to the 1955 Asian-African Conference in Bandung, a gesture that deeply impressed then Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.[lxxix]
China’s limitations notwithstanding, some analysts suggest that China has no choice but to position itself as a global power sooner rather than later. Renmin University international relations professor Pang Zhongying, one of China’s most outspoken scholars on the issue, argued that “China should declare clearly that China intervenes globally, regionally, and multilaterally, but conditionally” adding that “a global China... has to intervene.”[lxxx]
In a variation on the theme, Peking University international relations scholar Wang Yizhou speaking to the Beijing Review sought to address the issues posed by non-interventionism by developing the concept of “creative involvement” that would allow it to participate in efforts to resolve conflicts with “cautious, creative and constructive mediation;” create institutions; and provide global public goods, “imprinting the future world with (China’s) contributions.” Wang argued that “creative involvement is a concept that focuses on diplomatic, commercial and military fields and stresses improving flexibility and skills of foreign affairs-related departments. It can be considered as a new direction for China's diplomacy. It will be a new option for China's diplomacy based on its new position and strength as well as its culture and traditions. It will bring a Chinese style to the world stage during the process of the peaceful development of the country.”[lxxxi]
Christina Y. Lin, a former U.S. government official and China expert, noted that China’s commercial and financial muscle gave it a leg up on the United States. China was not only armed it with a larger war chest but also able to neutralise market forces by skipping over tenders and ignoring the rules of level-playing field competition. “In addition to bilateral agreements, China…provides competitive package deals that may include military aid in addition to concessional loans,” Lin said.[lxxxii]
Expanding China’s Naval Horizons
Doubts about U.S. reliability in the Middle East that are bolstered by the United States’ declared pivot towards Asia reinforce Chinese concerns that differences with Washington over disputes in the South and East China Seas or Taiwan could prompt a U.S. naval blockade of the Malacca Straits through which much of China’s energy imports flow. These concerns constitute a basis for China’s gradually more assertive military policy in the region as well as its massive investment in naval modernisation. They also explain the creation of a string of ports that link China to commercial and refuelling facilities in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf and a network of railways that could play a key military transport and logistics role once China decides to project power across Eurasia,[lxxxiii] and pipelines connecting it to Central Asia and the Middle East.[lxxxiv]
China long sought to tread carefully in its initially limited military contacts with the Middle East and North Africa. China was, for example, slow to engage in security cooperation with Saudi Arabia that started in secret in 1985, five years prior to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. In a deal that was only disclosed three years later, Saudi Arabia in its first weapons deal with China bought in 1985 36 Chinese CSS-2 East Wind intermediate range ballistic missiles for US$3.5 billion even though they were known to be highly inaccurate in conventional use.[lxxxv]
The deal said much about the attitude of Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern and North African states towards China. Saudi Arabia saw the deal as a way to counter Iran’s missile strength that in a twist of irony was built on Chinese technology and design, and as leverage to persuade the United States to be more forthcoming with weaponry that had offensive capabilities.[lxxxvi] In a further indication that China was making only limited inroads and that Saudi Arabian arms purchases remained focused on Western suppliers, Saudi Arabia while engaged in a massive weapons buying spree, waited 30 years to acquire a more up-to-date Chinese missile system, the DF-21 East Wind ballistic missile.[lxxxvii] Saudi Arabia meanwhile has yet to decide on a possible acquisition of China’s JF-17 Thunder fighter jet.[lxxxviii]
In his memoirs, Saudi General Khalid bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, a son of the late Saudi crown prince and defence minister, Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, and commander of the U.S.-led international alliance that forced Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait in 1991, recalled that in acquiring the CSS-2 it was “my task to negotiate the deal, devise an appropriate deception plan, choose a team of Saudi officers and men and arrange for their raining in both Saudi Arabia and China, build and defend operation bases and storage facilities in different parts of the kingdom, arrange for the shipment of the missiles from China and, at every stage, be ready to defend the project against sabotage or any form of attack.”[lxxxix] Saudi Arabia is no longer as secretive about its dealings with China but has since the 1980s not significantly deepened its military relationship with Beijing.
China nonetheless has begun to take on a cautious military role in the Gulf and other international waters. Chinese warships have participated since 2009 in the international anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden, and have paid fleets visits to the Mediterranean. China claimed in August 2014 that its naval vessels had escorted some 5,670 ships in the region and come to the aid of 60 others.[xc] China used that deployment, according to Sun Degang, as a platform for military diplomacy. [xci] It has since held joint anti-piracy and counter-terrorism exercises; paid naval visits to neighbouring countries and regions, made interim technical service stops in Djibouti, Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan for ship fuel and material resupply; and agreed on short-term arrangements for reconnaissance aircraft. China reportedly has also deployed troops to Kashmir to protect construction projects.[xcii]
Some analysts interpreted the brief presence in 2014 of Chinese naval vessels in the Mediterranean as partly designed to caution Western powers against intervening in Syria’s civil war. A year later, Chinese and Russian naval vessels practiced "joint action in distant seas" in the Mediterranean with live ammunition.[xciii] “One thing is certain: the transit of PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) and Russian vessels in the area is not coincidental — it is clearly meant as a deterrent against intervention by Western powers in the Syrian crisis,” said China scholar and former Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) analyst J. Michael Cole.[xciv] Noting Chinese support for the Assad regime, Cole argued that Chinese policy towards Syria was at the time designed to maintain the Assad regime as a buffer against a U.S. and/or Israeli attack on Iran in the absence of a nuclear agreement that could prompt a closure of the Strait of Hormuz and the disruption of the flow of oil to China. Cole said that China also hoped that the survival of the Assad regime would weaken U.S. regional hegemony, counter perceived U.S. support of Southeast Asian nations that threatens Chinese interests, and enlist Russian support in responding to a U.S. pivot towards Asia.[xcv]
Like the Middle East’s multiple conflicts and geostrategic relevance, China’s gradual emergence as a global naval power threatens the integrity of its principle of non-interventionism. A report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) concluded that “as long as China continues to deepen its engagement with the global economy, tensions are bound to grow between traditional interpretations of non-interference, China’s increasing economic role and the diplomatic leverage of that role in other countries to project power... The on-going domestic debate on non-interference in China indicates that the understanding of non-interference in China’s foreign policy community is not static but in flux, and this reflects the diverse and sometimes conflicting self-identities that underlie China’s world views and mind-sets. Since non-interference remains crucial for Chinese ‘core interests’—and especially for regime survival and territorial integrity—China will not easily relax its vigilance and drop this principle in the foreseeable future… China has engaged in a policy of pragmatic adaptation and shown growing flexibilities in its practice of non-interference... China has increasingly engaged in a diversification of its diplomatic outreach beyond contacts with ‘legitimate governments’ and local elites, and has attempted mediation between conflict parties,” the report said.[xcvi]
A new Chinese defence white paper published in 2015 outlined significant changes in the role assigned to the military that was expanded among others to include protection of Chinese interests abroad.[xcvii] Military analysts suggest that it is at best a matter of time until China will have the capability to act in line with the paper once it has completed the training of troops tasked with protecting overseas investments and Chinese nationals and put in place the necessary transportation and logistics infrastructure. Meanwhile, China in situations of emergency will likely have to limit itself to smaller scale hostage rescue missions.[xcviii]
The change in China’s defence and foreign policy posture will probably be further fuelled by its future acquisition of additional aircraft carriers that in turn will heighten the need for overseas bases. This cautioned U.S. Naval War College scholar Nan Li, could “contradict China’s desire to project the image to the world that, unlike the rise of other great powers, China’s rise will be peaceful.”[xcix] An op-ed in the Global Times suggested that while the West should become accustomed to a Chinese presence in the Mediterranean, China was seeking to smooth the process without ruffling feathers.[c]
The Chinese approach to the Mediterranean is informed by Sun Degang’s argument that China’s initial military approach was designed to balance its security interests with its reliance on the U.S. by adopting a soft military policy. It also stroked with the notion put forward by Niu Xinchun, director of the Middle East Program at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, that the creation of Chinese naval footholds in the Middle East would foster military cooperation with Europe, the United States, and the other regional actors on counter-terrorism, counter-piracy, humanitarian aid, and disaster relief.[ci]
Sun Degang suggested that China’s shifting approach could involve temporary deployment of armed forces for overseas military exercises as well as the deployment of military patrols, peacekeeping forces, military trainers, consultants, the building of overseas munitions warehouses, joint intelligence facilities, aerospace tracking facilities, earthquake monitoring stations, technical service, military replenishment stops, maintenance bases, and military teaching institutions.[cii]
China has contributed in recent years, peacekeeping forces and military observers to the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO), the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan, the United Nations-African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur, and the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara.[ciii]
The Chinese navy’s port visits laid bare the initial limitations of a Chinese military policy towards the Middle East and North Africa given that they were in part driven by supply difficulties encountered by the Chinese anti-piracy task force. The supply problems fuelled domestic debate about the eventual need for foreign military bases.[civ]
The evolution of the debate since then is evident in China’s contradictory responses to invitations to establish foreign naval facilities. The Chinese defence ministry in 2011 declined an invitation to establish an anti-piracy base in the Seychelles. The ministry said it would “consider” replenishment or port calls in the Seychelles and other countries.[cv] Three years later, China’s changed perception of its limitations and its flexibility in applying its principles of non-intervention and no foreign military bases became evident with the disclosure by Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh that China was negotiating the establishment of a naval base in the African state’s northern port of Obock.
The base is an outcome of a military agreement concluded in 2014 between China and Djibouti that was criticised by the United States.[cvi] In preparation for a deal, Djibouti sold to China Merchants Group its two thirds stake in the Doraleh Container Terminal that it co-owned with Dubai ports.[cvii] Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) and a former U.S. National Security Council Middle East expert warned that the negotiations with Djibouti were “sure to heighten concerns in Washington about Beijing’s geopolitical aspirations.”[cviii] The Chinese base is in close proximity to the United States’ only permanent military facility in Africa, Djibouti’s Camp Lemonnier, which is used for covert, anti-terrorism and other operations in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere in Africa.
The change in China’s approach became formal with the 2015 defence white paper that emphasised China’s intention to improve and project its naval capabilities far beyond its coastline.[cix] The International Business Herald, a paper published by the Xinhua News Agency, reported that China was likely to establish over the next decade three strings of “overseas strategic support bases” totalling 18 facilities: a North Indian Ocean supply line with bases in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar; a Western Indian Ocean supply line with bases in Djibouti, Yemen, Oman, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique; and a central-south Indian ocean supply with bases in Seychelles and Madagascar.[cx]
China’s changing approach traces its roots to late Chinese admiral Liu Huaqing who played a key role in conceptualising the modernisation of the Chinese navy. Liu’s strategic doctrine envisioned already in the 1980s that economic growth with the vast majority of Chinese imports being transported by sea and technological advance would force China to become over time a global naval power in what Chinese officials termed far-sea operations.[cxi] Nan Li quotes Chinese naval researchers as concluding that “far-seas capabilities make it possible to carry out offensive operations and ambush and sabotage operations in the far and vast naval battle-space beyond the first island chain, and would have the effect of shock and awe on the enemy.” Li viewed forward operations and offense as central to naval combat because oceans have few invulnerable physical objects to base their defence on, and naval platforms are difficult to repair once crippled. He argued that China’s emphasis on offense would help it optimise its naval force structure, and ensure that it is more cost-effective. Li envisioned an incremental increase of Chinese naval capabilities that would allow it to become a global sea power by 2020. [cxii]
Figure 10: Near Abroad versus Far Abroad
Source: China Sign Post #55[cxiii]
In addition to its naval strategy, China has sought to forge broader military relations with various Middle Eastern and North African nations. The Chinese and the Turkish air forces conducted a joint exercise in 2010 at a time when Turkish-U.S. relations were strained. To reach Turkey, Chinese Su-27 and Mig-29 fighter aircraft flew across Pakistan and refuelled in Iran.[cxiv] Five years later, Turkey first decided to purchase a long-range Chinese surface-to-air missile system that could have proven difficult to integrate with its NATO allies[cxv] and then backed out of the deal. The far-reaching negotiations followed China’s upgrading of relations with Turkey to the level of strategic cooperation during a visit to Ankara in 2010 by then Prime Minister Jiabao after Turkey opted to drop its support of Uighur separatist groups but maintain its support for the minority’s economic and cultural rights.[cxvi] The upgrade was a far cry from the days between 1949 and 1971 when Turkey recognised Taiwan rather than the People’s Republic.
Turkey hoped that Turkish investment in Xinjiang as part of the strategic relationship would increase its ability to help Uighurs achieve their rights while China was offering investment incentives in the expectation that heightened Turkish influence would help dampen nationalist sentiment.[cxvii] Its hopes were symbolised by the launch in 2011 of direct flights linking Istanbul to Urumqi that were operated by China Southern and Hainan Airlines. At the same time, China decided to send religious students to Turkey, including those wanting to become imams.[cxviii] The missile deal, if concluded, would have pushed the boundaries of China’s arms sales to the Middle East and North Africa given that Beijing continuously looks over its shoulder at the United States in sensitive dealings with the Middle East.
The missile deal would have taken on added significance given the fact that possibilities for closer military cooperation between China and the Gulf states as is evident in Saudi Arabia’s hesitancy to get to deeply involved with China were further hampered by policy differences over Iran and Syria, two regimes that are backed by Beijing but bitterly opposed by the Gulf states. The impact of these differences was on display when Chinese flags were burnt in various Arab capitals in protest against Chinese vetoes in the UN Security Council resolutions that favoured the Assad regime.[cxix]
Similarly, anti-government demonstrators in Iran in 2009 whose protests coincided with riots in Xinjiang accused China of helping keep the Iranian regime in power by selling it in violation of international sanctions anti-riot gear and tracking technology.[cxx] Iranian protesters countered chants by pro-regime demonstrators of “Death to America” by shouting “Death to China.” Criticism of China was not restricted to the protesters. Conservative and liberal Iranian clergy condemned China for its simultaneous crackdown on the Muslim demonstrators in Xinjiang.[cxxi]
In forging military ties to key Middle Eastern and North African players, Iran in some ways has proven to be a less prickly partner than Turkey. Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan said during a visit to Beijing by his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Dehqan in 2014 that he hoped to deepen military ties[cxxii] which date back to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s when China was the Islamic republic’s main military hardware supplier.[cxxiii] Those supplies caused tension with the United States when in 1987 Iran fired Chinese-made Silkworm missiles at Kuwaiti vessels in the Gulf.[cxxiv] Forced to halt the supply of sophisticated weaponry, China helped Iran kick start the development of an indigenous military-industrial sector evident in the design and technology of Iranian-made missiles.[cxxv]
Much of China’s military assistance in the 1990s was in support of Iranian efforts to develop with the help of North Korea ballistic missiles and to enhance its ability to fend off littoral attacks, including the sale of C-801 and C-802 anti-ship missiles that were modelled on France’s Exocet, and Hudong missile-armed fast attack boats.[cxxvi] In 2010, China inaugurated a missile plant in Iran that produced the Nasr anti-ship missile which is identical to China’s C-704.[cxxvii] To hide the supply line, China at times filed off the serial numbers of weapons to hide their origin.[cxxviii] China has also forged bilateral maritime security cooperation with Iran.[cxxix]
In anticipation of the lifting of the sanctions, Chinese Admiral Sun Jianguo visited Iran in October 2015. Sun, who is widely seen as the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) next naval commander, produced a draft memorandum of understanding for closer cooperation in counter-terrorism, cyberwarfare, and intelligence sharing. Sun’s visit followed joint Chinese-Iranian search-and-rescue naval exercises and training exercises in 2014 in the Gulf. The exercises, involving two Chinese warships were held close to the base of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain at a time of tension between the United States and Iran over the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme.[cxxx]
Navigating Regional Rivalries
Xi’s January 2016 visit to the Middle East illustrated the increasing degree to which China is walking a tightrope in its efforts to avoid being bogged down and mired in the region’s numerous wars, conflicts, disputes and animosities. That is proving to be a gargantuan, if not impossible task. While Xi made sure that he visited both Riyadh and Tehran, he left little doubt that the lifting of international sanctions allowed China to reinforce ties with Iran with which it has far more in common than with Saudi Arabia.
Xi’s visit to the kingdom was accompanied by talk of brotherly relations and strategic cooperation. The rhetoric however did little to mask serious differences on issues ranging from Syria to Saudi propagation of Wahhabism, a puritan interpretation of Islam that many fear breeds jihadism, and a relative decline in Chinese reliance on Saudi oil and the fact that the Gulf plays a secondary role compared to Iran in the One Belt, One Road initiative. The overland component if One Belt, One Road passes in its current conception through Iran rather than the Gulf while the maritime touches the Gulf only on the Red Sea approach to the Suez Canal.
Chinese officials worry that alleged Saudi funding of Islamic schools or madrasahs in Xinjiang may be encouraging Uighur militants who have staged several attacks in a low intensity campaign for equal rights and autonomy, if not independence. Saudi officials have assured their Chinese counterparts that they do not support the violence despite the fact that the Uighurs, some of whom have joined IS, are Turkic-speaking Sunni Muslims. Those assurances appear to have done little to put Chinese concerns to rest. “Our biggest worry in the Middle East isn’t oil – it’s Saudi Arabia,” a Chinese analyst told the Asia Times.[cxxxi]
Chinese media in 2002 questioned Saudi Arabia’s ability to cope with the threat of Wahhabism breeding radicalism[cxxxii] and hinted at Xinjiang’s potential in becoming an irritant in Chinese-Arab relations. In response to the media reports, Saudi Arabia’s Arab News rankled China’s ire in an editorial that compared China to Israel in the way it dealt with Xinjiang. The Arab News referred to Xinjiang as East Turkestan, the anti-Chinese Uighur reference to the region.[cxxxiii] In his PhD thesis, Martin Harrison cautioned that “a prolonged downturn in the Xinjiang security situation would have consequences to which Riyadh could not long tum a blind eye.”[cxxxiv]
Religious affinity is not something China has to worry about with Shiite-majority Iran, which has long projected itself as a revolutionary not a sectarian power. China moreover supports the Iranian-backed regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and favoured Russian intervention in Syria to prop up the Assad regime—a position that puts it at odds with Saudi Arabia that backs the rebels and has hinted at intervening militarily on their behalf. Russian and U.S. airstrikes against Saudi-backed Islamist rebels have allowed Syrian and Kurdish forces to gain increasing control of much of Syria’s borders, making it more difficult for Uighurs from northwest China to find their way to Syria.
China’s subtle shift towards Iran is also visible in the oil market. Iran is determined to win back Chinese market share with the lifting of the sanctions. Iran expects to boost oil exports by 500,000 barrels a day, much of which it hopes will go to China. Iran’s oil plans put it in direct competition with Saudi Arabia, which had emerged as one of China’s largest suppliers. That has begun to change with China apparently shifting its reliance on oil away from Saudi Arabia. Chinese oil imports from the kingdom rose a mere two per cent in 2015 while its purchase of Russian oil jumped almost 30 per cent. The shift is likely to create an opening for Iran at Saudi Arabia’s expense.[cxxxv]
Despite the lofty pledges of increased trade during Xi’s visit, Chinese self-centeredness in its management of economic ties called in Middle Eastern and North African minds to question China’s sincerity and commitment. Iran cancelled in 2014 a US$2.5 billion contract with the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) for the development of the South Azadegan oil field citing repeated delays as well as the high cost and poor quality of Chinese equipment and services.[cxxxvi] Iranian businessmen were cautious on the eve of Xi’s visit, raising questions about the degree to which China would benefit from the lifting of international sanctions against the Islamic republic. The businessmen charged that Chinese banks and businesses had exploited the sanctions to charge them high commissions and delay deliveries in the knowledge that they had no choice but to buy Chinese products.
The stakes for Chinese companies are high. Iran has said that with sanctions lifted it would need up to US$50 billion in foreign investment in energy; road, rail and air transportation; agriculture; and industries such as household, textile and ceramics.[cxxxvii] In a symbolic gesture, the first train loaded with Chinese products to traverse China’s One Belt, One Road land expanse arrived in February 2016 from China’s eastern Zhejiang province in Tehran within weeks of Xí’s visit. Mohsen Pourseyed Aqayi, the head Iran’s railway company, greeted the train, which will operate on a once-a-month schedule in the presence of the ambassadors of China and Turkmenistan with the words: "The revival of the Silk Road is crucial for the countries on its route."[cxxxviii]
The tightrope China walks across the Middle East and North Africa’s pitfalls was also evident in its approach towards the Iranian nuclear crisis before it was resolved. China as a permanent member of the UN Security Council was part of the negotiations to end the crisis. Like most in the international community, it was opposed to Iran becoming a nuclear military power but appeared more sanguine about it given the history of its own nuclear capabilities as well as Pakistan’s employment of secrecy and deceit in its successful pursuit of nuclear weapons. China became a nuclear power in the 1950s but only joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1993. Chinese policy towards Iran’s nuclear ambitions moreover acknowledged that 40 per cent of Iran’s nuclear capability predated the fall of the shah in 1979. Pan summarised Chinese opposition to a potential U.S. and/or Israeli military strike against Iran in his warning that “if you bomb Iran, you radicalise them.”[cxxxix]
China’s attitude was also informed by the fact that it had supported Iran’s nuclear development in the 1980s and 1990s when it assisted the Islamic republic with uranium enrichment. China knew that the programme had a military dimension but nonetheless provided Iran with various types of critical nuclear technology and machinery. It also assisted Iran with the exploration of uranium and mining, and enabled Iran to master the use of lasers for uranium enrichment. Chinese experts trained Iranian nuclear engineers and played a key role in the establishment of the Isfahan Nuclear Research Centre that was central to Iran’s nuclear programme.[cxl]
China hoped that by being seen to be playing a visibly constructive role in the Iranian and other Middle Eastern and North African crises would buy it time as it debates what amounts to major policy changes. During his visit to the region, Xi projected China as the nation best equipped to tackle the Middle East and North Africa’s multiple problems.[cxli] In a speech to the Arab League in Cairo, Xi argued that “dialogue and development” offered the solution – a tough proposition in a part of the world in which opposing parties either refuse to talk to each other or only go through the motions to ensure that they are viewed as being constructive with no intention of arriving at a negotiated resolution. Xi suggested that China would succeed where others had failed by building a “cooperative partnership network for win-win outcomes” in the framework of One Belt, One Road and the establishment of the AIIB, the Chinese-led infrastructure bank.[cxlii]
The list of failed Chinese initiatives involves many of the region’s major disputes. It includes efforts to bridge the gap between Sudan and South Sudan in 2011 and 2014,[cxliii] half-hearted Chinese attempts in 2012 and 2013 to negotiate a political solution in Syria,[cxliv] and an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. The Israeli-Palestinian and Syrian efforts were based on four-point plans put forward by Beijing. The Israeli-Palestinian one died a quiet death after it was rejected by Israel[cxlv] while the Syrian plan failed to generate serious interest.[cxlvi] The Sudanese, Israeli-Palestinian and Syrian initiatives constituted nonetheless an early testing of concepts of “constructive” or “creative” intervention put forward in 2010 and 2011 by scholars Zhao Huasheng and Wang Yizhou.[cxlvii]
The failures notwithstanding, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi signalled his country’s recognition that it will progressively have to move from non-interference to active engagement in a speech in 2013 to the United Nations General Assembly. China intended to play a “more proactive and constructive role” in the world’s hot spots and provide “public goods to the international community,”[cxlviii] Wang said. Wang was building on President Hu’s statement in 2004 that Chinese diplomacy should “enhance the capability of protecting interests overseas, improve relevant laws and regulations, strengthen the early-warning and fast-response system, improve the style of work and enthusiastically serve Chinese citizens and legal persons in foreign countries.”[cxlix]
China’s recognition of changing realities on the ground was also on display in its shifting approach towards Afghanistan, a prime case study for how domestic issues make it increasingly difficult for China to remain aloof to developments beyond its borders, insist on the principle of non-interference, and attempt to make economics and investments the core drivers of its foreign policy. Stability in Afghanistan is of vital interest to China. The Central Asian country’s eastern tongue, the Wakhan Corridor, barely touches China’s borders but it potentially could serve as a route into Xinjiang for Uighur rebels abroad who take advantage of the region’s porous borders.
Chinese engagement in Afghanistan is further driven by the withdrawal of the bulk of NATO forces from the country and the United States’ more limited military commitment to a country in which China has invested heavily. China has invested in the world’s second largest copper mine in Afghanistan as well as an oil field in the country. “Chinese companies can’t go there without U.S. security. We hope the U.S. keep their troops in Afghanistan. The U.S. can’t just leave after 14 years of killing,” said Pan.[cl]
China’s concern is heightened by the fact that the scala of jihadist and Islamist groups operating in Afghanistan includes not only the Taliban, IS and Al-Qaeda but also the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). East Turkistan is the name nationalist Uighurs and pan-Turkists use to identify Xinjiang. China’s effective support for autocratic governments or governments whose legitimacy is contested under the guise of non-interference has reinforced perceptions among Uighur nationalists and Islamists and their jihadist allies of China as a pillar of the status quo.
The potential threat emanating from Afghanistan was underscored by the execution by IS in November 2015 of Chinese hostage Fan Jinghui, a freelance consultant from Beijing. The execution signalled the willingness of the jihadists and other militant groups to target not only Xinjiang itself but also Chinese interests and nationals in the Middle East and elsewhere. The threat heightened Chinese concerns about the security and safety of massive investments by state-owned enterprises and projects related to the One Belt One Road initiative in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. The threat looms ever larger given the effectiveness of China’s crackdown on dissent in Xinjiang itself and its enhanced control of the border regions.[cli]
A video clip distributed in August 2015 by the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), a Uighur group whose Syrian branch, the Turkistan Islamic Party in the Levant (TIP-L), is aligned with the Al Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, and Jaish al Fatah, a coalition of jihadists active predominantly in the Syria’s northern Aleppo and Idlib provinces, drove the threat home. The video showed an attack by Uighur militants on Afghan security personnel hired by China’s state-owned Metallurgical Group of China (MCC). The Afghans were responsible for the security of MCC’s US$3 billion investment in Mes Aynak, the world’s largest undeveloped copper field, in Afghanistan’s Logar province.[clii]
China blames the increasingly real threat emanating from instability in Afghanistan on U.S. and Saudi mismanagement of Islamist forces that fought the Soviets in the 1980s and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. “We gave a lot of aid to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. They fell into the hands of jihadists,” said Pan. Pan was referring to the anti-Soviet Islamists who spawned jihadist groups across Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.[cliii]
To achieve its goal in Afghanistan, China has stepped up its contacts with the government and invited Taliban and former Taliban for visits to the mainland. In one instance China brought former Taliban officials with close ties to Pakistan’s intelligence agency together with an Afghan government envoy in Urumqi[cliv] for what Foreign Minister Wan termed an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” reconciliation process.[clv] On an earlier visit to Kabul, Wan announced China’s intention to help Afghanistan become a “unified, stable, developing, and friendly” country. [clvi]
Former Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury credited Pakistan for China’s attempt to mediate in Afghanistan. Chowdhury said China had followed Pakistan’s advice to contact Taliban leader Mullah Omar directly which led to the group assuring Beijing that it would not allow attacks on China from territory it controlled. China’s ambassador to Pakistan was further reported to have been the only non-Muslim to have at the time met with Taliban leader Mullah Omar. The reports were denied by China.[clvii]
China was at the same time pressing Pakistani generals to clean up their act after Chinese Muslims joined the ranks of the Taliban, some of whom are believed to be responsible for attacks in Xinjiang.[clviii] China has also urged Pakistan to step up military action against militant safe havens in North Waziristan as well as efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan.[clix]
China, Chowdhury noted, was the only country to have remained in continuous contact with the Taliban once they were implicated in the 9/11 Al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington.[clx] Pakistani media reported on the day of the 9/11 attacks that the minister of mining and industry of the Taliban government in Kabul had signed a memorandum of understanding on technical and economic cooperation with a Chinese delegation in Peshawar.
Spill-over in Xinjiang
Militant Chinese Muslims have meanwhile expanded their international links beyond the Taliban and increased their popularity among Uighurs as well as some Hui Muslims who adhere to the most puritan schools of Islam, Wahhabism, Salafism and jihadism.[clxi] Up to 1,000 Uighurs are believed to have joined IS as of 2015. That is up from an estimate by The Global Times of 300 in 2014.[clxii] A video posted on YouTube by a user who identified himself as ayahm84 that has since been removed, featured a purported Chinese fighter in Syria brandishing a Kalashnikov. Subtitling named the fighter as Bo Wang, who speaking in Mandarin, said he had been studying in Libya before joining the struggle to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria.[clxiii] The Iraqi defence ministry posted on its Facebook page in September 2014 a picture of an Asian man with a bruised and bloodied face. It said the man was a Chinese IS fighter captured by Iraqi forces.[clxiv]
Uighurs reach Syria by taking a circuitous route through Central Asia or employing people-smuggling networks in Southeast Asia. They cross borders using forged Turkish passports or by claiming that they are Turkish nationals. Chinese authorities said in January 2015 that they had arrested 10 Turks and a number of Uighurs in Shanghai for smuggling Uighurs out of the country.[clxv] "There are Uighurs that have fled overseas and joined IS. The organisation has a huge international influence and Xinjiang can't keep aloof from it and we have already been affected. We have also found that some who fought returned to Xinjiang to participate in terrorist plots," said Communist Party secretary of Xinjiang Zhang Chunxian.[clxvi]
IS published a video in October 2014 with Chinese subtitles claiming that it portrayed "a Chinese brother before he did a martyrdom operation (suicide bomb attack)” in the town of Suleiman."[clxvii] Muhammed Amin, an 80-year old Uighur-speaking cleric from Xinjiang called in a 15-minute IS video published in July 2015 on Muslims to join the group and kill “Chinese infidels.”[clxviii] The video also featured a classroom filled with Uygur boys dressed in headgear bearing the black-and-white IS logo. One of the boys pointed to the IS flag as he pledges: "O Chinese infidels … we will come to you and raise this flag in Turkestan."[clxix] In December 2015, IS’s foreign language media arm, Al-Hayat Media Center, distributed a chant in Mandarin exhorting Muslims to revolt.[clxx] IS greeted 2016 by hacking the website of Tsinghua University, one of China’s most prestigious educational institutions, with a call to jihad.[clxxi]
Chinese media have accused Turkey and Syria of supporting and training Xinjiang militants recruited by the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and the Istanbul-based East Turkistan Educational and Solidarity Association (ETESA).[clxxii] Pictures on the Chinese website Guancha and in The Daily Mail suggested that Chinese nationals had also joined Kurdish Peshmerga forces fighting the Islamic State. The pictures showed what appeared to be a Chinese male holding an automatic weapon and Chinese graffiti on a wall.[clxxiii] In its first detailed listing of Xinjiang-related incidents of violence, China asserted in 2002 that ETIM was “supported and funded” by Al-Qaeda.[clxxiv]
Figure 12a: A Chinese Fighter in Syria
Figure 12b: Chinese grafitti in Syria
Concern about Turkey’s role as a conduit for Uighurs joining IS is grounded in the fact that Turkey historically has offered refuge to Uighurs fleeing Chinese rule. Turkish empathy with the Uighurs is rooted in a belief that the group represents the forefathers of primordial Turkism.[clxxvii] The Ottomans recognised as emir Muhammad Yaqub Beg, a Tajik commander, who exploited the Hui uprising in Xinjiang in the period between 1865 and 1867 to capture Kashgar and Yarkand and assert control over the region. The recognition gave Yaqub Beg legitimacy and access to arms. Ottoman military officers moreover served as Yaqub Beg’s advisors and supplied him with arms.[clxxviii]
Modern Turkey has been home to Uighur nationalists since the PLA captured Xinjiang in 1949. Secular Turkish nationalism long served as a model for the Uighurs that sought refuge in Turkey but in more recent years has increasingly been pushed aside by militant Islamic ideology. The post-1949 refugees included Isa Yusuf Alptekin, who became the voice of the Uighur diaspora during the Cold War, and maintained close relations with Turkish leaders, including former presidents and prime ministers Suleiman Demirel and Turgut Ozal. Current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan named in 1995 when he was mayor of Istanbul a section of the city’s Sultan Ahmet Park in honour of Alptekin. A memorial in the park commemorates the martyrs who lost their lives in Eastern Turkestan’s struggle for independence. The martyrs include Uighurs who were executed by the Chinese authorities. “Eastern Turkestan is not only the home of the Turkic peoples but also the cradle of Turkic history, civilisation and culture. To forget that would lead to the ignorance of our own history, civilisation and culture… The martyrs of Eastern Turkestan are our martyrs,” Erdogan said at the time.[clxxix]
Chinese analysts have compared the presence of Uighur nationalists and Islamist in Turkey to the Taliban’s harbouring of Osama bin Laden.[clxxx] Chinese officials, hoping to exploit Turkey’s conflict with the Kurds, have insisted in discussions with their Turkish counterparts over the last two decades that the two countries need to combat the “three evil forces of separatism, terrorism and extremism,” including “East Turkestan terrorism.”[clxxxi] Ultimately, China’s highlighting of the discrepancy between Turkish support for Uighur nationalist demands and Turkey’s refusal to recognise similar rights for its Kurdish population and the gradual rise of China as an economic power persuaded Turkey to moderate its support for Uighur independence.
Turkey’s changing attitude was enshrined in a directive in 1999 issued by then Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz that recognised Xinjiang for the first time as a part of China and banned government officials from attending events promoting the concept of Eastern Turkestan.[clxxxii] Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit described the Uighurs during a visit in 2002 by his Chinese counterpart, Zhu Rongji, as a “friendship bridge” between the two countries.[clxxxiii] The effect of the Chinese pressure proved however to be double-edged. The departure to Europe and the United States of some Uighurs provided the nationalists a voice in countries that were less susceptible to China’s carrot-and-stick approach.
Turkey’s bowing to Chinese pressure has however failed to erase the legacy of Turkish support for Uighur nationalism. China, which denounces Uighur nationalism as a foreign conspiracy and international terrorism, continues to view Turkey as what China scholar Yitzhak Shichor termed “the political and cultural epicentre of pan-Turkism.”[clxxxiv] Chinese perceptions were reinforced by Turkey’s response to the death in 2009 of at least 200 people and mass arrests during riots in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi days after Turkish President Abdullah Gul had visited the city, and Thailand’s deportation in 2015 to China of more than 100 Uighurs, which sparked violent demonstrations in Istanbul and Ankara.[clxxxv] Then Prime Minister Erdogan described the events in Urumqi as “almost genocide.” Erdogan’s industry minister Nihat Ergun called for economic sanctions against China, saying “organising protests is not enough.”[clxxxvi] Six years later, Turkey’s foreign ministry used strong language to denounce the deportation of the Uighurs.[clxxxvii]
China has used its assertion that IS and Al-Qaeda are linked to a rising number of violent incidents in China to justify the adoption in December 2015 of controversial counter-terrorism legislation. It requires technology firms to help decrypt information and allows the military to venture overseas on counterterror operations.[clxxxviii] The legislation, said Mei Jianming, director of the Counter-terrorism Research Center at the People's Public Security University of China, “took the growing influence of Islamic State into consideration after it planned to recruit Muslims from all ethnic groups in China, posing new challenges for the country.”[clxxxix] “We are very worried about this. We are worried that young Chinese will go through Turkey to Syria and then come back to China,” Pan Guang said.[cxc] Concern about Xinjiang alongside the principle of non-intervention also informs Chinese opposition to military aid to rebel groups in the Middle East and North Africa. It has further prompted China to significantly expand its international cooperation on counter-terrorism through regional frameworks like the SCO and in its bilateral relations.
The threat to China took on an alarming quality when Chinese police aided by satellite images captured by China’s National Space Administration detected in August 2014 dozens of cross-border tunnels in Xinjiang that could facilitate the infiltration of operatives of the ETIM and other Uighur groups.[cxci] The tunnels raised the spectre of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of militants. China, in contrast to Gaza where Hamas uses tunnels that the Israelis seek to destroy but do not counter with underground networks of their own, has dug an entire subterranean city with 3,000 miles of nuclear tunnels that crisscross China. In Xinjiang, China has stored nuclear warheads in tunnels under Urumqi.[cxcii]
Fears of the IS’s potential impact on Xinjiang, has prompted some Chinese analysts to call on their government to join the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. “China lacks military capabilities to join anti-terror operations… China can instead provide funding, equipment and goods for the allies. It can also help by providing training local army and police personnel, an area in which China is experienced,” said Ma Xiaolin. He noted that China was already sharing intelligence with coalition partners.[cxciii]
IS threatens security not only in Xinjiang but also that of Chinese interests in the Middle East and elsewhere. The group has targeted Iraq’s northern oil resources in a bid to secure revenue streams and to weaken the government in Baghdad economically and strategically. China has invested heavily in Iraq’s energy sector. Sinopec Limited has stakes in oil fields in Iraqi Kurdistan while CNPC has stakes in multiple fields in the south.[cxciv] “The stability of the Middle East, an important link on the new Silk Road, is crucial to the success of this economic structure and the cooperation between China and the region,” said Li Haidong, a scholar at Beijing’s China Foreign Affairs University.[cxcv]
Chinese concerns about Xinjiang were bolstered when IS identified East Turkistan as one of its target areas and the group’s caliph, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi listed the People’s Republic at the top of his list of countries that violate Muslim rights in his declaration of the caliphate.[cxcvi] Maps circulating at the time on Twitter purporting to highlight IS’s expansion plans included substantial parts of Xinjiang.
Figure 13: The Islamic State’s territorial ambitions
Al-Qaeda expressed a similar attitude, condemning Chinese policy towards Xinjiang as “occupied Muslim land” to be “recovered [into] the shade of the Islamic Caliphate.”[cxcviii] IS’s declared pivot eastwards as well as westward posed a threat not only to Chinese policies in Xinjiang but also to the land pillar of China’s proposed Silk Road in Central Asia and the Middle East. In response, China has cracked down on the region with a heavy hand. Former U.S. government official Lin noted that China’s internal security budget has surpassed that of its military every year since it put down an uprising in Xinjiang in 2009.[cxcix]
A Chinese religious leader, Adudulkrep Tumniaz, deputy director of the Xinjiang Islamic Association, warned that a lack of respected Chinese Muslim leaders puts the coun