By James M. Dorsey
Edited remarks at the RSIS Book Launch of China and the Middle East; Venturing into the Maelstrom (Palgrave 2018), 20 September 2018
A podcast version of this story is available at https://soundcloud.com/user-153425019/middle-eastern-black-swans-dot-chinas-belt-and-road
If any one part of the world has forced China to throw its long-standing foreign and defense policy principles out the window and increasingly adopt attitudes associated with a global power, it is the greater Middle East, a region that stretches from the Atlantic coast of Africa to north-western China, a swath of land populated by the Arab, Turkic and Persian worlds.
It was a series of incidents in 2011 during the popular Arab revolts that drove home the fact that China would not be able to protect with its existing foreign and defence policy kit its mushrooming Diaspora and exponentially expanding foreign investments that within a matter of a few years would be grouped as the infrastructure and connectivity-driven Belt and Road initiative linking the Eurasian landmass to the People’s Republic.
Policy principles of non-interference in the domestic affairs of others, an economically-driven win-win approach as a sort of magic wand for problem solution, and no foreign military interventions or bases needed reinterpretation if not being dumped on the dustbin of history.
The incidents included China’s approach to the revolt in Libya as it was happening when it deviated from its policy of non-interference by establishing parallel relations with the opposition National Council. The outreach to Libyan leader Col. Moammar Qadhafi’s opponents did not save it from being identified with the ancien regime once the opposition gained power. On the contrary, the Council made clear that China would be low on the totem pole because of its past support for the Qadhafi regime.
The price for supporting autocratic rule in the greater Middle East meant that overseas Chinese nationals and assets became potential targets. To ensure the safety and security of its nationals in Libya, China was forced to evacuate 35,000 people, its most major foreign rescue operation. The evacuation was the first of similar operations in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
The evacuations didn’t stop militants in Egypt’s Sinai from kidnapping 25 Chinese nationals and radicals in South Sudan from taking several Chinese hostages. The kidnappings sparked significant criticism on Chinese social media of the government’s seeming inability to protects its nationals and investments.
With Uyghurs from China’s strategic north-western province of Xinjiang joining militant jihadists in Syria and two Uyghur knife attacks in Xinjiang itself in the cities of Hotam and Kashgar, the limits of China’s traditional foreign and defense policy meshed with its increasingly repressive domestic approach towards the ethnic Turkic people.
Finally, the greater Middle East’s expectations were driven home in a brutal encounter between Arab businessmen and ethnic Chinese scholars and former officials in which the Arabs took the Chinese to task for wanting to benefit from Middle Eastern resources and trade relations without taking on political and geopolitical responsibilities they associated with a rising superpower.
Add to all of this that in subsequent years it was becoming increasingly difficult for China to remain on the sidelines of the Middle East’s multiple conflicts and rivalries. This was particularly true with President Donald J. Trump’s coming to office.
The greater Middle East’s problems escalated with Mr. Trump’s abandonment of any pretence of impartiality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; his heating up of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran by withdrawing from the 2015 international agreement curbing Iran’s nuclear program; and his toying with attempting to change the regime in Tehran that encouraged Saudi Arabia to step up Saudi support for Pakistani militants in the province of Baluchistan; the likely return of Uyghur jihadists in Syria to Central and South Asia that has prompted the establishment of Chinese military outposts in Tajikistan and Afghanistan and consideration of direct military intervention in a possible Syrian-Russian assault on Idlib, the last rebel-held stronghold in Syria; and finally the potential fallout of China’s brutal crackdown in Xinjiang.
Already, the events in 2011 and since coupled with the mushrooming of Belt and Road-related investments has led to the creation of the country’s first foreign military base in Djibouti and the likely establishment of similar facilities in its string of pearls, the network of ports in the Indian Ocean and beyond.
China’s potential policy dilemmas in the greater Middle East were enhanced by the fact that it doesn’t really have a Middle East policy that goes beyond its shaky, traditional foreign and defence policy principles and economics. That was evident when China in January 2016 on the eve of President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Middle East, the first by a Chinese head of state in seven years, issued its first Middle East-related policy white paper that fundamentally contained no new thinking and amounted to a reiteration of a win-win-based approach to the region.
Moreover, with China dependent on the US security umbrella in the Gulf, Beijing sees itself as competitively cooperating with the United States in the Middle East. That is true despite the US-Chinese trade war; differences over the Iranian nuclear agreement which the United States has abandoned and China wants to salvage; and Mr. Trump’s partisan Middle East policy.
China shares with the United States in general and even more so with the Trump administration a fundamental policy principle: stability rather than equitable political reform. China’s principle of non-interference is little more than another label for the US equivalent of long-standing support of autocracy in the Middle East in a bid to maintain stability.
In some ways China is learning the lesson, despite recent developments in Xinjiang, that US President George W. Bush and Susan Rice, his national security advisor and subsequent secretary of state, learnt on 9/11. Within a matter of weeks after the Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, Bush and Rice suggested that the United States was co-responsible for the attacks because of its support for autocracy that had fuelled anti-American and anti-Western sentiment. It was why Bush launched his ill-conceived democracy initiative.
China, as a result of its political, economic and commercial approach towards the Belt and Road, is starting to have a similar experience. Chinese overseas outposts and assets have become targets, particularly in Pakistan but also in Central Asia.
The kidnappings in 2011 in the Sinai and South Sudan were the beginning. Uyghurs joined groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda not because they were pan-Islamist jihadists but because they wanted to get experience they could later apply in militant struggle against the Chinese.
Beyond profiling themselves in fighting in Syria, Uyghurs have trained with Malhama Tactical, a jihadist for profit Blackwater, the private military company created by Erik Prince.
Anti-Chinese sentiment in countries like Kazakhstan and Tajikistan is on the rise.
Iranians are grateful for Chinese support not only in the current battle over the nuclear accord but also in the previous round of international and US sanctions. They feel however that last time round they were taken for a ride in terms of high Chinese interest rates for project finance, the quality of goods delivered, and a perceived Chinese laxity in adhering to deadlines.
Resentment of the fallout of the Belt and Road investment taps into the broader threat involved in supporting stability by backing autocratic regimes That is nowhere truer than in the greater Middle East, a region that is in a period of volatile, often bloody and brutal transition. It’s a transition that started with the 2011 Arab revolts and has been pro-longed by a powerful Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led counterrevolution. Transitions take anywhere from a quarter to half a century. In other words, the Middle East is just at the beginning.
China, like the United States did for decades, ignores the rumblings just below the surface even if the global trend is toward more authoritarian, more autocratic rule. 9/11 was the result of the United States and the West failing to put their ear to the ground and to take note of those rumblings.
Of course, current rumblings may never explode. But the lesson of the people’s power movement in the Philippines in 1986, the video in late 2010 of a fruit and vegetable vendor in Tunisia who set himself alight that sparked the Arab revolts, months of street and online protests in Morocco in the last year, the mass protests in Jordan earlier this year against a draft tax bill that have now restarted because of the legislation’s resurrection, and the current protests in the Iraqi city of Basra potentially are the writing on the wall. All it takes is a black swan.
Said Financial Times columnist Jamil Anderlini:” China is at risk of inadvertently embarking on its own colonial adventure in Pakistan— the biggest recipient of BRI investment and once the East India Company’s old stamping ground… Pakistan is now virtually a client state of China. Many within the country worry openly that its reliance on Beijing is already turning it into a colony of its huge neighbour. The risks that the relationship could turn problematic are greatly increased by Beijing’s ignorance of how China is perceived abroad and its reluctance to study history through a non-ideological lens... It is easy to envisage a scenario in which militant attacks on Chinese projects overwhelm the Pakistani military and China decides to openly deploy the People’s Liberation Army to protect its people and assets. That is how ‘win-win’ investment projects can quickly become the foundations of empire.”
The Chinese crackdown in Xinjiang could just be a black swan on multiple fronts given the fact that its fallout is felt far beyond China’s borders. For starters, the wall of Western and Muslim silence is cracking with potentially serious consequences for China as well as the Islamic world.
What is happening in Xinjiang is fundamentally different from past incidents including protests against a novel by Salman Rushdie and Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa ordering his killing; the 2006 Muslim boycott of Danish products because of controversial Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, and the more recent protests sparked by the burning of a Qur’an by a Florida evangelist. The Chinese campaign in Xinjiang challenges fundamentals of the Islamic faith itself.
The earlier incidents were sparked by protests, primarily among South Asians in either Birmingham or Pakistan. This month has seen the first of Xinjiang-related anti-Chinese protests in Bangladesh and India. The first critical article on Xinjiang in the Pakistani press was published this week.
Malaysia is the first Muslim country to speak out with condemnations by a senior figure in Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s political party as well as the country’s likely next head of government, Anwar Ibrahim.
Consideration in Washington of Xinjiang-related sanctions by the Trump administration, coupled with United Nations reporting on the crackdown and a German and Swedish ban on deportations of Uyghurs, puts the issue on the map and increases pressure on Muslim nations, particularly those like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan that claim to speak on behalf of Islam.
This together with the fact that Chinese support for autocratic or authoritarian rule creates a potential opportunity to export its model of the surveillance state, the most extreme example of which is on display in Xinjiang, constitutes risks and involves potential black swans. To be sure, Pakistan can hardly be described as a liberal society, but it is also not exactly an authoritarian state, yet Pakistan is China’s first export target. And others closer to home could follow.
If all of this is more than enough to digest, factor in the geopolitics of Eurasia, certainly as they relate to the greater Middle East. The Chinese-backed Russian-Iranian-Turkish alliance is brittle at best, witness differences over the possible battle for Idlib and the post-war presence of Iran in Syria.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran, and to a lesser degree Israel are players in what is a 21st century Great Game. That is particularly true in the Caucasus and Central Asia as well as Pakistan and as it relates to port diplomacy in Pakistan’s Gwadar and the Indian-backed Iranian port of Chabahar.
Add to this the fact that if Saudi Arabia is the world’s swing oil producer, Iran is Eurasia’s swing gas producer with the potential to co-shape the supercontinent’s future energy architecture.
And finally, there are multiple ways that China risks being sucked into the Saudi-Iranian rivalry not least if the United States and Saudi Arabia decide to take plans off the drawing board and initiate a campaign to destabilize Iran by stirring unrest among its Baloch, Kurdish, Iranian Arab and Azeri minorities.
The long and short of this is that the Great Game in Eurasia remains largely undecided and that change in China’s foreign and defense policy is already a fact. The question is how all of this will affect China and how potential obstacles on the Belt and Road will play out.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and just published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom