The tentacles of Chinese power extend into Africa and the Middle East
The People's Republic of China no longer aspires to remain "the world's factory", or at least it is no longer the only thing it pretends to be. In recent years, the Asian giant has begun to develop its strategic presence around the world - especially in the economic and commercial spheres - with the aim of becoming a great power and gaining influence in global governance.
To this end, and despite the paradox that this implies, Xi Jinping has emerged as a staunch defender of the advantages of the free market and one of the main promoters of the globalisation process. An example of this was his speech at the virtual opening of the Davos Forum in 2020, where he stated that "multilateralism is the basic architecture that will give us the efficiency for all our coordinated actions". Following this roadmap, the general secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee (CCP) and president of the People's Republic of China since 2013 has led the signing of important international economic agreements, such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which, adopted in 2020, has become the largest trade pact in the world to date. Its members alone account for 30 % of the world's GDP.
In fact, political legitimacy has already become one of the main tools with which China aims to strengthen its international presence. Increasing its visibility in international institutions has made the country a - seemingly - more reliable partner, and this has resulted in considerable growth in its foreign trade. In 2021, in the midst of a seemingly unending pandemic and energy and supply crises, China's economy has not seen its upward trend interrupted, reaching a trade surplus of over $675 billion, more than 30 % above the previous year's results.
All these issues are undoubtedly evidence of the strengthening of China's presence in the world, which has inevitably changed the historical balances that governed international society until now. The global balance of power is shifting towards the People's Republic of China, pushing the United States of America into second place. Over the past 10 years, Beijing has gradually replaced Washington as the main partner and supplier to Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia, and in this dynamic of power transition, several experts estimate that by 2050 China will become the world's leading power.
Diplomatic relations between China and the US have been eroding over the past few years, reaching their peak in 2018, when former president Donald Trump declared a trade war on the Asian giant. Aggressive policy towards Beijing, including tariff increases and restrictions on Chinese imports and investment, sharpened hostilities between the two powers. Meanwhile, the political and economic isolationism that guided the former president's measures ended up weakening US influence in the international community.
However, Xi Jinping did not let the diplomatic opportunity pass him by and began to take advantage of the power vacuum that Trump's isolationist measures created in international structures. Thus, the strategy of strengthening its image led Beijing to consolidate its presence in institutions such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) or international climate summits, in the face of the US withdrawal from many of the agreements and treaties.
Now, in terms of its trade relations, the Asian giant has begun to expand its influence globally, albeit with a special focus on the Middle East. Following the gradual withdrawal of the US from the region - which has been accentuated after the departure of US troops from Afghanistan - and using the progress made in the One Belt, One Road Initiative, China has begun "a historic shift that starts with a reformulation of the geopolitical plan for the Middle East", as the reporter and journalist specialising in Africa and the Middle East, Joseph Dana, put it.
"We should not expect the United States to lose its dominant position overnight, but the tide is turning, and unless the Biden Administration finds a creative new way to engage allies in the Middle East, the shadow of the Great Wall of China will continue to loom over the region, creating deeper partnerships and greater collaboration. The transformation has already begun," Joseph Dana told Al-Arab News.
China's entry into the region has relied heavily on the New Silk Road, also known as the 'String of Pearls'. Launched in 2013, this initiative has emerged as the Asian giant's most ambitious project, comprising a vast array of trade routes that will connect numerous markets in Eurasia and West Africa. The plan consists of two distinct parts. The first, relating to land transport, is the 'corridor' or 'Silk Road Economic Belt', while the second has been dubbed the '21st Century Maritime Silk Road'. The combination of the two aims to boost connections with more than 70 countries, relaunch China's economy and collaborate in the export of Chinese culture; consolidating Beijing's political and financial influence.
Thus, through this trade initiative, along with the strengthening of military assistance and defence technology and equipment export agreements in the region, China has moved ahead of the US, which is currently re-evaluating its policy of arms sales to historic allies such as Riyadh because of the conflict in Yemen.
The infrastructure costs required for a project of this scale have been borne by Chinese construction companies, backed by the Beijing government and financed through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the BRICS Bank (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and the Silk Road Fund. However, although the country maintains that this initiative will be a huge economic boost for the territories it crosses, the truth is that, in terms of construction, infrastructure projects are being and will be executed almost exclusively by Chinese citizens and companies.
The fundamental objective of the plan is to reverse the progressive economic slowdown experienced by the Asian giant - which is expected to be even greater by 2022 due to the fall in demand - as well as to create new markets for the Chinese economy. The creation of infrastructure in the territories it crosses is key to economic reactivation.
However, one of Beijing's primary interests in the Middle East has to do with its energy needs. Beijing is one of the world's leading oil importers, and its long-term strategy in the region is to forge closer ties with the region's powers - particularly those in the Gulf - and turn it into a space of exclusive influence. More than 40 % of China's crude oil imports come from the Middle East, and the region is also a key supplier of gas to the Asian giant. Beijing is therefore dependent on energy supplies from these countries, and this dependence is expected to increase as energy consumption rises in the coming years.
The rapprochement between China and Iran is part of this process. With the signing of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Treaty in 2021, for the next 25 years, both countries agreed to cooperate in the areas of energy, infrastructure, security and communications. The Islamic Republic has seen its economy boosted by millions of dollars in investment from Beijing, while the latter will be guaranteed regular supplies of Persian oil at a sharply reduced price.
"Iran is a key state in the Belt and Road Initiative and a major oil exporter to China," former ambassador Hua Liming told China's Global Times. Indeed, in anticipation of this need for Iranian crude, Beijing has already developed a sea route that connects directly to the port of Bandar Abbas in the Strait of Hormuz.
The deal raised concerns in the Biden administration, which remains steadfast in its determination to impose sanctions on the Iranian regime for violations of the 2015 Nuclear Pact. As if this were not enough, China's position, supporting the Islamic Republic and calling the fines against it 'unilateral and illegal', has not helped to ease tensions. However, while it is true that this is China's first major alliance with a historic enemy of the US, the Asian giant has already used this foreign policy tool to reach out to many other countries in the region, such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, the development of relations with Israel, a historic ally of the United States, has been more tortuous. However, as a sign of slow but steady progress, last year Tel Aviv and Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG), a Chinese company, signed a contract to operate the port of Haifa - one of the country's main ports - for the next 25 years. This deal was part of the New Silk Road, but was not very well received by the Washington government.
These port facilities are of a markedly strategic nature, and are home to the US Sixth Fleet when it travels. Thus, in response to concerns about the Chinese presence in an area of joint military operations, the US authorities warned that the fleet would stop docking at the port if it was not allowed to carry out an inspection. The Israeli refusal highlighted the rift between Tel Aviv and Washington, and hints at the possibility of an opening of Sino-Israeli relations in the near future.
"Geopolitically based interests do not stop with any country, and whether the US likes it or not, China's footprint in the Middle East is expanding due to decades of careful planning and leisurely relationship-building. Moreover, with China's crude oil purchases in the Middle East increasing and the US divided over how to deal with the region in the future, China's influence will deepen in the region and then the world," concluded journalist Joseph Dana.
Broadly speaking, the nature of all the relationships and alliances that Beijing is building in the region is primarily economic and commercial. Beijing's strategy shies away from political or military deals, which could ultimately force it into conflict and result in trade obstacles. "China is interested in stability in the region in order to be able to continue developing its trade, as it has many energy supply problems, both in gas and oil", said Pedro Baños, a colonel in the reserve army and expert in geopolitics, at the forum "Geopolitics of the Middle East in a changing world".
In this sense, we could say that the Asian giant has become a responsible participant in regional peace; although, in practice, the move away from military alliances casts doubt on China's willingness to work for the security of the Middle East. China only wants stability in the region, otherwise turmoil and conflict would end up importing oil and destroying its investments in the territory.
Its relations with Afghanistan are also conceived in these terms. Fearing that the Taliban might support pro-independence movements in Xinjiang, a region in northwest China inhabited by the Uighur minority, and that the country might once again become a haven for other terrorist groups - as it did between 1996 and 2001 - Beijing has been willing to formalise diplomatic relations with Kabul. Moreover, through its promise to invest in the reconstruction of the country and the pressure that the Pakistani government - which is highly dependent on China - can exert on the Afghan authorities, the Asian giant hopes that the Taliban will manage to guarantee stability in its territory.
In the same way that Beijing's interest in the Middle East is due to its energy resources, its desire to expand into Africa is motivated by the presence of cheaper and more accessible raw materials and natural resources. In this vein, China's strategy has developed along similar lines: driven by the New Silk Road project, increased technology exports and increased investment. In fact, since 2009 China has become Africa's main trading partner thanks to investments in key sectors such as construction and services.
Moreover, in this area, the World Bank has acknowledged that lending facilities have been a key element in the rapid strengthening of relations. In total terms, cumulative investment is estimated at over $910 million. However, while this mutually beneficial policy may appear to be a triumph in principle, many analysts argue that it is a much more advantageous position for China than for African countries and that, in the long run, debt pressures could bind the continent for life.