The Straits Times says

Shape of China's role in West Asia

Chinese President Xi Jinping's tour of the three most powerful states in the Middle East and North Africa - Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran - has drawn more than usual attention for good reason. Mr Xi has logged hundreds of thousands of air miles since taking office but this was the first time he has travelled to the region. Indeed, it had been seven years since the last Chinese leader went there. In the event, he pipped every other world leader to appear at Iran's door soon after the lifting of sanctions, dropping a visit to the United Arab Emirates in the process. This comes at a delicate time for someone not ready yet to take sides as Teheran is seething over the Saudi execution of a Shi'ite cleric critical of the monarchy.

Mr Xi's tour makes more sense if one were to drop the Western label for the region - Middle East - and see it for what it actually is: West Asia. China, which has alienated many of its key neighbours in its East Asian neighbourhood, cannot sit idly by anymore as Asia's other bookend threatens to turn into a collection of failed states. Oil- rich Saudi Arabia, which is majority Sunni Muslim, is by far the wealthiest and most powerful of the Arab states while Egypt, backed by the Saudis, is its most militarised. Iran, which is predominantly Shi'ite, is an oil major, aside from being a key influence in the region. It is no secret that the US-Saudi alliance is shaky while the Iranians would welcome a counterweight to the US.

China and Iran also share common interests in Syria because Beijing supports the Iran-backed regime of President Bashar al-Assad and endorses Russian intervention for the purpose. China's stakes there stem from fears of militancy in its Xinjiang province (gateway to the Eurasian landmass) where several hundred Uighurs are believed to have joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Besides, Iran neighbours Pakistan, an ally of China and the site of Gwadar Port, a facility being built by China as an access point to the Persian Gulf. Hence, like Egypt, Pakistan is also critical to Mr Xi's One Belt One Road strategic gambit.

Beyond its obvious need to secure long-term oil supplies and take steps to curb radical Islam in a key area, the world will have to come to terms with a China that will increasingly take action to protect its strategic interests in the Middle East and Africa and farther afield. Witness, for instance, its decision to build its first overseas military base in Djibouti, East Africa. That is the natural order of things when new powers rise. In the Middle East, it is clear that China has decided it cannot simply watch from the sidelines. For now the talk is about investment and trade. However, as it involves itself more, Beijing will come under pressure to take sides politically and to do more to promote regional stability. How deftly it handles the competing pulls will determine the trajectory of the global leadership it aspires to.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2016, with the headline 'Shape of China's role in West Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe