China has been able to steer clear of conflicts in the Middle East, unlike other major powers like the United States and Russia, by seeking partnerships but not allies in the region, a Chinese scholar has said.
China has also been able to make friends with countries that are US allies because of the cheap public goods it can provide through economic, trade, energy and investment cooperation with these nations, Professor Wang Suolao of Peking University said at the annual conference of the Middle East Institute, held at the Goodwood Park Hotel yesterday.
In particular, China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), first mooted in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, has made a difference in its relations with countries in the Middle East noted Prof Wang.
The BRI, he said, was China's way of providing public goods to the world including the Middle East. The Chinese initiative seeks to build infrastructure such as railways, ports and industrial parks to link China to Asia, Africa and Europe.
Prof Wang said that from 1999 to 2012 - a period of 13 years - China established partnerships with five countries, including Egypt, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). But in five short years, after the start of the BRI, China formed partnerships with nine more countries in the region, including Qatar, Jordan, Israel, Iraq and Iran.
It also established comprehensive partnerships with five countries, four of which are American allies: Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The fifth is Iran.
It is China's policy to establish partnerships but not allies "so that American allies at the same time can also be China's partners", said Prof Wang. It also means that countries in conflict with each other, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, can both be China's partners.
Dr Jon Alterman of the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies said that governments in the Middle East are enthused by China's BRI in part because of the perception that the US is beginning to turn away from the region. There are other considerations as well.
"Saudi Arabia is actively seeking to deepen its ties with China not only because China is such an important global oil consumer but also to ensure that China doesn't side with Iran too much," he said.
As for Iran, it seeks to build ties with China as a counterweight to what it regards as US domination, while Egypt sees China as a source of capital free of political judgment.
"A lot of governments see a relationship with China as a way of providing the material benefits that they get from the US ties, (but) with less baggage," said Dr Alterman.
But he noted that China establishes its ties in such a way that it is far more important to the country it is dealing with than vice versa, so that it is in the driver's seat. He cited the example of Iran's relationship with China, in which China represents 33 per cent of Iran's total trade while Iran represents less than 1 per cent of China's trade.
"China is clearly in the driver's seat because Iran is so reliant on China but China is not similarly reliant on Iran," he said.
He added that there are many as yet unanswered questions about Beijing's role in the region and the world and that there is already growing scepticism in Africa about China after more than a decade of large-scale Chinese investment there.
Prof Wang said China does not want to create trouble in the Middle East, and wants to bring peace and economic benefits to the region, adding that it should be given time to do better.