WASHINGTON, DC – China is seeking to grow its economic and military footprint in the Middle East, an important source of energy and trade, a prominent Chinese professor said this week.
Pan Guang, a professor at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, spoke at George Washington University on Wednesday about China’s desire to become more involved in the affairs of the Middle East as it seeks to implement its “One Belt One Road” strategy.
The strategy aims to rekindle China’s ancient Silk Road trade routes with Europe and Africa and has drawn some concern from the U.S.
Guang, who is also the director of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Belt and Road Studies Center, spoke of China’s growing economic footprint in the Gulf states. Twenty years ago, there were no Chinese there, but today, there are 300,000 Chinese and “many, many thousands of small companies” in Dubai’s Dragon City, he said.
“Everywhere you can see something made in China,” Guang said.
As far as trade between Middle Eastern nations and China, Guang said the price of transportation is going up as well as the cost of insurance, but, he said, “trade is still very, very prosperous.”
He said China’s number one source of oil is Saudi Arabia, but it can vary month by month. In December, he said it was Russia.
He predicted more Chinese would go to the Gulf Cooperation Control countries but that their stability was not entirely certain since they were not democracies. He noted that Saudi Arabia recently began allowing women to drive but noted that they still cannot vote.
“UAE is OK, Qatar is OK, Doha is very open,” he said, adding that it is not clear where the money comes from in those countries – possibly from terrorists.
He noted ironically how Americans protested the 2003 Iraq War with “No war for oil” signs and that now Iraq’s oil is actually going to China.
“In fact now the oil from Iraq not come here [to the U.S.], go to China,” he said. Since southern Iraq has stayed relatively stable, he noted that China did not have to bring any workers back.
The oil fields in Iraq “work very well,” he said.
Instability stemming from the Arab Spring has had mixed results for China – bad economically, but not politically, Guang said.
He said the Chinese lost a lot of money in Libya when it had to abandon projects and equipment there, bringing 36,000 Chinese workers back to China.
“No nobody really knows who is Libya government but they want Chinese to come back,” he said. They first have to “pay for [the losses stemming from the] previous war,” he said.
He said China had to bring about 500 Chinese back from Yemen, as well, due to turmoil between the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government. China also closed its embassy there, he said.
Overall, the “situation for trade, investment [was] negative” but now the situation is better, he said.
Politically, he said not much was affected.
Guang said that, after the Arab Spring, China’s relationship with the Middle East was “very normal.” Relations with Egypt and Tunisia recovered “very soon.”
China’s relations with Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Algeria, Morocco, Iran, Turkey, and Israel were all good, he said. “Good relations, no problem,” he said.
He noted that Saudi’s King Salman visited Beijing in March and credited Egypt’s leader Abdel Fattah Al Sisi with ousting the Muslim Brotherhood from power.
“So I can say no very serious negative [problems] on the China-Middle East relations,” he said.
He said China has been trying to grow closer ties diplomatically and, in 2002, appointed a special envoy for the Middle East affairs. The current envoy is the former ambassador to Turkey, so he is familiar with the region, Guang said.
China has also appointed a special ambassador to Syrian affairs and a special envoy for Afghanistan, he said.
“Now China [is joining] more and more international efforts,” he said.
He said China was “very, very active” with the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear deal.
“We don’t want the U.S. to withdraw from this,” he said. “We support [United Nation sanctions] before the agreement but we don’t support U.S. unilateral sanctions.”
He said there were Chinese companies who do business both with the U.S. and Iran, and sanctions would force them to choose a side. They also noted that European, Chinese, and Japanese companies would also lose business.
“So all the [countries hope] we can continue this process and bring Iran toward the international community,” he said.
Guang also spoke of China’s growing military footprint in the Middle East and North Africa region.
He spoke of China’s growing interest in “peacekeeping missions,” noting that there are currently about 1,000 Chinese troops conducting a peacekeeping mission between Hezbollah and Israeli forces in southern Lebanon.
He said the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional security organization founded by China and consisting of Central Asian countries, should expand its role to peacekeeping, along with the United Nations to deal with water and other disputes.
He said, “more and more countries” want to join SCO, including those outside of the Central and East Asian region.
“Now Arab countries, the GCC, even Greece, Israel ask whether they can join,” he said.
He also noted China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy’s participation in anti-piracy missions near Yemen and China’s first overseas base in Djibouti, on the east coast of Africa.
“Since 2009 we begin sending warships here for anti-piracy. Originally, China only sent soldiers for construction or medical. But those three warships really fighting with piracy,” he said.
“That’s the reason China set the first base in Djibouti,” he said. The Japanese and French have bases there, “so why not China?”
He also suggested a second or third base overseas “because we should protect our interests in the Middle East.”
China’s One Belt One Road strategy has drawn some consternation from the U.S.
“I think, in a globalized world, there’s many belts and many roads, and no one nation should put themselves in a position — put itself into a position of dictating, ‘one belt, one road,’” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on October 3.
“That said, the One Belt, One Road also goes through disputed territory, and I think that in itself shows the vulnerability of trying to establish that sort of a dictate,” he said.
Asked whether the U.S. would see the strategy as a threat, Guang responded, “I don’t think so.”
“In fact, One Belt One Road is global, not only for the Asia Pacific,” he said. “I think the U.S. [and China] can work together on this.”