China Africa
China Africa

A new Chinese policy for the MENA region

So far, Chinese policy makers have shown no interest in challenging the U.S. role of maintaining hegemony in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to create stability and facilitate the flow of oil. However, China has to some degree included the Middle East in its strategy of building infrastructure projects in less-developed countries and establishing substantial settlements of Chinese workers there.

Chinese political influence is primarily an adjunct to business interests. In Libya, the strategy accounted for the Chinese presence. A comparable number of Chinese workers probably still exist in Algeria, and there are Chinese workers elsewhere in the region. Notwithstanding China’s preference for a low-key political profile in the MENA region, political upheavals during the past decade have given Beijing the opportunity to enlarge the Chinese presence in the region. China’s newfound activism, combined with regional political actors’ desire to diversify their economic and political partners, is beginning to foster a new political dynamic in the Middle East. Although the United States and Europe continue to be the most significant extra-regional actors in the region, MENA regimes increasingly seek a higher level of Chinese involvement in the Middle East and North Africa.

On the other hand, the MENA region has become home to hundreds of thousands of Chinese expatriates who repeatedly have had to be rescued from escalating violence in countries like Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen or who were taken hostage by insurgents or criminal gangs in places like Egypt’s Sinai desert and Sudan. As a result, China has been forced to breach its policy of non-interventionism by establishing ties to opposition forces in countries like Libya, Syria and Afghanistan to hedge its bets in situations of political change. The rise of Daesh, which is attracting hundreds of Chinese Muslims as foreign fighters, is further forcing China to have a new approach towards the MENA region. China realizes that such a new approach would allow it to increasingly relax its long-standing insistence on non-interference in the domestic affairs of others while ensuring it is not seeking to become a global military power through the establishment of military bases in far-flung lands.

Daesh’s expansion in Iraq also put the group in direct competition with China for access to Iraq’s energy resources. As a result, China has agreed to intelligence cooperation with the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq while some analysts have called on the government to contribute financially and materially as well as with training.

Over time, China’s increasing presence in the region will shift China’s interest in the Mediterranean. Large business investments will drive a national interest in stability. Instability is what caused China to have to evacuate workers, which is the local reason China now has a naval presence in the Mediterranean.

Joint military drills in the Mediterranean

The joint naval exercises with Russia in the Mediterranean were considered by most analysts as a sign of China’s growing involvement in the Middle East and North Africa. The naval drill code-named “Joint Sea 2015” was held from May 17 to 21 and involved nine ships from both countries.

China has twice in recent years had to send its ships to rescue and evacuate significant numbers of Chinese workers who fell into danger as a result of regional instability. The first time was in Libya, where 35,800 Chinese workers had to be evacuated after the 2011 uprising and subsequent bombing campaign to bring down Muammar Qaddafi. The second time was in late March and early April, when Chinese ships helped offload several hundred Chinese workers from Yemen as the situation there further deteriorated and Saudi airstrikes escalated.

The exercise, which evoked Soviet maneuvers in the Mediterranean 40 years ago, also appeared to be inspired by American geopolitical scientist Nicholas Spykman, who ascribed the age of British maritime supremacy to the Royal Navy’s control of the “girdle of marginal seas” ringing Eurasia’s coastlines. He called the South China Sea – the site of territorial disputes among China and several other nations – the “Asiatic Mediterranean.” Seagoing forces could move around the periphery quickly and economically relative to land transport, radiating power and influence into the Eurasian rimlands from the sea. Mobility and seaborne firepower let Britannia rule. By maneuvering in the Mediterranean Sea, the Russian and Chinese fleets project power into European waters – much as the Royal Navy projected power into Asian waters via the South China Sea and other littoral regions.

Some observers noted that to Chinese and Russian eyes, surrendering control of offshore waters to the U.S. Navy looks like surrendering control to the Royal Navy and fellow imperial powers a century ago. Historical memory is especially acute for China, which lost control of its seaboard and internal waterways to waterborne conquerors. But Russia endured traumas of its own: It watched the Imperial Japanese Navy demolish the Russian Navy during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. China and Russia hope to banish such memories while turning Spykman’s logic of nautical supremacy to their advantage. If successful, this might be seen as a challenge for the United States in Asia while projecting power into NATO waters. This has implications for both the United States and its European NATO allies. The Mediterranean is no longer NATO’s mare nostrum, and this is a reflection of the broader global shift of power away from the West and toward Asia. For some analysts, the recent Russian-Chinese naval exercises also demonstrated the European Union’s little capacity to defend or even control by itself its southern flank.

For the United States and Europe, a strengthened Chinese role in the Middle East presents both challenges and opportunities. China greatly values its economic and political partnership with the United States and the EU, and is concerned with preserving political stability and fostering its economic ties in the Middle East. The question is whether China’s approach to stability in the region will prove compatible with US and European policies and priorities, or will challenge them.

A changing relationship

The multi-billion dollar transactions and the political summits resulted in an African incline towards China’s commercial sphere of influence. This trend has been accelerated by West’s financial and economic crisis, with African economies reorienting towards the emerging rather than the developed world.

China’s Africa-MENA policy has become increasingly fused with that of the management of its own economy. Beijing is no longer just an actor in Africa’s resources sector but is broadening the scope of its commercial foray into the continent. Underpinning Beijing’s engagement of Africa has been a desire to secure a number of strategic commodity supplies, in particular oil, iron ore and copper. In the mindset of the Chinese government, its own growth model may be at risk from restricted resource supply. China’s ability to guarantee the supply of key resources from resource-endowed African states is strategically important for Beijing. Thus, a politically welcoming environment among African governments is of paramount importance for Chinese capital.

The nature of the China-Africa relationship is gradually changing. While resources have underpinned China’s foray into Africa throughout the first decade of its “new” foreign commercial relationship with the continent, a shift is taking place, increasingly being shaped by market forces.

Accordingly, China’s relations with Africa are seen to become less state-driven and more characterized by the market, as a result of China’s own evolving economy as well as the gradual declining support by Beijing for its state-owned enterprises in Africa, particularly the construction sector. Despite the Chinese government still pledging a further sizeable sum of $20 billion in investment in Africa over a three year period, it can be argued that China’s state-directed capital towards the continent will play less of a role in the growing trend of Chinese market-driven outbound investment.

However, as China’s trade and financial interests grow around the world, and as Chinese immigrant communities become larger, especially in places like large parts of Africa, where there was little prior tradition of Chinese migration, Beijing will begin to operate more and more like a traditional great power, flexing its muscles, both politically and militarily, when the need arises, to protect its people and its perceived interests. But as China’s strategy towards Africa matures, so too must Africa’s strategy towards China.

China’s foreign policy towards the continent under President Xi Jinping will need to balance its growing commercial interests while having to accommodate a changing and more assertive Africa.


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