What’s China up to in the Arab world?

Taking advantage of the Syrian conflict

Isaac Kfir

Belt and Road, International relations | Asia, East Asia, The World

7 August 2019

To support its Belt and Road Initiative, China has been working towards stronger partnerships with several Arab states through aid and foreign investment, Isaac Kfir writes.

Beijing is showing an increased interest in the Syrian conflict and the possibility of peace. This could be of enormous benefit to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as Syria lies in an important geostrategic location that links West-Central Asia to the Middle East and Africa.

The challenge for Beijing is that it must contend with Moscow and Tehran, both of whom want to cash in on their massive investments in propping up and supporting the Assad regime.

In its approach to Syria, China has been using its soft power – primarily aid. In 2017, Beijing sent 1,000 tons of rice to Syria as part of the BRI food aid plan. It also pledged to invest US $2 billion in Syria’s industry, while committing a further US $23 billion in loans and aid to Arab states through the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum.

More on this: Belt and Road: What's in it for China?

The same year, Bouthaina Shaaban, Political and Media Advisor to President Assad, travelled to Beijing to hold talks with Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Yi emphasised three key issues that the two would focus on: counter-terrorism, dialogue – specifically peace talks – and reconstruction involving humanitarian assistance. A year later at the United Nations General Assembly meeting, Yi reportedly asked Walid Muallem, Syria’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, for Syria to join the BRI network.

To date, it doesn’t appear that China has honoured its big-money pledges. One suspects that this is because it has had more pressing issues to deal with and because the possibility of peace and stability in Syria remains tenuous. However, it is notable that it is in fact looking to make a contribution in the first place.

China’s engagement with Syria is part of its continuous attempts to increase its relevance in the Arab world. Beijing, one might suggest, has recognised that many Arab states need foreign investment without giving much consideration to issues of human rights abuses or corruption.

The Arab world is also in need of a manufacturing base due to its burgeoning middle class and their demand for consumer goods. China and Algeria have therefore agreed to engage in several major construction projects: a mega-port in western Algeria, the el-Hamdania, automotive plants, and a granite and marble mining project.

They’ve also decided on a mega phosphate field estimated to produce 6 million tons of goods per year, which China would turn into fertilisers, ammonia, silicon, and other materials. The phosphate field is expected to earn Algeria around US $2 billion annually.

More on this: Future trends: state resilience in the Arab world

The Chinese are also working to expand the port in Nouadhibou, in the African country of Mauritania – a member of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum – into a deep-water port.

Already, China has been strengthening its presence in the Middle East through the China-Egypt Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone, the China-Oman Industrial Park, and the China-UAE Industrial Capacity Cooperation Demonstration Park.

In 2018, China and the Arab States, represented through the Arab League, signed a Declaration of Action on Cooperation under the BRI. The Declaration, which builds on the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, points to areas where there are already joint efforts between Beijing and several Arab countries that are also founding members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Another area where the Arab States and China find common ground is on the issue of terrorism, described by President Xi as one of ‘three evils’ – the other two being separatism and extremism.

Terrorism has become a key concern for China, while Arab states are nowadays more concerned with issues of separatism and extremism. This is for two reasons.

Firstly, there is Beijing’s oppression of the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Province, which feeds the narrative adopted by the Turkistan Islamic Party (ETIM) – an al Qaeda-affiliated group in Syria – that it is fighting to free China’s oppressed Muslim community.

Estimates of how many Uyghurs have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join al-Qaeda, ISIL, and other groups vary from a few hundred to a few thousand, with a general tendency, however, for them support al-Qaeda over ISIL and its affiliates.

More on this: Beijing's one-track mind in Kazakhstan

Concerns with terrorism, separatism, and extremism have led Beijing to extradite as many Uyghurs as possible, as a way to signal that it will pursue anyone engaged in the ‘three evils’.

In 2016, Beijing sought to exchange four Uyghur prisoners serving terrorism-related sentences in Indonesia for Samadikun Hartono, a fugitive Indonesian banker.

There have also been repatriations of Uyghurs from Malaysia back to China as part of an ‘intelligence shared’ understanding. The Thais are holding two Uyghurs accused of the 2015 Erawan Shrine bombing – an attack which allegedly could have been revenge for the extradition of over 100 Uyghurs from Thailand to China.

Secondly, China recognises that terrorism could have a significant impact on the BRI as terrorists may choose to target infrastructure developments across the world.

Notably, in 2016, members of ETIM were accused of attempting to blow up the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek. In 2012, 24 Chinese workers were kidnapped in Sinai and 29 were taken hostage in Sudan, while others were attacked in several areas including Pakistan, Nigeria, and Mali.

Beijing recognises that it can no longer avoid the threat of transnational terrorism and that it must protect its people from the perpetrators of such crimes. China is looking to take advantage of the Syrian conflict and Arab states’ need for investment to advance the BRI while establishing more of a presence in the Middle East.

Those concerned with Chinese advancement must look beyond the traditional perspectives on how the country decides to engage with others. They must pay closer attention to what it is doing in the Arab world.

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