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Is China Using Business Deals to Expand Middle East Influence?

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, is welcomed by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during his official arrival ceremony at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 23, 2016.

Chinese President Xi Jinping wrapped up his first visit to the Middle East last Sunday with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt pledging to enhance their relationships with Beijing. The visit, which took place after economic sanctions were lifted on Iran, resulted in an economic bonanza for China, which bagged deals worth $600 billion.

But it is his political deals with Arab and Iranian leaders that is being closely examined across the diplomatic community. Analysts and envoys are asking if China is trying to use business deals to expand its political footprint and weaken western influence in the region.

The official Xinhua news agency indicated that China is not averse to countering U.S. influence in the region. Xinhua recently argued that the “meddling hands” of the West were “more of a mortal poison than a magic potion” in the Middle East.

Countering US influence

Iran seemed to offer China an opportunity for greater engagement on Saturday when its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told Xi, "Iranians never trusted the West... That's why Tehran seeks cooperation with more independent countries."

“Iran definitely wants to use China to counterbalance the influence of the U.S. in the post-sanctions era,” Hichem Karoui, political adviser at the Diplomatic Institute in Qatar.

“But I don’t think it will work because China has little interest in making political alliances that that can result in alienating its old friends, Saudi Arabia and Egypt,” he said.

Observers have noted that Xi did not respond to the overture. China is not yet ready to throw away its cloak of neutrality in foreign policy, although it is gradually moving in that direction according to one Beijing based diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Being the world’s biggest oil buyer may give China some clout, but it would be extremely difficult for Beijing to seriously challenge U.S. influence in the region for quite some time, analysts say.

“There is a political vacuum in the Middle East as the U.S. influence is receding. This is an opportunity for China,” said Daud Abdullah, director of the London-based Middle East Monitor.

“But it is not going to be easy. American influence on Saudi Arabia is not going to change. U.S. interests in the oil industry are so extensive that one does not expect any changes any time soon,” he said.

Terrorism fears

Most analysts agree China is trying to be in closer touch with the happenings on the ground in the Middle East because parts of the region generate terrorism, which is afflicting its western province of Xinjiang, home to the Uighur Muslims, a Turkic speaking people.

“It is not possible to stay out of the Middle East. China cannot keep its eyes closed to what is happening in the region because it affects the law and order situation in Xinjiang,” said Adnan Akfirat, a member of the international bureau of Turkey’s opposition Patriotic Party.

China is also trying to “synchronize its political and economic approach” with Saudi Arabia, said Karoui. He added that closer relations with Saudi Arabia are also essential to having a better grasp on the terrorist situation in the Middle East.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (L), Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and UAE's deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces meets Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Dec. 14, 2015.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (L), Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and UAE's deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces meets Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Dec. 14, 2015.

Balancing act

Many are amazed that Xi managed to evoke friendly vibes from both Saudi Arabia and Iran even though the two countries are at loggerheads. In fact, he extended support for the Yemen government, which is fighting an Iranian backed militia, without hurting relations with Tehran.

“Xi spoke the language of the Arabs when he addressed the Arab League. He spoke at length on the Palestine issue, and about the need for peace and security in the region,” Karoui said.

In the case of Iran, which is emerging out of economic sanctions, the motivations may be somewhat different.

Economic objectives

“The bottom line is that Iran is in desperate need for an economic partner. China has the potential to meet this requirement,” said Abdullah of the Middle East Monitor.

China is also largely driven by economic interests, which includes extending its new Silk Road initiative to infrastructure construction by Chinese companies. It also expects to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, he added.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Ming recently disclosed what Chinese leaders are telling their counterparts in the Middle East.

He said that economic development was the “ultimate way out” of conflict in the region. By expanding its trade and investment links with the Middle East, China hopes discontent and conflict there will gradually dissipate.