China is investing resources in the Middle East, both to capture a larger share of the markets and to secure energy supplies for its future economic growth, Middle Eastern governments and investors have begun to respond to Chinese overtures, though it may be too early to foresee how the relationship will grow. On the wider canvas, however, the stage is set for a new ‘Great Game,’ writes SAJID RIZVI, in an introduction to his interview with eminent academic and China watcher Dr Stephen Chan, Professor of International Relations, University of London.
Stephen ChanSajid Rizvi. Romance is in the air, and China and the Middle East are getting closer than ever before, or is it just a continuation of something warm percolating from the past and now being noticed more than before?
Stephen Chan. China is being noticed now more than before, especially as all parts of the globe become aware of a looming rivalry between an economically developed China and the strongest powers in the West. Th e Middle East welcomes Chinese interest because it gives Arab countries some future leverage against western interests. Neither the Middle East nor China seeks to exploit their common interests now. The development of good contacts and good will is ‘banking’ for the future. Nor is the Chinese interest confined only to Arab countries, but there is a distinct Chinese interest in securing good will with Iran. There is a new ‘great game’ about to be played and the Chinese wish to be prepared. There is nothing romantic about this. However, the Chinese understand Islam poorly and have problems with their own Islamic minorities. To this extent, even wholesale jerseys the Americans are better prepared. Nevertheless, the Chinese will ‘run interference’ for Iran in the international sanctions campaign in the hope that diplomatic support will overcome cultural and diplomatic ignorance. So China is, to an extent, feeling its way. This also is not romantic but for a definite future economic purpose.
SR. China did set targets for achieving turnovers in Middle East trade that sounded ambitious at the time, a few years ago in the spring of the current phase of socialist capitalism. Are those targets nearer being achieved?
SC. It doesn’t matter whether the targets are being met or not. All that matters is preparation of the ground for the future. Right now, access to African petroleum is the primary project, both for now and the future. The Chinese are seeking to anchor themselves in Africa primarily, with the Middle East as key insurance. Even so, the Middle East is immensely attractive, given developed infrastructure and assured productivity streams. For the Americans, the competition is to retain primary interests in the Middle East now, with Africa as future insurance. There should be For symmetry here, but both the US and China are wary of the other, precisely because each envisages the possibility of future rivalry. The search for access is not yet ruthless, but it is certainly not sentimental. Right now, Africa and the Middle East have choices but, in the future, leverage can be used against them, too. Until then, yes, China is satisfied with its inroads to date in the Middle East, especially in terms of non-petroleum trade. China needs markets, but China is not a key player in the luxury goods market and its needs turnover in this key sector. It cannot be, for example, forever a cheap textiles trader. But this sort of profile will change as the future develops.
SR. In the old China of Mao and then Deng the rhetoric of the Cold War and then imperialism, neo-colonialism, neo-imperialism and so on helped define China’s foreign policy in broad brushstrokes, but no one now seems to understand where China stands on issues that matter in the Middle East slimming tablets that work. Where does China stand, say, on Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Palestine/Israel, if not the whole alphabet soup of issues?
SC. China, as before, seeks to position itself as a champion of the disadvantaged. This is for real reasons of identification and loyalty. Sudan, for instance, stood beside China many years ago when China was a diplomatic target of Byan… the West. Having said that, much current diplomacy is crafted for future advantage, both for direct Chinese purposes, but also for old ‘cold war’ purposes – not just against the US and the West, but also as a memory of the specific Chinese cold war with Russia. China would like to be successful in Afghanistan, where the Russians met only failure and where the Americans face the same. Zenfone Iraq is harder, given the volatility there. But Palestine serves as an all-purpose, inexpensive, demonstration site of Chinese good will. This all sounds cynical and, to an extent, it is. I should reiterate, however, that the Chinese memory of its own liberation struggle is strong. The Chinese know what it is like to be oppressed. This still has some role to play in the other great struggles of today’s world.
SR. The Chinese approach to attaining energy security appears to be more free market than some of the western approaches, the less said about those the better (this space won’t suffice!). As evidence one sees a whole string of M&As and outright purchases of energy companies across the globe. Is China on the right track and is this working?
SC. The Chinese will want, in the right conditions, to act para in a direct fashion. So acquisition and control are an important part of this. For all the ‘Shanghai School’ principles of assistance to other countries and their companies, along free market lines of assisting them to participate in the market (with the Chinese as preferred customers), the opportunity to direct from a position of ownership is very attractive. Bear in mind that Chinese development assistance often relies on Chinese-controlled management and labour. Civil engineering is a Chinese show from beginning to end. This model of total operation is what will become more common as more companies are acquired or come under Chinese control.
SR. Like all countries or regions blessed with the challenges of supersonic growth (some similarities perhaps between the GCC and China), there are many pitfalls in the experience: things start going wrong, falling apart or misfiring. Your prognosis vis à vis China itself and how it will want to nurture its current romance with the Middle East?
SC. Mistakes and resilience will be alternating hallmarks of the future – with diplomatic support compensating for mistakes in economic relationships. It may or may not be a new great game, but the Chinese are excellent at the long game. They can put money behind a long game, lose it all, and come back for more – with more. It may be described as a great romance. I think the Chinese see it as a romance in which they will bring a large dowry. Bride price is the non-emancipatory consideration of this game, whether new or long.
Stephen Chan was interviewed by Sajid Rizvi, Editor-in-Chief. Chan is Professor of International Relations, Department of Politics and International Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, Chan is the author of numerous books and journal essays, including The End of Certainty (2009), which The Guardian described as “a beautifully digressive plea for pluralism” and summed up his argument that “simplification is a dereliction of intellectual duty.” http://www.stephen-chan.com.
The Chinese are excellent at the
long game. They can put money
behind a long game, lose it all
and come back for more — with
more. It may be described as a