Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

China’s Silent Expansion in the Middle East and North Africa

China State Construction Engineering Corporation
Construction of the financial district, undertaken by China State Construction Engineering Corporation in the new administrative capital, some 50 km east of the capital Cairo, on March 7, 2019. (Photo by PEDRO COSTA GOMES / AFP)

This article was translated from Arabic.

Ali Noureddine

China’s Belt and Road Initiative, presented in 2013 as the country’s own model of globalization, has become an essential part of China’s foreign policy to the extent that it is included in the constitution of the Chinese Communist Party.

Based on a vast network of connected and transnational investments in transportation, infrastructure, education, building materials and energy networks among others, the initiative sought to build an integrated market that allows China to expand its influence across Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Central and Eastern Europe.

In reality, the initiative was based on the ruins of what was known as the Silk Road, which represents a series of trade routes that emerged during the 19th which linked China commercially with the markets covered today by the Belt and Road Initiative.

This endeavor not only allows the employment of surplus Chinese capital in these profitable projects, but also the creation of trade and transport routes needed for Chinese production to overrun world markets.

The importance of the Middle East and North Africa in the Belt and Road Initiative

It’s not difficult to grasp the significance of the Middle East region in the framework of China’s strategy. With its massive and productive economy, China today is the world’s largest importer of energy resources, with half of its imported oil coming from the Arab region.

In light of the tensions that have engulfed world oil markets in recent years, China’s openness to the Middle East, and its attempt to enhance Chinese influence there, have become a strategic necessity in the country’s energy security calculations, which in turn are linked to the productivity of Chinese industrial sectors.

The Middle East region occupies a strategic geographical location as a connecting point between the markets of East Asia and those of Africa, Europe and the Mediterranean basin. Since the Belt and Road strategy is based primarily on investment in commercial transport routes and infrastructure that facilitate international trade, the Middle East will naturally be a strategic link in this initiative.

In fact, China’s success in expanding its influence in the Middle East and linking it to its commercial supply lines in Africa, Europe and East Asia has become the point on which the success of the Belt and Road Initiative relies. A failure by China to enhance its presence in this particular geographical location would mean a failure to complete the integration of the network of supply lines between the three continents that it is betting on.

These crucial points illustrate the rationale behind expanding Chinese investments in the Middle East and Arab countries in 2021. Over the past year, the share of the Middle East and North Africa in the Belt and Road Initiative’s investments increased from 8 per cent to 38 per cent, in a clear indication of China’s interest in this region.

As a result, the value of Chinese investments in the Arab world and the Middle East increased by 360 per cent over the past year alone, while the value of Chinese investments in the region’s construction sector increased by 116 per cent. In monetary terms, the Chinese investments in the region alone exceeded $213.9 billion at the end of 2021.

These figures signify China’s recent realization of the importance of the Middle East within the framework of its economic plans at the international level, as reflected in the boom in investments over the past year. It is worth noting that China has aligned the Belt and Road Initiative with the economic plans undertaken by the countries involved, such as Egypt’s Vision 2030, Jordan’s 2025 vision, the Kuwaiti Silk City project, and the Mohammed VI Smart City project in Tangiers, Morocco.

This particular measure has resulted in a more favorable reception of Chinese projects at the local level due to their integration with local economic trends and the objectives of the plans set by each of these governments.

Pragmatic, silent, and conservative

China has expanded its presence in the Middle East and North Africa region through silent and conservative pragmatism. It has thus penetrated and expanded its presence in most of the region’s countries with discreet and clever diplomacy, in some cases benefiting from the withdrawal of the U.S. and the waning of its presence in some of the markets.

China’s pragmatism has been clearly illustrated in recent months as it builds strategic ties simultaneously with many of the main players in the Middle East while avoiding getting drawn into the conflicts and disputes that govern the relationships of these poles with one another. For example, China hosted the foreign ministers of the Arab Gulf states at the beginning of this year to discuss joint economic and security projects.

At the same time, it launched a series of joint projects with Iran worth more than $400 billion that allowed the latter to skirt many of the restrictions imposed by Western sanctions. All of these coincided with launching a package of Chinese investment projects in Iraq, which focused on reconstruction after the devastation caused by the war with ISIS.

Overall, China did not shy away from seeking to simultaneously establish multiple conflicting relationships with the parties vying for regional hegemony. This policy makes China’s actions in the region particularly pragmatic.

It should be noted that these pragmatic relations include Israel, which alone holds about $18 billion in Chinese investments, in ports, transportation, railways, and telecommunications, as well as agriculture, solar energy equipment and pharmaceutical products.

These projects include contracts for developing and operating the Haifa port, constructing a new port in Ashdod, and constructing metro tunnels in Tel Aviv. Future plans include water desalination projects and the construction of transmission lines linking Tel Aviv with touristic cities across Israel.

Thus, China is prepared to develop its relationship with the United States’ closest allies in the Middle East, and even work on projects that would expand China’s presence in Israel in the long term, regardless of the latter’s foreign policies. China has managed all these contradictory ties by pursuing a conservative stance, distancing itself from local and regional conflicts, while building on common ground with each of the parties to the conflict.

At the same time, China has maintained a calm and discreet approach in working on these projects by minimizing the amount of political fanfare, which could disrupt its relations with various regional parties.

In short, all these developments indicate that Beijing is pursuing a sizeable yet discreet expansion of its economic influence in the region, an expansion on which China can build on to complete the network of investments that the Belt and Road Initiative project is based on.

The fruits of Chinese expansion

China has been able to reap the fruits of this expansion in its investment and economic presence, especially in terms of its ties with the Gulf States.

Today, China has become the Arab countries’ primary economic partner, whether through the massive volume of exports to these countries, by acquiring the lion’s share of these oil-producing countries’ exports, or through the volume of Chinese capital flowing to the Arab countries.

Chinese trade over the past year in particular increased in volume to about $332.2 billion, an increase of 37 per cent compared to the previous year. This demonstrates that the fruits of China’s relations with Arab nations will not be limited to the returns from investment projects, but will also include those from exporting Chinese goods to Arab markets.

China has been keen to focus on common economic interests and will inevitably be able to capitalize on the expansion of its economic presence in the future by expanding its political presence.

However, the key takeaway is that it was not sudden decisions over the past two years that led to the growth of China’s presence in the region. Rather, it was the result of planning that began in 2014, when the Chinese president set goals to double China’s exchanges with the countries of the Arab region by 2023.

However, it remains to be seen whether China will be able to forge political alliances that reflect the growth of economic relations in light of the contradictions that govern China’s relationship with many of the region’s feuding parties.

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Kawthar Metwalli
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