By Megan Kelly –
Xi Jinping’s first Middle East tour as president (and the first of any Chinese president since 2009) seems to have passed without a snag — not a small task given the current climate between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as the region more broadly. The fact that it was Xi Jinping, rather than Premier Li Keqiang, who undertook the tour highlights its importance in China’s foreign policy. It was also the president’s first international trip in 2016, giving it extra prestige. The Chinese leader captured the attention of the international media and signed major economic deals in each of the three countries visited, increasing China’s visibility on the global stage while promoting Beijing’s brand of foreign policy.
Since China’s opening up, it has largely focused on economic issues, allowing the United States and other nations to take a leading role in international affairs, particularly in the Middle East. As a general rule, Beijing pursues a policy of non-interference in other nations’ domestic affairs, and condemns what it views as the regime-changing actions of others. Beijing’s refusal to endorse sanctions on Iran’s government, as well as its support of Yemen’s incumbent government and the campaign of a Saudi-led coalition to restore it, are in line with this policy. Xi’s trip, therefore, did not change the foreign policy norm of Beijing, but rather reinforced recent signaling that Beijing wants to play a more active role in the region.
Leading up to Xi Jinping’s trip, Beijing set the stage for an expanded role in the Middle East, signaling the significance of this visit. In the first week of January, Beijing offered to hold peace talks for Syrian government officials and opposition leaders. On January 13, China issued its first policy paper on the Middle East, which committed to increased military and counter-terrorism cooperation with the region. Before arriving in Egypt, the Chinese president also published an article in the Egyptian state-owned newspaper, al-Ahram, expressing his friendly intentions for Sino-Egyptian relations to the Egyptian public. Therefore, the groundwork for this trip was thoroughly laid before Xi began his tour in Saudi Arabia on January 19, which was followed by visits to Egypt and Iran.
As the top supplier of oil to China, and with no major diplomatic issues between them, Xi’s time in Saudi Arabia was predictably smooth. After adroitly delaying an earlier planned visit to Saudi Arabia following its first airstrikes on Yemen in late March 2015, Xi Jinping arrived in Riyadh on January 19 and expressed support for Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen. This position was carefully articulated and did not include an endorsement of force, allowing Beijing to remain just non-interventionist enough to pass without scorn from Tehran (Rouhani would go on to mention Yemen during Xi’s visit as an area in which Beijing and Tehran would cooperate to deal with violent extremism). During his visit with King Salman, the two signed 14 agreements, including a draft for a free-trade agreement between their nations. Xi committed China to $2.43 billion in investment for a nuclear manufacturing equipment cluster and the two co-hosted an opening ceremony of a joint refinery (along a highway lined with billboards of their faces).
Upon arrival in Egypt, Xi offered support for the government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The Chinese president also expressed his support for Sisi’s ability to preserve stability, which has at times included forceful crackdowns on dissent. If Beijing’s offer of $1.7 billion in loans to Egypt’s banking sector and agreements on infrastructure investment do in fact materialize, it will be welcome (if minor) assistance to the nation, which is suffering from a reduction in aid from the UAE as oil prices drop. The two sides also signed a five-year outline documenting plans to enhance their relationship. Presidents Xi and Sisi attended the opening ceremony for the Sino-Egyptian Culture Year, marking the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two nations. Before departing, Xi also invited Sisi to attend the G-20 summit in Hangzhou in September as a guest of honor.
Xi’s tour of the Middle East was well-timed, immediately following the lifting of oil and financial sanctions on Iran. China is Iran’s best oil customer (Beijing is also the top importer of Saudi oil), with Iran supplying about one quarter of China’s total oil imports in 2015. China has also been Iran’s biggest trading partner for the past six years. The two nations signed agreements to increase bilateral trade by more than ten-fold to $600 billion over the next decade, adding another stepping stone to Xi’s One Belt, One Road initiative. Ayatollah Khamenei also remarked on China’s important role as a “cooperative” power as Iran faced international sanctions. Xi met with both Ayatollah Khamenei and President Rouhani during his visit, which the latter described as a “new chapter” in the post-sanctions era.
On the political front, Xi Jinping has managed to keep China in friendly neutrality with disparate nations while increasing its visibility in a critical area of the world. It will be a challenge for Beijing to maintain this careful balancing act in the Middle East, particularly between Iran and Saudi Arabia, if it does intend to increase its role in the region. However, this trip is a positive example of China’s ability to navigate these tricky waters, and Beijing’s demand for oil and willingness to finance projects should still suffice as a friendly enticement for now. Xi Jinping also signed extensive deals to enhance China’s energy security and promote his effort to enhance infrastructure and connectivity throughout the length of China’s planned One Belt, One Road. But the most significant long-term implication of this trip is the indication of an increased presence of Beijing in international affairs, and in a region which it has long steered clear of politically. Xi’s willingness to engage with the Middle East may be one sign of a larger global role in the making.