Need growing for China to take greater military role in Middle East, analysts say

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani take part in a welcoming ceremony in Tehran on January 23, during Xi’s Middle East visit. Photo: AFP


Greater presence seen as way to protect nationals working abroad and growing investment in the region

As China expands its interests in the Middle East, some experts are calling for Beijing to eschew its long-standing policy on non-interference in other countries’ affairs and set up permanent military bases.

A more comprehensive engagement would ensure better protection for Chinese nationals working in the region and the significant investment by Chinese companies there, they said.

Until recently, Beijing’s foreign policy in the Middle East has been overwhelmingly concerned with building relationships with governments while avoiding any overt demonstrations of influence. But that reluctance is fading.

In January, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia and Iran when the two nations broke off diplomatic ties, in a bid to stay friendly with both sides on the Sunni-Shiite divide. He brought with him US$55 billion in loans and investments for the region, including a US$20 billion fund for the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

China is also taking a greater role in Syria, where Russia and the United States have brokered a fragile truce. Rear Admiral Guan Youfei, director of international cooperation at the Central Military Commission, said last month Beijing would provide Damascus with aid and training.

“The recent sudden increase of Chinese military activity in the Middle East reflects that Chinese policymakers have realised the nation needs to react better to developments in the troubled region,” said Wang Lian, a Middle East affairs expert at Peking University.

Chinese residents living in the region say security risks are always a concern for them and Beijing should take stronger steps to ensure their safety. “Although we received anti-terrorism training before coming here, we are really afraid of unexpected conflicts,” said Cai Guoxin, an engineer at China Huanqiu Contracting and Engineering Corporation in Saudi Arabia. “What if someone rushes into our building and takes us hostage?”

The company, under China National Petroleum Corporation, is extracting phosphorite in Saudi Arabia’s northwestern corner, bordering Jordan to the west and Iraq to the north. The project employed as many as 5,500 people at its peak.

“If there was a special kind of organisation set up to better safeguard our life and property, that would be ideal. The more militarised the organisation, the better,” Cai said.

“Arms sales to the Middle East is a good business. But problems arise as many Middle East countries do not know how to use Chinese weapons, so the Chinese government has to provide training to countries like Syria, which is also a form of military cooperation,” Zhou said.

Observers said Beijing’s military engagement with the Middle East and North Africa should be more comprehensive, even if that entails a change in diplomatic fundamentals.

Full article: Need growing for China to take greater military role in Middle East, analysts say (South China Morning Post)

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