West Asia Engagement with Chinese Characteristics

Four parameters that are likely to guide China’s engagement in West Asia

By Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

My previous post Talking about the Asia beyond Pakistan was in light of the Indian External Affairs Minister’s visit to Israel and Palestine. Using The Economist’s Grid of Grievances, the post argued that:

if India were to be mapped on this graphic, it would perhaps be the only state that maintains a non-adversarial relationship with every West Asian state.

Apart from India, there is another state which is missing from the mosaic, and one that has been the quickest off the mark in dealing with the transformed power structure of West Asia: China. President Xi’s visits to Saudi Arabia and Iran, coming immediately after lifting of international sanctions against Iran, have garnered widespread attention in policy circles.

There is a broad consensus that China will be a force to reckon with in the new West Asia but there is little discussion on the direction that China is likely to follow in the process. This post tries to sketch out the parameters of a greater Chinese engagement in West Asia.

First, the Chinese government sees West Asia as an unsaturated market. West Asia in general and Iran in particular have the potential to boost demand for Chinese production. It is no surprise then, that Xi’s arrival was greeted with talks about the ancient Silk Road, reminiscent of a time when the supply chains between China and West Asia were robust.

Second, the Chinese government wants West Asian countries to bandwagon on its side in its efforts to create a new world order that challenges the West. On the geopolitical axis, this means China wants more West Asian participation in institutions like the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation. On the geoeconomic axis, China will look to get greater West Asian commitment to the Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank (AIIB).

Third, China will side with the incumbent political leaderships in West Asia. As a geopolitical actor, China has shown less inclination to regime change except in conditions when a state’s internal political situation directly affects China’s security adversely, as seen in Afghanistan. Going ahead, China will continue to engage the ruling dispensations of all important West Asian countries.

Fourth, China will let others do the fighting against IS. Apart from supporting the incumbent leaderships militarily and economically, China will not put any feet on the ground against the IS, as long as the IS threat remains away from its borders.

These four parameters are likely to guide China’s greater engagement in West Asia. While it remains to be seen what aims this engagement will accomplish, China faces the same challenge as India does on the issue of increasing proximity with West Asian countries: thus far, the two countries have maintained fairly good terms of engagement with West Asia by allowing them to settle at a low level equilibrium, with none of the engagements taking the form of a strategic partnership. As these two states tries to scale these local maxima, the geopolitical environment is bound to throw up new challenges and tough choices that can upset the delicate balance they lie in currently.

Pranay Kotasthane is a Research Fellow at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas

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