How China hamstrung its own Middle East policy

Sami Hamdi Middle East/North Africa

Analysts have hailed the emergence of a multipolar world after years of the US as the primary hegemon in global politics. With Russia and China flexing their muscle, and other powers such as Turkey growing in strength and influence at the expense of an increasingly paralyzed European Union, there has been a growing sense that the global tide has begun to shift eastwards. Nations have begun courting Moscow and Beijing seeking political leverage against the US, and vital investments for ailing economies with fewer strings attached than those that would have been imposed had they gone to Washington or Brussels. With the Trump administration alienating allies, and the European Union in the midst of soul-searching as a result of Brexit, French bullying tactics, Italian disgruntlement, and Merkel’s imminent departure, it is clear that Russia and China have emerged as the ‘alternatives’ for many nations around the world.

However, within China, it appears that policymakers have not entirely grasped this reality and have been unable to establish a clear vision over what China’s role in the world should be. Instead of an expansionist view that capitalises on global discontent towards the US, China appears to view its priorities as being rooted in establishing sufficient insulation from outside influences instead of exporting its own influence. It continues to suffer an inferiority complex towards other major powers, notably the US, which the Chinese still commonly refer to as meiguo or Beautiful Country. Beijing has imposed a Great Firewall designed to control information entering the country, blocking Facebook, Google, and limiting Youtube.

Although China has used this insulation to create an incubator for its own companies to grow and compete worldwide, this policy of insulation has spread to influence social and foreign policy. Beijing has sought to sinicise religion and cultural practice, fearful of the impact of diversity on the uniformity that the ruling party advocate. It has also sought to sinicise ethnic groups, crushing identity, setting up ‘rehabilitation centres’, and demanding public denouncement of all non-Chinese practices.

This has been particularly evident in the treatment of the Uighurs Muslims. The repression of this minority has primarily been driven by a narrow interpretation of the causes of the conflicts in the Middle East. Beijing believes that Islam is a primary driver of instability and insurgency and fears that the Western state of Xinjiang will eventually become a hotbed for terrorism and separatist tendencies if Islam remains the dominant religion. This has been compounded by the fact that a minority of Uighurs have been suspected of having participated in conflicts in Syria and Iraq and subsequently returning to Xinjiang.

China’s fears over the Xinjiang region spans over more than two decades. Following 9/11, Beijing began to crack down on the Muslim community in Xinjiang under the banner of the ‘Global War on Terror’. It blamed the East Turkestan Independence Movement for terrorist attacks, before announcing a policy of incentivised migration for Han Chinese to alter the demographics of the region. Xinjiang is a key part of the Belt and Road Project and Beijing has been keen to insulate it from future disruption caused by a potential insurgency, ‘terrorism’, or separatist tendencies. Moreover, by engaging those detained in forced labour, Beijing hopes to rapidly industrialise the region at the lowest cost possible.

Beijing’s growing fears over the region, and the failure of its policies to quell Islamic sentiments among the Muslim population, led the ruling Communist party in 2016 to relocate Chen Quanguo, Xinjiang’s Communist Party secretary, who had previously been one of the leaders overseeing the turbulent province of Tibet. Known for his severe security measures, Chen intensified security in Xinjiang and accelerated the process of arbitrary detentions.

What Beijing has failed to realise, is that in the last decade, it was being seen and touted in the Middle East as a potential alternative to both the US and Russia. With the ability to invest vast sums of money in much-needed infrastructure, as well as its established military prowess, Beijing was considered worth courting over the long-term to help curtail US influence in the region and create room for independent manoeuvre for Arab rulers. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Sudan, Oman, and Algeria are just some of the countries who have courted China. With an efficient soft power project, China would have been in prime position to capitalise and mount a serious challenge to US influence and outdo the current overtures from Russia.

However, with the repression of the Uighurs who are considered part of the wider global Muslim community by the population of the Middle East, China has revealed a darker and more sinister side that, in some aspects, even surpasses the oppressive and repressive policies implemented by US foreign policy in the region. Where the US would conduct rendition programs in secret, conduct extensive PR campaigns to justify the detention and torture of terror suspects, and utilise loopholes in international law to justify war and regime change, China has incarcerated millions in concentration camps in broad daylight, torn families apart, and insisted on the need to ‘show no mercy’ for the sake of China’s national security.

China has reacted angrily and lashed out against critics who have criticised its policies in Xinjiang. When Mesut Ozil published a poem on the plight of the Uighurs, China had his character in the Pro Evolution Soccer video game removed from the Chinese version and banned the airing of Arsenal’s premier league encounter with Manchester City from Chinese screens. Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan, who finds his country in the middle of a severe economic crisis, bluntly stated that he could not comment on the Uighurs due to his need for Chinese investments. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, who needs investors to buy into his Vision 2030, implied that a nation had the right to do what it saw fit to counter terrorism.

The damage to China’s reputation however has been significant. Thousands took the streets in Turkey in December to protest China’s treatment of the Uighurs. A campaign has begun in Tunisia condemning the same. China has demonstrated that its worldview is unity in uniformity rather than diversity. If it cannot create a space of Muslims within its own territory, then it is impossible for it to establish a foreign policy in the Middle East that creates loyalty, affinity, and ties that are significant enough to upend the current dynamics that see the US as the primary hegemon. This point becomes more profound when China is compared to another rival; Russia. Putin’s high-profile celebration of Muslim figures such as Khabib Nurmagomedov, the autonomy of Muslim-majority Tatarstan, and support for peace in Chechnya (however controversial it might be), are all geared towards creating an image of an inclusive Russia that can be a responsible power and trusted alternative to the US.

China may argue that its investment power in Africa is testament to growing global influence, and that all other arguments to the contrary are moot. However, capitalising on the weak negotiating positions of African states by insisting on vital infrastructure assets such as road, ports, and airports as guarantees for loans and investments creates more resentment than loyalty, and more tension over the long-term than affinity.

Considering the above, it is perhaps more likely that China’s foreign policy is not geared towards becoming a superpower at all. It is more likely that China views itself as being under attack and is therefore prioritising the establishment of defences to fend off influences that might cause instability, and the potential of enemies to cut off key maritime lifelines. When assessing a map of the South China Sea, Beijing finds its maritime routes under threat from US-allied Japan, Taiwan, and US-allied Philippines. In the event of a war, the US would find it relatively easy (in theory) to blockade China which can only access the sea from the South-Eastern border. Therefore, Beijing’s assertion of itself in the South China Sea is likely to be driven more by the desire to establish sufficient defences than any intention to become a superpower.

To the West, it is wary of India’s growing prominence. However, that threat is tempered by the Himalayas mountain range which limits access. Kashmir remains unstable as India attempts a land grab. Tibet is restless. Russia remains an ally of convenience rather than a genuine partnership.

Such a perception however, has led Beijing to throw away a golden opportunity. As a result of its insecurities, China has displayed hostility to Muslims of such degree that no Middle East state can realistically develop close ties with Beijing without risking domestic uproar. Calls for the boycotting of Chinese products are growing, and the presence of Chinese companies in the Middle East will be viewed with deep suspicion from the local population. China may well benefit from the weak negotiating position of these states in the short-term. However, as Russia grows in importance, and with the potential for the US to rally, China will likely fall further down the pecking order. Where once it was in prime position to begin a process of supplanting the US, Beijing hamstrung its own foreign policy as a result of a narrow understanding of ideas different from its own.