Updated: Feb 1
Image Courtesy: ORF
C3S Paper No. 0026/2016
The first container train service between China and Iran was launched on January 28 2016. A train departed from Yiwu for Tehran carrying ‘small commodities’. The 10,399 km journey via Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan is scheduled to take 14 days, around half the journey time by sea. Not long before, on January 20, reports stated that an MOU for cooperation in building a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor was signed by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KA-CARE) and China Nuclear Engineering Corporation (CNEC). The very next day saw the announcement of deals worth billions of dollars signed between Egypt and visiting President Xi Jinping. Egypt’s government also stated that the country’s Suez Canal Project is expected to play a new role in China’s Belt and Road initiative.
What do these series of events signify in terms of China’s role in West Asia? How does Multilateralism define China’s approach to the region? How should India react to these developments?
‘Sino-Oasis’ in the Arab Desert
China’s rapproachment with the region is in the economic and defence realms, as well as political involvement vis-à-vis mediation in the Iran nuclear talks and significantly the delicate balance of relations between Riyadh and Tehran. China is projected to outdo U.S.A as the world’s largest energy consumer by 2030. Its demand for imported oil will increase from six million barrels per day to 13 million by 2035. The bulk of its new supply is likely to come from the Middle East, which China also needs for tapping new markets to produce its goods, invest its capital, and secure new labor. China is also the first country to visit Iran post the nuclear talks breakthrough, which was in tandem with visits to Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
A new angle can be examined amidst these engagements, while China is placing stakes in one of the most volatile regions on the planet. China recognizes that the Middle East needs China as much if not more than China needs the Middle East. Iran is seeing the value of having an ally that is independent from the great powers presided from Washington D.C and Moscow. It will allow Tehran to balance against relying on either great power too heavily. The breakthrough in nuclear talks indicates that Iran has acknowledged the trust matrix generated by China and the goodwill created through the process. If not for China’s role in the talks, U.S.A might not have not been too keen on commencing dialogue. This is explained by the fact that if the West had not compromised to an extent, they would have lost Iran to Chinese and Russian hands.
Similarly Saudi Arabia will be nervous with the intervention of U.S.A and Russia in nearby Syria. While Riyadh welcomes the American involvement, having a crisis near its borders is a cause for consternation. Thus China’s presence as a passive military player (that is, as a supplier) in the region will soothe K.S.A’s frayed nerves. The deal on a nuclear reactor has been well-timed, as it will help to balance against the Iranian nuclear deal. China has definitely trumped U.S.A on the nuclear front in West Asia, both by actively supporting Iran since well before the talks, and by engaging in nuclear diplomacy with Saudi Arabia.
On the other hand, Egypt may have been feeling ignored by the West amidst the Syrian crisis and the Iran nuclear talks. China moved in the nick of time to remind Cairo that this rising power will be a economic and strategic partner in the years to come. It will also address Egypt’s concerns regarding intervention by U.S.A in possible future scenarios of instability in the country.
One common thread among the three West Asian countries observed is a weakening of economy due to the region’s instability. In this context, China can provide a much needed rejuvenation through its “One Belt One Road” initiative.
Multilateralism: The Name of China’s Game in West Asia
China understands that it cannot aim for hegemony in West Asia. It hesitates to directly involve itself in military intervention in Syria. Yemen is also kept at a distance. China fears that it can lead to a backlash via terrorist threats in within its own borders, given the capricious situation in Xinjiang province, home to Muslim Uyghur population. Thus China is playing the game of multilateralism.
Beijing needs the presence of Russia in West Asia as much the strife-torn region needs Moscow. It will help to give equilibrium in light of U.S.A’s superior presence. For instance, China and Russia are engaging in joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean Sea. In addition, Beijing requires continued American presence in the region, for a sudden pullout could lead to a catastrophic void. This is obvious in the statement made by Xi Jinping at the Arab League Summit, where he emphasized the three no’s. One of them was that China “seek no ‘power vacuum’ to fill”. The other two no’s are seen when China will, first, “seek no agent” in the region but rather call for the conflicting parties to negotiate for peace; second, “seek no sphere of influence” but rather urge everybody to join the “Belt and Road” circle of friends. 
China also seems to be subtly challenging U.S presence in West Asia, despite recognizing its importance. This is seen in Xi Jinping’s statement in his New Year message, “The world is so big and has so many problems that the international community hopes to hear China’s voice and see China’s plans. China should not be absent.” In other words, China’s presence is a significant reminder to other extra-regional players in West Asia. Nevertheless there is an undercurrent of peace in the presence.
Thus China seems to be leading the way, a la Lawrence of Arabia, albeit via peaceful means. It is seeking to bring together the various members of the region, both internal and extra-regional, to a table of peaceful resolution of disputes. China’s aim (similar to Lawrence’s Aqaba) is that one day the region will be stable, and at that time the world will recognize that the only active player in West Asia that did not contribute to any violence is Beijing. Such a scenario of positive peace in the region may be beyond the horizon for now, but there are rays of economic prosperity shining on, as seen in China’s surging full steam ahead towards West Asia.
Delhi’s Dilemma: To Compete or To Cooperate?
India accepts China’s role in West Asia and acknowledges its contributions to peace talks and harmony in the region. However Delhi may be concerned about its taking a back seat when it comes to brokering peace in the region. India has always followed a non-aligned policy when it came to West Asia, supporting peace in both Palestine and Israel. However its role has always been confined to that of a spectator rather than an actor. China’s increasing role in the region will trigger a reaction from India. The question lies whether to compete or to cooperate with Beijing.
The answer lies in a healthy combination of both aspects. A multilateral strategy is both idealistic and realpolitik, for they are both sides of the same coin. Cooperation with China on ensuring peace in West Asia must be a priority. India can proactively offer its services as a peace broker, while acting hand in hand with the other extra-regional players in the region. On the other hand, Delhi must also capitalize on the strengths it already possesses. History is a good mirror of the future, but if not maintained, the reflection may dull. India must keep polishing its ties with a strategic plan towards West Asia.
It remains to be seen how the situation will change in 2050, which will see a new India, one that surpasses U.S.A economically. India’s advantage at that time will be its democratic background. There are speculations of China’s economic slowdown and possibilities of societal factions breaking out based on democratic demands in future. Such events will not harbor good weather for China-West Asia relations. The demand for democracy in China will surely bring instability in the state that is dominated by the Communist Party. An unstable China will also mean that West Asia will face trouble in its most valued oil customer.
Thus India brings itself as a unique player to the table. In 2050, Delhi can prove itself as a consistent, peace-loving and – significantly – an impartial actor. China may not have the luxury of being completely objective at that point of time, given its deeply entrenched economic ties and defence links. In light of such scenarios, India may have been long-sighted in its closer engagement with Tel-Aviv in recent times. It indicates that India is supporting both sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict, which is at the heart of West Asian crises. Besides, India’s historical and cultural links with Iran will be an edge over China’s recent involvement. India also has a significant diaspora in the Gulf.
Delhi can institutionalize these advantages at a higher level. The ‘Mausam’ and ‘Spice Route’ were worthy ideas, and cannot be relegated to a locker for safe-keeping. They must be energized, heavily promoted and succeed. It does not require only funds to run such schemes. Multilateral cooperation, goodwill, proactiveness and long-sightedness will win the day. If this spirit is applied, India can multiply its existing date-palms in West Asia to expand across the seas, prospering brightly in the sands of time.
 Michael Singh, “China’s Middle East Tour”, Foreign Affairs, January 24 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2016-01-24/chinas-middle-east-tour
 He Wenping, “Xi’s Middle East Visit Puts Across New Message”, China-U.S Focus, February 4 2016, http://www.chinausfocus.com/foreign-policy/xis-middle-east-visit-puts-across-new-message/