By Fraser Cameron*
As the United States reduces its engagement in the Middle East, a process that could accelerate dramatically with Donald Trump in the White House, both the EU and China have been increasing their engagement. Some experts consider that there could even be scope for cooperation as the EU and China share a number of interests.
First among these interests is regional stability and security. For the EU it is stabilising the situation in Syria to try and stem the mass movement of refugees to Europe. For China it is ensuring the continuing secure supply of oil from a region that provides over 40% of Chinese energy requirements. There are also common interests in combating piracy, terrorism, and the provision of development and humanitarian assistance to many of the fragile states in the Middle East.
The EU and China cooperated closely on the Iran nuclear deal and China has provided a ship in the EU-led anti-piracy naval operation in the Gulf of Aden. The EU has shown interest in China’s One Belt, One Road project that could open up prospects for European and Chinese companies to work together in major infrastructure projects. Iran is likely to be a major hub for OBOR and needs huge investment in its roads, airports, ports and outdated telecommunications networks. Both the EU and China had substantial interests in Iran before the sanctions regime was imposed. It is not too fanciful to think there could be major opportunities for both to work together in Iran as Teheran looks to modernise.
President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Middle East at the beginning of the year, the first by a Chinese leader in seven years, was a reminder of China’s growing interest in the region. Other indications include the publication of a Chinese policy paper on the Arab world, the appointment of envoys for Syria and the Middle East Peace Process, plus the China-Arab forum held just two weeks ago in Doha.
The EU-China relationship is currently experiencing some turbulence because of allegations of dumping steel on European markets, the debate over granting China market economy status (MES), and a more critical EU position on the South China Sea. The EU is also preparing its own China strategy paper which aims to set out what the Union’s interests are as regards the Middle Kingdom. The annual summit is planned for Beijing in July but there are few areas of progress to report.
Given this state of affairs it is worth considering whether the two sides could indeed develop a common agenda for the Middle East. As regards Syria, China still supports President Assad but has sought to broker a dialogue by inviting representatives of the opposition to China. The appointment of a special envoy for Syria is a further sign of China’s willingness to become more engaged.
Many refugees trying to reach the EU come from Afghanistan. Here is another opportunity for closer cooperation as the EU and China share the same goals of ensuring security and stability in war-torn Afghanistan. Both are concerned at a further increase in drug trafficking and radical Islam should the Taliban increase its control of the country.
The Chinese are concerned at the spread of fundamentalist views to the Uigher community in Xinjiang province. Beijing frets that Saudi funding may be supporting Islamic schools or madrasahs in Xinjiang that encourage Uighur militants to demand greater autonomy. There are reports of many Uighers travelling to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside ISIS. This follows a similar pattern of many European taking up arms on behalf of ISIS. There could thus be scope for anti-terrorism talks as well as an exchange of views on the wider aspects of stability.
Other areas for possible cooperation could include training in the evacuation of nationals (China was caught napping in Libya), peacekeeping (China is the largest P5 contributor) and nuclear safety (China plans to support the nuclear sector as well as renewables in the region). After a Chinese national was executed by Islamic State in November, China promised to strengthen protection of its citizens abroad. It is also building a naval facility at Djibouti to protect sea lanes. But Chinese vessels based there could also be used for rescuing civilians.
The EU is unlikely to rush headlong into closer cooperation with China on the Middle East, not least for fear of upsetting the US. But the EU has its own interests to protect and need not look constantly towards Washington.
China will also be wary of becoming too involved in a region where they do not have too much experience or expertise. Beijing wants to protect its economic interests (mainly oil and gas supplies) and is willing to play a limited diplomatic role. But there are sufficient areas of common interest to warrant both sides taking their cooperation in the Middle East to a new level.
* Fraser Cameron, Director of EU-Asia Centre