by Indrani Talukdar, Contributor
China in the coming decades will have to chart its foreign policy carefully, given the ever-changing dynamics in West Asia and Turkey. Both West Asia and Turkey have different approaches to and models for politics, foreign affairs and economics within the international community. If West Asia, comprising of countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, has an image of a religious, autocratic regime ruled by monarchies, Turkey on the other hand is considered a model for all Islamic countries to follow because of its democracy. While countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Bahrain are still under the influence of the American security and political umbrella, Turkey is trying to become a regional power in West Asia and has to a large extent been successful in balancing the American influence over its policies. Turkey is also spreading its tentacles with its new foreign policy toward the East. In this scenario, China as a rising power still trying to find a foothold in this region is careful while charting its way in both West Asia and Turkey.
China and its West Asian relationship is a conundrum and thus needs to be carefully followed. The nature of the relationship is a result of the policies followed by the two parties toward each other. For example, China’s policies toward West Asia seem to be ambiguous. Partly due to its energy needs at home, China supports authoritarian regimes like that of Saudi Arabia which are contradictory to the ideas of democracy and freedom of speech. At the same time, to strengthen its role as a world player, it supports the common people’s interest, which was proven during its support of the Arab Spring. During this protest for regime change, China extended and continued to support these countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity and opposed external intervention in their internal affairs. Nonetheless, it is China’s primary interest to secure its access to the region’s vital energy resources. Although China is thinking in terms of alternatives in the energy arena, like diversifying its energy with natural gas and renewable energy, to a large extent its dependency on oil will remain. Therefore, China will try to keep a balance between the sentiments of those who are in power as well as those who are governed. It can be assumed that if West Asia is again caught in the whirlpool of regime change due to popular uprisings then its impact could be a threat to China’s own domestic stability. That is because at the beginning of the uprisings in this region in 2010, China knowing the fissures of dissatisfaction within the people had quickly blocked all foreign information fearing a similar uprising within China. Therefore, it can be said that China will try to keep a balance between both the regime and common people in this region for fear of its own internal security.
China for the time being will conduct itself carefully given the spread of its tentacles in this region both economically and militarily. It can be presumed that in the foreseeable future China will be on par with U.S. hegemony over this region. However, China’s approach could be different from that of the U.S. This could be because China’s strategy toward this region is “open.” It molds itself with the flow of the events and has tried to keep a balance between all the countries in the region including Iran, unlike the U.S. At the same time, China is well aware of how to underplay or mitigate its moves by changing its stands. For example, with mounting international pressure, China has cut down on the export of Iran’s oil to 40 percent. It has also lent its support to the UNSC resolution on Assad’s regime where the international body called on the Syrian president to step down, after irking the Arab world by vetoing the proposal earlier.
In these moves is the dragon’s hidden desire to have a stronghold in this region but at its own pace, by preparing the ground for the future. China, even if it wants to overtake the U.S. and the West in this region through its strong financial banking and investments, will not be able to do so in the near future. However, for the time being, it is conscious of its position as well as of the heavy influence of the West, especially the U.S., on the region.
China has nonetheless started the process of building its influence. Chinese officials and analysts have criticized U.S. policy in West Asia as one of “master-servant” relationships with the Arab countries. It is seen as Washington’s efforts to sustain the U.S. role as the dominant great power in the region. This realization has not gone well with most of the Arab leaders. Therefore, it wouldn’t be wrong to assume that the growing interest of the West Asian countries in China could be a way of balancing the heavy U.S. influence over the region.
Given the growth of China’s economy and it being the largest importer of oil, West Asia needs China for its financial banking and investments. At the same time, the Arab countries are also careful with China given its history of supporting dissident countries like Iran, which poses a threat to the Arab world from both its nuclear as well as its ideological bent. However, China is also aware of its vulnerabilities, especially in its northwestern Xinjiang region where the Uighurs reside. It knows the nature of problems that can be unleashed if these separatists got support and weapons from the Arab countries. If a situation such as this prevails in the future it would be ironic as the arms would be a mix of both Western and Chinese weapons. China’s share of the international weapons trade has grown to between 5 and 6 percent, putting it on par with Britain, the world’s fifth-largest arms manufacturer. Its weapons industry is helping it access raw materials, secure trade routes and reduce the global influence of the U.S. And in this region, China’s major markets are Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The rising power of China, its economic influence and its slow but steady arms trade development with West Asia haven’t gone unnoticed by the West. The recent Arab Spring and China’s growing influence as a world player prompted Kofi Annan, former General Secretary of the U.N., to seek China’s help and support to solve the Syrian crisis. This could be an indication of China taking a lead as a power. But in this dynamism of relationships, one cannot help assuming that this approval of China’s say in this region could also be due to the building skepticism within the region and the international community. This skepticism has been a result of the negative influence China can have; for example, its support to the Iranian regime and the Syrian crisis. Its non-support would create an impasse for the West’s efforts in resolving these issues.
Furthering this assumption, the recent expression of Saudi Arabia’s interest of stepping in to fill the Iranian oil vacuum for China might give the impression that the move was because of the need of China’s finance in this region given the status of the West’s economy. But it could also be a move supported by the West to appease China because of its influence. It would take time before these countries would chart out an independent foreign policy sans the U.S. umbrella, like the way Turkey has done. Somewhere the unpredictability and volatility in this region makes it tough to completely move out of the U.S. influence. Therefore, it would be immature to write off the West’s, especially the United States’, influence even if its economy is slowing down.
Treading the path of China’s influence, it could be seen that its tentacles have not stopped in West Asia but have also spread to Turkey, a non-Arab country. Turkey with its growing independent foreign policy, its desire for strategic depth and its growing economy is grooming itself to become the regional power in West Asia. China, aware off Turkey’s potential, starting from its geographical location, its influence over the Uighurs and its economic growth, has taken steps to deepen its relationship. The Chinese have termed this growing relationship a “strategic partnership.” In fact, China is the third-biggest trading partner of Turkey, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute. Trade volume between China and Turkey surged by 24 percent year-on-year to $24.2 billion in 2011. Trade is expected to reach $50 billion in 2015 and $100 billion in 2020, a goal set by Premier Wen Jiabao and his Turkish counterpart Recep Erdogan during his visit to Turkey in October 2010. With this deepening of their partnership, it would be interesting to see the future of it.
Turkey’s relationship vis-à-vis China is different from Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. and the West. With Europe, Turkey’s relationship has been a relationship of questionable acceptance based on its religious identity. And with the U.S., it was a relationship of mutual interest although the U.S. influence was strong, given its superpower status. After the election of the Justice and Development Party, an Islamic party in 2001, it would seem that Turkey is weaning itself off of the strong influence of the West and U.S. The new government charted an independent foreign policy, which was strong, ambitious and also broadened its horizon toward the East in all spheres; political, economic and cultural. The new Turkey has been able to have a say against the U.S., which could be witnessed during the Iraq War of 2003. With this new outlook and ambition, Turkey’s dealing with China would be of equal partnership, on an equal footing. China therefore, with its own ambitious plans and policies, has to be careful not to override Turkey but to have a mutually balanced partnership.
Stepping toward the future and taking lessons from the past, it would be to China’s interest to be careful toward both West Asia and Turkey. China should also be cautious of its pace in deepening relations in this region. The 9/11 events are the perfect example of how foreign policies can backfire against one’s own country when supporting dissident countries or groups like al-Qaeda.
 Indrani Talukdar is a Doctoral scholar from Centre for West Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. Her Doctoral topic was “Turkey and the Cyprus Conflict: Role of the European Union”. Currently, she is working as a Research Associate in Centre for Air Power Studies, Subroto Park. New Delhi, India.
China has relations with Central Asia and Russia for natural gas in order to lower the dependency over West Asia. Eastern Siberia–Pacific Ocean oil pipeline (ESPO pipeline) is a pipeline system for exporting Russian crude oil to the Asia-Pacific markets (Japan, China and Korea) is an example.
2011 air drill exercise between Turkey and China is an example of China’s increasing role in this region not only through economy but also militarily. Turkey had dropped Israel (its old ally) from the drill which left US and Israel flabbergasted.
China is the biggest oil client that buys up to 11 percent of the Islamic Republic's total crude exports. Dilip Hiro, “What is China to do about Iranian oil?” The Daily Star, 13 February 2012, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Opinion/Commentary/2012/Feb-13/163019-what-is-china-to-do-about-iranian-oil.ashx#ixzz1sMmwrBdK. Iran's oil exports appear to have dropped on the month of March 2012 as buyers prepare for tough new sanctions. China’s February import has dropped to 40 percent from last year but the reason shown was over a pricing dispute. Bill Spindle and Benoit Faucon, “Iran Oil Slows as Price Concerns Rise”, The Wall Street Journal, 29 March 2012, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304177104577305400565164514.html. According to Chen Aizhu even after any cut, China will remain a significant buyer of Iranian oil, after raising imports last year by 30 percent. Chen Aizhu, “China's Unipec to take less Iran oil in 2012”, Reuters, 20 February 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/02/20/china-iran-crude-idUSL4E8DK2EZ20120220.
“China gains global influence through arms trade”, Qatar Tribune, 26 April 2012, http://www.qatar-tribune.com/data/20120314/content.asp?section=world1_4.
Li Jiabao, “China-Turkey Trade to Expand”, China Daily, 22 February 2012, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/bizchina/2012-02/22/content_14667587.htm