Photo illustration by John Lyman

China’s Foreign Policy: What Comes after Checkbook Diplomacy?

In early January, China’s foreign ministry released its first policy paper for the Middle East. Though a first, the paper fell short of a clear policy action. It is not new that Chinese foreign policy is punctuated with non-interference and non-engagement with the internal affairs of its Middle East partners. Its checkbook diplomacy has traditionally wooed developing nations with the promise of lucrative economic development without socio-political conditions. But it remains to be seen if the Chinese government will remain non-meddling in the Middle East peace if its interests are at stake.

China’s development politics uses development aid to attract investments and business partners for its political ends. Unlike the western aid givers, the Chinese non-meddling stance has worked in its favor. Developing nations despise the slew of conditions that come with foreign aid. And China’s no catch clause has worked till now. But what lies ahead for China is an increasingly fragmented and diversified region rife with sectarian and extremist conflict. The very complex geopolitical Middle East, denies China the economic success it experienced in Africa.

The Middle East nations will want an alliance, which will serve their political interests well. A non-interfering China who will not risk a closer alliance may not be welcomed in the region in time to come. Chinese economic interests and expansion in the Middle East requires it to be more politically involved.

It has to invest in the function and institutions of government to deal with opposition and dissent. Economic development itself will not be the solution to the conflicts in the region.

China’s economic ties with the Middle East are increasingly buttressed by its energy trade and its dependence on Middle Eastern energy dictates that China must show a greater commitment to the security and political stability of the region. Chinese interest in the Middle East has also increased as the Chinese seek new investment opportunities in the face of a slowing economy. This is most recently observable in China’s Maritime Silk Road strategy that places the Middle East as a crucial economic bridge for Europe and Asia.

The project requires heavy investments from Chinese companies with extensive resources pumped into building necessary infrastructure in the Middle East. It will also require many Chinese nationals to be working in the region. Chinese current policy approach will not address the political and security issues that will definitively arise in the volatile region with political instability, lack of a common leadership and weakened institutions.

This lack of leadership is best exemplified by Saudi Arabia and Iran engaging in a sectarian conflict that weakens both regimes ability to control both their people and dissent. This lack of control has also contributed to non-state actors growing extremely strong in the region, overthrowing regimes and widening their sphere of influence and control. China will have to support Middle East nations in developing regime security and facilitate dialogues and strengthen regional cooperation.

Chinese expansive claims in the South China Sea have offended many of its traditional ASEAN friends, despite its largesse. This has, inadvertently or not, given rise to a much welcomed and stronger US presence in the region. The US, remains a hedge against China with a stronger commitment and pivot towards the region. Chinese largesse unfortunately has not allayed its smaller neighbors’ suspicions and fears.

This phenomenon could result in a reversal of sorts in the Middle East. China could evolve into a much-welcomed hedge against the US and its western coalition. Chinese soft diplomacy may be better received than the US’s hard power politics approach towards the region. To do so however, China’s checkbook diplomacy alone will not suffice as an alternative approach towards a fractured region. Greater political will is essential to engage both the various states vying for control and to control non-state actors struggling to form new regimes.

To achieve this, China has to woo its middle-east trading partners with not only money but through political engagements, by confronting the most pressing issues that the region faces with its soft diplomacy. The Middle Kingdom must politically engage the Middle East.