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The flag follows trade

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China’s re-emergence as a world power, in some respects as a challenger to the American superpower, has been seen in the Middle East, as elsewhere, mainly in economic terms. China is expected to replace the US very soon as the largest importer of oil from Saudi Arabia, and the Middle East gets 75 per cent of its imports from Asia, expected to rise to 90 per cent by 2030. Iran is a special case, because of the dreadful state of relations with America and the West; China is Iran’s largest trade partner, largest oil purchaser and largest foreign investor. Israel is also special; China buys modern technology, both civil (particularly agricultural) and military, including US technology under the counter. When foreign workers were evacuated from Libya in March this year, by far the largest number – up to 45,000 – were Chinese, involved in fifty large projects, worth $18 billion, in construction, railways, oil services and telecommunications.

Economic interests have political and military consequences.
According to a leaked report sent by the US embassy in Riyadh last year:

while the Chinese would likely prefer to stay away from political controversy, their economic power and permanent seat on the UN Security Council has made it more and more difficult for them to avoid politics altogether.

China had to apologise to Iran last year for talking about ‘the Arabian Gulf’. Libya was more serious: Beijing’s zigzag progress through abstention in the Security Council to belated recognition of the revolutionary regime was neither elegant nor particularly good for Chinese interests. ‘Non-interference’ is a hallowed Chinese doctrine, but not adequate for the complexities of Syria or the Arab Spring.

In March 2010, two warships paid China’s first ever ‘friendship’ visit to Abu Dhabi, after six months on anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden. According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, China’s

deployment of naval vessels to help in counter-piracy efforts off Somalia is its first venture in this field. However, some believe it could be impelled into a more active role to protect its growing maritime interests.

The IISS report quotes Ben Simpfendorfer, an analyist in Hong Kong:

He points to the Bab al-Mandeb, the waterway that separates Yemen from Djibouti, as a cause for concern. Most of China’s $355 billion worth of trade with Europe, 25% of China’s total exports, travels through the strait, which has increasingly been threatened by piracy. Violent upheaval in Yemen could leave ships passing between two failed states, Yemen and Somalia.

According to an article in China National Defence News:

China’s overseas interest is constantly threatened by various factors such as piracy (e.g. Somalia Pirates), political upheaval (e.g. Libyan Civil War), failed states (e.g. Sudan), and regional flashpoints (e.g. Iranian nuclear crisis), etc. In the light of the Libyan revolution, the efforts expended for the evacuation of Chinese citizens reflected an embarrassing fact: China still lacks the capability of safeguarding overseas citizens and China’s global interest can be annihilated much easier than we might think… An increase of China’s overseas military presence is of course feasible…. China’s military hardware has been developing steadily, and projecting military power beyond the national border is no longer a technologically unachievable goal.

The author, a research fellow at Shanghai International Studies University, goes on to argue that China must be extra cautious to avoid provoking Western paranoia. China needs permanent and massive military bases, but should develop ‘soft’ military measures as well, emphasising the defensive nature of its expansion, and basing it on commercial rather than geopolitical interests. Another independent Chinese analyst comments more bluntly:

The increasing visibility of a Chinese blue-water navy is fraught with dangers of a security dilemma vis-a-vis the US as the dominant naval power.

When I joined the Foreign Office in 1960 one didn’t have to dig far back into the files to find policy papers emphasising the importance of the Middle East for imperial communications with India and the Antipodes. I took part in dismantling the last vestige of that in Aden in 1967. Interesting to see the same idea re-emerging in the looking-glass of history, demonstrating that the old saying ‘trade follows the flag’ is as misleading in the 21st century as it was in the days of the British Empire.

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