Mitat ÇELİKPALA-Fatih CEYLAN
CHINA IN THE MIDDLE EAST ARENA: FROM GLOBAL TO REGIONAL
The new era that began with Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 ushered in an era that plunged global politics into a maelstrom of instability and uncertainty. One of the characteristics of this period was the marked deepening of the strategic rivalry between the three great powers (the US, Russia and China).
After Xi Jinping took over the presidency from Hu in 2013, he set out to realise the ‘Chinese Dream‘ based on the revitalisation of the nation on the basis of China’s unique values. In 2013, the first year of his rule, he put the global Belt and Road Project on the agenda. The Belt and Road includes not only a railway corridor from China to the West, but also a Silk Road belt connecting China to various continents by sea. It also envisages multiple land, air and digital connectivity and is a comprehensive mega project based on multiple pillars. Therefore, viewing this highly ambitious future-oriented geopolitical/geostrategic project, which encompasses many geographical belts and components, as a mere Belt and Road design is an erroneous perspective.
In addition to the Belt and Road Project, China has started to develop a global vision with the projects it has put on the agenda one after another. Announced in 2015, the ‘Made in China 2025‘, announced in 2017
The ‘Artificial Intelligence Initiative‘, the ‘2049 Global China Initiative‘, the ‘Global Development Initiative‘ distributed at the UN General Assembly in 2021, the ‘Global Security Initiative‘ published in 2023, and the ‘Global Civilisation Initiative‘ announced in March 2023 are ambitious goals that envisage making China, already seen as a global economic power, a leading actor on a global scale. These projects and initiatives, which have been brought to the global agenda, have initiated intensive academic and policy-oriented discussions on whether there will be a change in the position and attitude of China, which has followed a path focused on its own domestic and domestic issues for many years and has kept its distance from global political and military issues.
In the new millennium, with the growing realisation that the unipolar world order based on US leadership is coming to an end, China has taken preemptive moves in the face of the chaos and vacuum in the Middle East. This situation should be seen as China taking concrete steps from global to regional. Indeed, in this context, China’s joint naval exercise with Russia in the Mediterranean in May 2015 is noteworthy as a first. This was followed by the Sino–Egyptian military exercise in the Mediterranean in 2019. In March 2021, then Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s Middle East tour, which included Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman in addition to Turkey, was an important milestone in terms of China’s goals towards this region, which has entered a globally assertive lane. On the Iranian leg of this tour, the signing of a $400 billion investment agreement between China and Iran for a twenty-fiveyear oil-for-food deal signalled a remarkable move in terms of China’s regional ambitions. Russia’s second wave of aggression in Ukraine in February 2022 brought the global power struggle to a new dimension and upset the balances. While China is facing the consequences of the spiral of conflicts in Ukraine on the one hand, on the other hand, it has not kept its hands off the vast Middle East and Africa basin in the southern belt, which covers the landsea-railway legs of the Belt and Road project and connects China to European markets.
Moreover, it has not refrained from continuing its moves to balance the US in the region.
FOGGY AIR DISPERSED BY CHINA IN THE REGION
From Ukraine to the wider Middle East, China has begun to take a hand in many issues and to influence ongoing uncertainties. In February 2023, China announced a twelve-point position paper aimed at ending Russia’s war in Ukraine. Almost simultaneously, in March 2023, China brought Saudi Arabia and Iran, who see each other as the main threat, together in Beijing, and led to the signing of an agreement on the normalisation of relations between the two countries. The groundwork created by this agreement, which signalled the beginning of a new era in the Middle East, was reinforced on the occasion of Xi Jinping’s third visit to the region as head of state in December 2022, when he signed investment agreements worth $50 billion with countries in the region, involving various sectors. The hosting of the visit by Riyadh and the participation of the heads of state of twenty Arab countries in this summit should also be kept in mind as a noteworthy development.
The fact that China’s Middle East expansion is moving in the direction of including Israel should be added to the current process. Under the influence of the tensions in the US-Israel relations, the relations between the two countries were defined as ‘Comprehensive Innovation Partnership‘ on the occasion of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to China in March 2017.
The latest round of China’s moves towards the Middle East was the announcement of the China–Palestine strategic partnership made during the official visit of Palestinian President Abbas to Beijing in June 2023. On the occasion of this visit, Chinese President Xi put forward a three-point proposal for the resolution of the current conflict, including the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital on the basis of the 1967 borders.
In short, it is evident that the US-China rivalry, which has accelerated with the Biden administration in the US, will witness a spiral of continental-regional rivalry, including the Middle East, as well as new and groundbreaking technologies, especially artificial intelligence and chip production. Therefore, it would not be a prophecy to say that unlike previous periods, China will continue to deepen its competition with the US in the wider Middle East and North Africa. Closely following these developments, the US and the EU have taken countermeasures, especially since 2021, and to balance China on a global scale, the US has put forward the ‘Building a Better World‘ and the EU the ‘Global Gateway Initiative‘ projects.
In the context of these projects, limiting the US-China rivalry only to the tensions in the East and South China Seas and the Tawyan issue would be an erroneous and incomplete approach. In this respect, the Middle East leg of the China-US rivalry cannot be ignored. From this point of view, it can be stated that China has expanded its area of competition or struggle. In this dimension, the Middle East is on the radar of a large-scale global rivalry that will also cover maritime areas and natural resources. Therefore, countries that fail to read the dynamics/balances of the global politics, which is becoming more and more complicated every day, will not be able to save themselves from being worthless extras in the ongoing strategic competition.
TURKEY IN SMOG
Turkey must find ways to benefit from the strategic competition between the great powers, which is likely to continue in the long term. The way to realise this depends on developing a holistic strategy. Developing a strategy of this nature undoubtedly requires an approach to determining direction and position that is based on national interests and avoids daily drifts, as well as the abandonment of narrow ideological deviations, particularly in the economic sphere. In this process, Ankara needs to demonstrate its ability to move forward on an axis that focuses on its national interests, but is also based on the fundamental and inalienable set of values underpinning the international organisations (such as NATO, the Council of Europe, the European Union) to which it belongs or aspires to become a member.
Ankara should primarily advance connectivity projects that will play a key role in Turkey’s access to Central Asia via the Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia) and the Middle East via the Eastern Mediterranean and the Syria-Iraq line. The way to achieve success in this area is to face the competition from Russia, China and Iran in the Caucasus-Middle East-Central Asia belt, to define the areas of cooperation with a focus on Ankara and to adopt a course that does not distance itself from the Western world. This path requires a comprehensive, unprejudiced perspective and the formulation and implementation of policies based on finely calculated details. On the basis of an understanding that prioritises long-term national interests, Turkey should take advantage of the force and economic multipliers that the West can provide in order to create a balance against the influence and interests of the two major actors (China and Russia) and regional actors, especially Iran. In order to move forward on a balanced and effective ground, the balances with the Western world, in which economiccommercial relations are intertwined, should be re-established on a solid, sustainable and healthy basis without delay. This ground does not mean marginalising or excluding China, Russia or Iran. On the contrary, it means dimensioning Turkey’s interests and increasing its capacity to act autonomously as much as possible. Preferences and pursuits to the contrary would be synonymous with undermining Turkey’s long-term goals in an environment where global competition dominates the international agenda, economic balances are deeply shaken, and polarisation prevails instead of consensus in the social consensus. In this context, it is imperative that Turkey’s foreign and security policies are based on a more realistic, sustainable and predictable basis, free from naive ideological impulses, in an era in which players such as Russia, China and Iran, which focus their attention on the Middle East as much as Western actors, are engaged in a direct or indirect long-term struggle for influence, interests and power.