Source: The Diplomat

President Xi Jinping made his first overseas visit in 2016 to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran, which implied that China is considering bringing its “One Belt and One Road” strategy (OBOR) to the Middle East and regards this region as a critical area of neighborhood diplomacy. So what kind of diplomacy should China conduct in the Middle East? Is it the time for China to become militarily involved — for example, to send an army to Syria? Also, given that China issued an “Arab Policy Paper” right before the visit, does this mean that China-Arab relations will cover Chinese-Iranian relations as well? To answer those questions, we need to figure out three things: the main characteristic of the Middle East, China’s comparative advantages, and China’s interests in this region.

Besides its importance in geopolitics and geography, the Middle East is rich in energy resources (according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015, the region accounts for 47.7 percent and 42.7 percent of the world’s proven oil and natural gas reserves, respectively) and human resources (with a population of about 500 million, youthful demographics, and a high growth rate), and is in the process of industrialization and urbanization. All Middle Eastern states except Israel are developing countries.

However, the region is also famous as a home to various conflicts. Religious conflicts, national conflicts, and economic conflicts mingle together, which has even caused several local wars. This region has become a hotbed of terrorism and religious extremism. Because of the lack of a dominant power, the regional powers — Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, even Iraq — vie with with each other over the leadership of Middle East. The conflicts between small and middle powers frequently result in intervention from regional powers and outside powers. Outside powers often support different countries, religions, or religious sects to secure their own benefits.

China could gain economic profits in this region through the petrochemical industry (including oil and gas exploration and exploitation), investment, and infrastructure construction. The Middle East also provides China with a market for manufactured products and access to vital sea lines of communication (SLOCs).