China Policy Institute: Analysis



10 questions about migration between China and Africa

Written by Li Anshan.

In recent years, the rapid development of China-Africa relations has prompted migration flows to and from China and the fifty plus countries of the African continent. These migration flows have in turn attracted international attention and no little misunderstanding. Here I would like to address some issues and provide answers to ten specific questions in order to improve the understanding of these processes.

  1. How many Chinese are there in Africa?

The precise number of overseas Chinese is uncertain and we have to use an estimation, although the number of Chinese in Africa is not huge. In my book published in 2000 I predicted that there would be a rapid increase in the number of Chinese in Africa in the 21st century.[1] With 136000 in 1996, 240,000 in 2000, 550,000 in 2006-7, the number reached 1.1 million in 2012. This represent a big increase, although the number is insignificant compared with the number of Chinese in other continents. Reliable estimates of the number of Chinese overseas in 2013 suggests 30 million in Asia, 7.9 million in America, 2.5 million in Europe, and around 1 million in Oceania. The figure for the U.S. alone in 2010 was 4.02 million, three times of that living in the 54 countries of the African continent.[2]

  1. Who are the Chinese in Africa?

Various kinds. The Chinese in Africa include a small percentage of the old generation who are now citizens of the settled countries and new arrivals in recent years. For example, among about 250 thousand Chinese in South Africa, the South African citizens with Chinese origin before 1994 and their descendants account for 10,000 to 12,000. Most of new arrivals include temporary workers, entrepreneurs, project managers, farmers, re-migrants, intellectuals, etc. Most of them are not immigrants in real sense. For instance, among 900 Chinese in Rwanda in 2012, two thirds are the members of contracting Chinese companies or workers of the projects aided by the Chinese government, the rest are free immigrants. Most of 35,860 Chinese evacuated from Libya in 2011 were managers and workers of the companies. Same can be applied to Chinese in other African countries.

  1. Are the Chinese in Africa taking Africans’ jobs?

There are worries among some Africans that Chinese migrants constitute an economic threat to their livelihoods. It is true that Chinese peddlers in Nigeria or mine workers in small gold-mines in northern Ghana have engaged in certain fields confined to local citizens, but African and Chinese governments are tackling the problem. However, big projects undertaken by Chinese companies are using many local workers. For example, the construction of the 1344 kilometre Benguela Railway in Angola was completed in August 2014 after nearly 10 years’ of hard-work and joint efforts of about 1000 Chinese (more than 20 Chinese died during the construction) and 100 thousand Angolan workers. As one engineer of Beijing Construction Group explained, the Chinese in Angola are “people who come to work on a project, do business or are migrant workers, there aren’t any people who are immigrating here to stay”.

  1. Are the Chinese in Africa part of a “grand strategy”?

There is no such thing as the Chinese government supporting Chinese immigration to Africa as part of some notional grand strategy. More and more studies show that Chinese immigrants are arriving in Africa independently, with various social backgrounds, multiple points of origin and different educational levels. Yoon Junk Park for one criticizes the misguided view that Chinese immigrants are supported by the Chinese government, and argues that they are independent immigrants and come to South Africa in order to improve their living standard.[3] A report of Chinese traders in five Southern African countries demonstrated how the Chinese presence in Africa is diverse, complex and by no means part of well-planned strategy on the part of the Chinese government. Indeed many Chinese interviewees were unhappy with the Chinese embassy and wanted nothing to do with it.

  1. What brings the Chinese to Africa?

The simple answer is that Chinese come to Africa to make money. Although individual motivations vary, the underlying factor in many cases is that Chinese perceive in Africa better opportunities to advance their personal economic standing. The western media has a tendency to over-emphasize the Chinese “hunger” for natural resources in Africa, while a major reason is the continent represents a big market for many goods, attracting many Chinese traders. What is more, African countries offer better conditions for visa application, and there is less pressure for living and less competition for development. Some Chinese stay on or come back to Africa for business after finishing stints on medical teams, assistance staff for the government, or construction workers on various projects. Some also see Africa as a spring-board for migration to other continents.

  1. Why do Africans choose to go to China?

Again, the simple answer is that Africans migrate to China to seek business opportunities. An increasing number of Africans are engaged in trade in China and forming migrant communities in Guangzhou, Yiwu and elsewhere. The African communities in China have become a new subject for academic research.[4] With its rapid development, China is an attractive place for Africans to do business. Guangzhou, the first gathering-place for African merchants, has given way to Yiwu, where the world’s largest commodities market is located. Almost all African countries have a space to set up shops in the African Trade Centre in Yiwu, either for retail or wholesale. Gizelle, a successful Cameroonian businesswoman, has her shop there selling hand-made African decor and furniture to customers from various cities in China and is very happy with her business expansion. Her story is common to many African merchants in China.

  1. Is there discrimination towards Africans in China?

Nowhere is completely free from discrimination, but such attitudes toward Africans in China is rare. I have supervised three PhD. students from Africa and they shared many stories of their experiences in China. They all say that Chinese are curious about them, but none of them came across discrimination. A Ghanaian student described her experience in China in The Atlantic, although there are good relations between China and Africa on governmental level, yet

“on a person-to-person basis, ignorance, misunderstanding, and intolerance still persist…… I never felt discriminated against or antagonized, but rather treated with warmth and friendliness. Because I spoke Mandarin, I could often understand what people said about me, and they were rarely disparaging or maligning.”

This type of attitude towards Africans is evidenced on the website “Guancha” (Observer), where the responses to a report on African experiences in Yiwu market indicate positive attitude towards African merchants. There are ignorance and curiosity rather than discrimination.

  1. Why do Africans come to China to study?

An increasing number of young Africans come to China for further study. The first reason is to know more about China, especially after witnessing the Olympic Games in 2008 provided a totally different image from that previously reported in much international media. Rapid development in China represents a great opportunity for many African students, with the ability to study advanced technology in many sectors from transportation to aerospace. The Chinese government also offers favorable conditions, including fellowships or free technological training, especially after the establishment of FOCAC. Practical reasons are important too. Tuition and living conditions are cheaper than in the west. Chinese language and experience prepare them a good way for a better job in Chinese companies in Africa such as Huawei and ZTE. Finally, there is an easier access to Chinese visas than more restrictive western countries.

  1. What role do Africans in China play?

Mutual understanding is a key component in bilateral relations, and greater exchanges between Africans and Chinese is beneficial to both sides. A student once asked me to supervise a thesis entitled “The history and spread of the Djembe Drum in China”. When asked why she chose this topic, she told me she was a member of the Djembe Club at our University! This type of cultural exchange is very valuable. Besides promoting bilateral business, Africans have brought their values, skills, paintings, sculptures, art works, dances, music instruments, films, etc. There is a Foreign Related Dispute Mediation Office in Yiwu comprised of mediators from 12 different nations. Senegalese Tirera Sourakhata and his Guinean colleague volunteered to be mediator with their knowledge and language skill. In Peking University, there is an International Cultural Festival every year, and African students set up national stands to introduce their own culture. African singers frequently perform popular art in TV programs, and there are African reporters on CCTV and other media, African dance groups, African drum clubs, etc. Their contribution undoubtedly enriches the multiculturalism of contemporary China.

10.  Is there a wave of intermarriage between Africans and Chinese in China?

It is inevitable that greater cultural and personal interactions between people will lead to an increase in marriages between couples from different nationalities. I know personally of several Afro-Chinese marriages. What is more, there seems to be a boom of this kind of intermarriages, which will bring about a new generation in China, or in Africa, for that matter.

A popular view holds that the China-Africa honeymoon is over and there are increasing problems regarding bilateral relations. I have a contrary opinion, which is that the more problems the better. Why do I say this? Because if there was no or minimal contact, there would be no problems. When relations become wider and deeper, more problems naturally occur. With an equal relationship and mutual respect, China and Africa can sit down to discuss their problems and together find solutions. Once the problem is solved, relations will get closer still.

Li Anshan is Professor and Director of the Centre for African Studies, School of International Studies, Peking University, and Chair of the Chinese Society of African Historical Studies. Image credit: CC by jbdodane/Flickr.


[1] Li Anshan, A History of Overseas Chinese in Africa, Beijing: Chinese Overseas Publishing House, 2000.

[2] Figures are taken from 2013 Statistical Yearbook of the Overseas Community Affairs Council, Taibei, 2013 and Blue Book of Overseas Chinese: Annual Report on Overseas Chinese Study (2014), Beijing, 2014. Another comparison also makes send. The Indians in South Africa are much more than the Chinese.

[3] Yoon Park, A Matter of Honour. Being Chinese in South Africa, Lexington Books, 2009.

[4] A. Bodomo’s study is a pioneer work. See Adams Bodomo, Africans in China: A Sociocultural Study and Its Implications on Africa-China Relations, Cambria Press, 2012. For a historical review, see Li Anshan, “African Diaspora in China: Research, reality and reflection”, The Journal of Pan African Studies, 2015(forthcoming issue).

China and water security in Asia

In 2011 Anatol Lieven wrote that the ‘greatest source of long-term danger to Pakistan’ was dependence on the river Indus and climate change in general. Lieven was in no doubt that water security was a far greater than that of Islamic extremism. The politics of water, one of the major aspects of water security, are complex, far reaching and highly conflictual across Asia. Many issues are tied to China because so many of South and South East Asia’s major rivers originate in the Tibetan Highlands of China. Upstream irrigation projects, hydroelectric and damming schemes and industrial pollution have major implications on those downstream, whether that be from China to India, India to Pakistan, or within countries (such as between Punjab and Sindh in Pakistan or conflicts over the River Cauvery in Southern India).

For China, while aware that its actions have the potential to cause conflicts with downstream neighbours, water is a crucial domestic issue in a country where floods and droughts have been the bane of farmers’ lives for centuries. As the China modernizes, huge efforts have been invested in infrastructure like the Three Gorges Dam and North-South Water Transfer to mitigate the effects of flooding, increase water supply to the arid north and generate electricity to feed the country’s great urbanization project.

In short, water security affects the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people in Asia and control and use of water resources are a vitally important domestic issue with international ramifications.

Reflecting the importance of water security in Asia and the centrality of China to the region’s resources, the Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies (IAPS) and the China Policy Institute (CPI) have organised this special issue as part of an ongoing commitment to exploring the links and conflicts between China and its downstream neighbours. IAPS and the CPI are collectively organising a new interdisciplinary research strand over the next few months to probe the domestic and international ramifications of this issue across Asia. The collection of posts by renowned specialists from around the world are a valuable starting point. The line-up includes:

Christine E. Boyle (Portland State University)
Katherine Morton (Australian National University)
Sam Geall (University of Sussex)
Darrin Magee (Hobart and William Smith Colleges)
Pichamon Yeophantong (Princeton University)
Uttam Kumar Sinha (IDSA),
Robert Wirsing (Georgetown)

IAPS and the CPI will hold an invitation only workshop in the new year. Interested academics and other professionals working on water security in Asia are welcome to contact Dr Jonathan Sullivan with EOI.

Image credit: CC by runner PL/Flickr

Marriage of convenience: China and Russia’s gas deal

Written by Karolina Wysoczanska.

Last month’s China-Russia gas deal attracted considerable attention not only because of its scale but because of its global significance. Indeed, it is probably a once-in-lifetime opportunity to witness a mega-deal like this, as only China and the United States have the demand and financial muscle to make this kind of purchase happen.

On the surface, the agreement might appear to serve as a foundation for a stronger Russo-Chinese strategic relationship. Joint naval exercises, the recent annexation of Crimea and China’s bold actions against Vietnam and Japan give the clear impression of an emerging bloc behaving contrary to western values and interests. After more than a decade of negotiations and false starts, both Chinese and Russian interest converged. The deal gained a symbolic value implying that the two countries are prepared to work together and that Russia is looking towards the East.

Some say the Ukrainian crisis coupled with European desire to reduce dependency on Russian gas has forced President Putin to finalize the transaction. Others point at Beijing and say that it became a winner of Crimea crisis and is now deliberately standing next to Moscow in a joint demonstration of power. The fact is that this energy cooperation is not a surprise. Russia’s pivot to Asia was unavoidable and contrary to mass media portrayals it is not a sudden shift. Asia, as the new centre of growth and demand is the best market Russia has for its natural gas reserves. In 2009, Russia’s state-owned oil company Rosneft signed a $25 billion contract with China, and last year it agreed to provide China with oil supplies for 25 years- in a deal valued at $270 billion. The geographic reality seems to confirm the idea that, western Siberia gas supplies make economic sense only if they travel west and eastern Siberia gas supplies must go east.

The deal enhances the energy cooperation between the two countries but it is more indicative of converging interests than strategic partnership. Beijing is not inclined to sacrifice important relations with the West for the sake of President Putin’s agenda. From China’s perspective this relationship is largely business oriented, and not unlike investments in other parts of the world where Chinese companies provide infrastructure and financial assistance in exchange for oil and gas. Russian gas supplies serve China’s interest in a number of ways. They can help Beijing to increase the use of gas – currently the fuel comprises only 4% of the country’s total energy consumption- and reduce dependence on oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipped through the Malacca Strait and across the South and East China seas. Most importantly, Russian gas is cheaper for China than LNG imported from Qatar or Australia. The Russian price will likely also benefit China in future negotiations with other suppliers. On the other hand, the lower and more competitive price of Russian gas will have an impact on China’s domestic production. It is widely believed in Beijing that once contract with Russia is signed, just like now, gas development in China will slow down and it might be a few years until China has a major breakthrough in shale gas development.

There are still many complaints in China’s energy sector that the deal was too expensive and Beijing could have waited for an even better moment. China now has many more natural gas suppliers than it did when talks on the agreement began with Russia a decade ago. It has built a pipeline system connecting the western part of the country with gas suppliers in Turkmenistan via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. In March 2014 China agreed to build a fourth pipeline running through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Last year it also started importing gas from Myanmar. Moreover, gas from Russia is not expected to flow for at least four years and even then, it will only provide about 10 percent of China’s gas needs – significantly less than the 68 bcm Turkmenistan promised to provide over the next 30 years last year.

Although the deal has been signed many important details remain unclear including the exact route of the proposed pipeline. Currently there is one complete oil pipeline that runs from eastern Siberia to Daqing, in China’s Heilongjiang province. It began operation in 2011 and was under discussion since the mid-1990s. The gas pipeline has an equally long and even more complicated history. The first proposal to export natural gas to China was for a 4000 km pipeline from Kovykta gas field in eastern Siberia. Due to problems around TNK-BP ownership of Kovykta field and decreasing demand from Europe, Russia changed its strategy and started to prioritise gas exports from western Siberia gas fields through the proposed Altai pipeline to western China. The problem is that China would have to share gas from western Siberia with Europe- which would give Putin leverage over both buyers. The other important point is that China does not need gas from western Siberia. Turkmenistan supplies are already linked to the West-East pipeline running across the country.

China’s priority is to deliver gas to its north-east provinces, where the capacity is still low, from eastern Siberia fields. In 2012, Gazprom announced that it would supply gas to north-east China through The Power of Siberia pipeline (Yakutsk – Khabarovsk – Vladivostok) from Chayanda gas field in east Siberia, and this is currently the favoured scenario. Russia would build its own pipeline up to the Sino-Russian border and a Chinese company would build China’s own section. Unlike the Central Asia pipeline, where joint ventures between all parties involved were established to manage the project, Russia will not allow China to participate in pipeline development. This means that China would effectively have no control in the value chain, and cannot be fully assured over the stability of supplies from Russia. This is a notable risk considering that Russia has a history of using gas supplies for political leverage.

The Sino-Russian relationship is built on fragile foundations, and despite attempts to project a confidence in the bilateral relationship there appear to be few prospects for real improvements. At the moment China-Russia cooperation is convenient and serves each other’s short-term interests. In the long term, they might find it more difficult and costly to find common ground.

Karolina Wysoczanska is a PhD student in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham.

Beyond the Oil: Sino-Iranian relations

Written by Majid Rafizadeh.

It has been argued that the only reason China maintains robust political and economic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran—backing Iran directly or indirectly on its nuclear program or foreign and domestic policies in the United Nations and Security Council—is that China is the largest energy consumer in the world. Iran provides 15% of China’s industry need for gas and oil and with its economic growth accelerating remarkably, China is in a desperate need for more. Iran is a specific, uncontested rich source of oil for China because Beijing does not have to compete with other Western or Asian markets to gain oil contracts in Tehran.

While these facts are all certainly true, it is incorrect to assume that oil imports are the only thread tying China and Iran together tightly. Several other important and often overlooked factors explaining their close relationship are shared historical experiences, common outlooks and concerns in the current state of international and regional affairs, and overlapping interests.

Both Iranian and Chinese officials invoke an ancient past relationship at every opportunity. They remind each other that China and Iran are former centers of empire and the original birthplace of two great civilizations. In pre-Islamic times, envoys to the Han dynasty made contact with the Parthians and later the Sassanids, setting up the foundation for subsequent lucrative commercial ties between China and Persia. Later, in Islamic times, the Silk Road served as the main thoroughfare through which Sino-Iranian cultural and trade relations flourished. The echoes of “lost” empire are key here: deeply engrained in both Chinese and Iranian national consciousness is the desire to reclaim influence and status on the world stage. This shared sense of pride in their ancient histories brings China and Iran culturally and socially closer to one another, significantly impacting their economic and political relationships as well.

China and Iran also share a concern with global governance and, in particular, the role of the United States. Both Iran and China would like to compete with and ultimately replace the U.S. During a 1991 visit to Iran, Chinese premier Li Peng spoke to the Iranian media on this point stating that: “We are against the domination of the U.S. or of a minority over the world, and against the creation of the new order by the U.S. in international relations, and we are in complete agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran on this point.” The current Chinese President Hu Jintao pointed out that “Tehran and Beijing should help each other to manage global developments in favor of their nations, otherwise the same people who are the factors of current international problems will again rule the world.” Iranian leaders, for their part, express similar sentiments. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has referred to the creation of a “new world order” on multiple occasions. When it comes to addressing global problems, China and Iran continually look to one another as they attempt varied methods and ideologies to prescribe an alternative to the current world order.

A third, inexorable link between the two countries are China’s exports to the Iranian market vis-à-vis its oil imports from Iran. China exported around US$12.1 billion in goods to Iran last year. While China is a major export market for Iranian crude oil, Iran is then in a position to import a large quantity of gasoline back from China due to its own lack of refining capacity. Given the sanctions on Iran, China appears to be picking up this newly available market share with quickness. This is a mutually beneficial arrangement, as Iran needs the gasoline and China has surplus refining and shipping capacity. In September 2009, China increased its gasoline supply to Iran to one-third of total Iranian gasoline imports. J.P. Morgan commodities research estimates that China sends between 30,000 to 40,000 barrels per day to Iran through third party intermediaries. China has offered its services to enhance Iran’s infrastructure as well—deals have been signed to build dams and railway lines in Iran as the first step in a wider plan to tie the Middle East and Central Asia to Beijing. From oil refinery to civil infrastructure, China’s economic activities work to undermine the U.S. strategy of multilateral and unilateral sanctions.

Finally, China seems to benefit from the fact that the U.S. is putting its efforts, attention, and resources to curb the influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Meanwhile, China continues its slow, though persistent, march towards greater influence in Asia without a contender. The People’s Republic of China can therefore use the Iranian nuclear program as a bargaining chip to shift the balance of power in future negotiations with the United States and European countries.

Strategically speaking, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a good asset for China to thwart any increased influence from other countries which China views as threat. This will assure the continuing and increasing influence of China in the Persian Gulf, whether politically, diplomatically or economically. The close ties between China and Iran go beyond one country’s imports of oil and gas from another: there are shared historical, strategic and pragmatic interests that will continue to drive these two countries closer together. Despite their different governmental structures—and even despite their largely opposite ideologies—China and Iran’s common strategic goals over the last three decades will continue to intensify their relations moving forward.

Syria: Three Axes of Iran, China, and Russia

As the crisis in Syria enters its third year, world powers have become more divided over how to resolve this crisis. The death toll exceeds 110,000, according to the United Nations. Considering the Syrian regime’s atrocities, the West along with the Arab League is pondering the reasons behind Beijing and Moscow’s reluctance vis-à-vis a change in Syria’s political structure.

It is widely argued that Russian and Chinese economic and strategic interests embedded in the survival of the Assad’s regime have outweighed their humanitarian concerns. Russia’s strategic interests in the Mediterranean Sea are intertwined with the current political establishment in Syria because the Syrian port of Tartous—its second largest—houses Russia’s only naval base in the region. In addition, Syria has been purchasing arms from Russia as an arms client for decades. China has invested considerably in Syria, which it regards as a trading hub.

The factors behind Chinese and Russian adamant support for the Syrian regime, however, go beyond these common perceptions. Although Syria has bought arms from Russia for the last few decades, it has not been a perfect client as it has struggled to make payments. There are reports indicating that Syria owes Russia billions of dollars in arms deals. Syria is also not as key of a trading partner to the Chinese compared to other Arab states in the Persian Gulf. Additionally, Syria is not rich in natural resources such as oil and gas in a region that is considered the world’s energy hub.

Taking all this into account, sticking to the above causes would oversimplify the Chinese and Russian reaction to the Syrian crisis. In fact, Syria’s relations with China and Russia are broader and far more complicated because of the role Iran plays; however, the Iranian dimension of their relationship has gone largely unnoticed by the media. China and Russia are very concerned by the linkage between the Syrian crisis and the future of Iran in the region. Although Syria is not rich in natural resources, her strategic location is of great significance; Syria is considered a lynchpin of many relationships in the Middle East e.g. Iran-Arab relations, intra-Arab relations, Turkey-Saudi Arabia relations and most importantly, Iranian relations with Hezbollah and Hamas. Any change in the political structure of the Syrian regime would have implications for all the above relationships, especially those in connection with Iran’s role in the region.

When it comes to Iran, although the Syrian government and the Iranian regime are governed by different political systems—one secular and the other theocratic—losing Syria will be detrimental for Iran on several levels. Since 1979, Syria has been a key proxy for Iran by serving as a platform from which Iran has built formidable influence over the Arab-Israeli conflict. Iran’s alliance with Syria gave Iran the opportunity to establish Hezbollah, the powerful Shi’a movement in Lebanon, as well as to support the Sunni Palestinian movement, Hamas. The establishment of these proxy groups throughout the Levant has allowed Iran to strengthen and preserve its regional influence as well as to maintain a strong posture domestically. Without the Assad regime in power, Iran loses not just the flexibility and capability that having a friendly Syrian government brings to these proxy groups but also regional geopolitical leverage.

Collapse of the current political establishment in Syria will adversely affect Iran’s relationship with those same proxies in the Levant. Should Syria go through regime change, it is unlikely that the new regime would be supportive of the Iranian government to the same extent as the current regime. Undoubtedly, a democratic Syria with a Sunni majority (who constitute approximately 75% of the Syrian population) would be more sympathetic to the rest of the Arab world rather than Iran. More significantly, all opposition groups have already warned the Islamic Republic of its cordial relations with the Assad regime and asserted that the new Syria would view the Iranian government differently. This would tremendously shift the regional balance of power against Iran and further isolate the Islamic Republic in the region.

Such developments together with increasing international isolation and domestic pressure would alter Iran’s regional role and even place the Iranian regime on the brink of collapse. The Chinese and Russians, well aware of these disastrous repercussions from Assad’s removal, are determined to prevent the current Syrian government’s downfall given their key interests in the survival of the Iranian regime. Indeed, China and Russia’s prominent geopolitical and strategic interests in Iran are indisputable. One of the reasons that China maintains robust political and economic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran is its relentless hunger for abundant sources of energy. China is the largest energy consumer in the world and currently depends on Iran for 15% of its industrial gas and oil needs. Together, Russia and Iran represent the first and second in the world in natural gas reserves and second and fourth in oil production. This abundance in natural resources has encouraged the two to pursue an economic partnership involving the refinement and export of oil and gas. Russia, China and Iran also share some similar concerns about global governance and, in particular, the position of the United States on the world stage. Thus, it would not be inaccurate to argue that Chinese and Russian long-term objectives in the region have outweighed other considerations. In short, their support for the Assad’s regime is rooted directly in maintaining the current regime in Iran.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-Syrian scholar with past and present affiliations to Oxford, Columbia and Harvard, and President of the International American Council based in Washington DC. He is a regular commentator for national and international media and tweets @majidrafizadeh

China and the Middle East: Adjusting to life after the Arab Spring

Written by P R Kumaraswamy.

Historically the Middle East has been peripheral to China.  The end of the Sino-Soviet rivalry and China’s drive for energy security brought about certain nuanced changes in its policy towards the region, especially to the energy-rich Persian Gulf region.

Despite periodic focus on people-to-people contacts, China’s policy has remained state-centric and supporter of the status quo. This approach suited for much of the Middle East, especially in many Arab countries where the real and meaningful opposition were to be found only in jails or in graves. The Arab Spring thus posed a number of challenges to China’s approach towards the region.

At one level, popular protests underscored the vulnerability of the once powerful regimes around which China evolved its Middle East policy. The disruption of the erstwhile stability of various Arab regime meant that China could no longer pursue its political interactions and interests in the Middle East primarily though its contacts with the increasingly unpopular and weakening Arab regimes.

Growing unpopularity prevented Beijing from rallying behind Arab regimes that faced popular discontent and protests. Such a course would have alienated China, especially when the survival of these Arab regimes is not vital for China. This is contrast to Russia whose re-entry into the Middle East is closely linked to survival of the Assad regime in Syria.

At the same time, China’s ability to empathize with the demands of the Arab protesters had serious domestic repercussions. Demands for political reforms, good governance, transparency and economic discontent galvanized the Arab youth to protest against the respective governments. The Chinese leadership could not support, even tacitly, these demands without worrying about the internal ramifications. Beijing could not be pro-reform externally without being more open internally.

The Arab Spring also went against the Confucian order ingrained in the Chinese society. Over centuries internal chaos and anarchy have brought down many Chinese empires and paved the way for external intervention and domination. More than two years after Mohammed Bouazizi accidentally sparked off massive popular protests, the region has not seen any tangible progress. Any lingering Chinese doubts were settled when none of the Arab countries were able to present a clear leadership let alone a road map. Indeed, the Arab Spring has plunged countries like Libya, Syria and Yemen into a civil war and there were signs of that in Egypt after Mohammed Morsi was deposed by the army.

Far more importantly, China has to consider the ascendance of the Islamists in many Arab countries.  Indeed, the Islamists, especially the extremist versions, have become the most tangible beneficiaries of the Arab Spring. Contrary to initial expectations, the Turkish model of moderate Islamists has yet to make their mark in the Arab Middle East. Indeed, for long, China has been confronted with the extremists among the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang who were accused of various violence and terror acts. There are media reports of extremist elements crossing over into Xinjiang. Under these circumstances, China could ill-afford to support any struggle that ends in the militant Islamists coming to power. Jihadi elements playing a crucial role in the civil war also prevents China from getting closer to the American position on Syria.

Hence, China has settled for a more nuanced but internationally popular stand which has three distinct strands. At one level, China is opposed to any external intervention in the internal affairs of the Arab countries that face domestic turmoil. Such a stand not only revolves around the inviolability of the state sovereignty but also precludes any external say in domestic issues facing China.

Second, China is opposed to any military settlement to the problem. Its abstention during the UN Security Council vote on Libya for a no-fly zone was largely due to the unanimous demands by the Arab League and African Union. Led by the US, the west has used Resolution 1973 to engineer a regime change in Libya. Learning from this experience, China began opposing any vaguely worded UNSC resolutions vis-à-vis Syria.

Three, China recognizes that the stalemate in many Arab countries regarding the future course of action. Even where the unpopular leaders were removed, the political process remains uncertain and in some cases, more violent. Expressing an explicit preference for any of the contesting groups, thus, is not an option for China. Therefore, its leaders have been advocating a political settlement based on an inclusive dialogue among all parties to the dispute. This approach is more vividly demonstrated in the case of Syria. Less vocal than Russia in support of the Assad regime, China has been demanding an inclusive political process as the best means of resolving the crisis.

In the past, much of China’s foreign policy calculations have been governed by its core interest of maintaining strong relations with the US. Despite disagreements over the controversy surrounding Iranian nuclear programme, Beijing has been accommodative of the US and supported various sanctions against Iran. Similar approach however has been absent over Syria.

Though following Russia in the UNSC, China’s concerns are different. The Syrian situation highlights some of China’s principal concerns vis-à-vis Arab Spring, namely, political instability, Islamist resurgence and potential disintegration of that country. There are other issues as well. The wobbling American policy regarding the Arab Spring, especially the Syrian crisis, raises doubts about the wisdom of China reaching an understanding with the Obama administration. Having declared the use of chemical weapons as his redline, Obama ended up settling for a face-saving exit strategy.

Furthermore, unlike Russia, China is more concerned about state sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and their possible ramifications for issues such as Tibet, Taiwan Strait or Xinjiang.  It is in this wider context, one has to read China’s largely passive response to the Arab Spring. Moreover, its principal interests in region, namely energy security, revolves around the Persian Gulf and so long as countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, its principal Arab suppliers manage to weather the storm, China could afford to play a second fiddle to Russia regarding Syria.

Professor P R Kumaraswamy teaches contemporary Middle East at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and serves as the Honorary Director of Middle East Institute, New Delhi.

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