Libya unrest tests China's interests in the Middle East
Beijing's successful evacuation of tens of thousands of Chinese from Libya has highlighted China’s growing role in North Africa and the Middle East.
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China’s key concerns in the Middle East are commercial, not political: Beijing buys more than 50 percent of its imported oil from the region, including 18 percent from Saudi Arabia, its top supplier. China is now the Gulf kingdom’s largest client.Skip to next paragraph
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China buys another 9 percent of its oil from Iran. The governments in both Riyadh and Tehran currently look stable. Though violence has disrupted oil sales from Libya, China relied last year on Libya for only 3 percent of its imports.
Though a lot of small traders have spread out across North Africa and the rest of the continent, the bulk of Chinese workers in the region are laboring on big infrastructure projects that will be needed whoever holds power.
“There will be some short term disruption,” says Mr. Collins of China SignPost. (The Chinese government estimates damage to Chinese projects in Libya at $230 million.) “But once things settle down these guys will be back pretty quickly.”
The Chinese authorities have been careful to remain neutral regarding the recent upheavals in the Middle East, but their failure to support “people power” is unlikely to weigh against them even if new, popular governments do emerge in countries such as Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and Yemen.
“New governments and old ones in the Middle East will still see the Chinese as valuable partners,” predicts Collins. “Foreign investment will be important, and China offers it with fewer conditions than western countries.”
The Chinese are also adaptable. Despite years of close cooperation with the Sudanese government in Khartoum, Beijing was quick to send officials to South Sudan, where much of the country’s oil lies, even before last month’s referendum in favor of independence for the region.
“China’s interests in the Middle East are by and large commercial,” says Collins. “They want to stay away from politics.” One curious illustration of this focus: The Chinese Ministry of Commerce played a major role in the evacuation of Chinese citizens from Libya, alongside the Foreign and Defense ministries.
China could benefit strategically from the current regional turmoil if Middle Eastern autocrats who manage to hang onto power lose some of their faith in Western promises of support after witnessing Egyptian ex-president Hosni Mubarak’s fate.
“They may want to hedge their bets” and improve ties with Beijing, Collins speculates.
But the Chinese government has shown little appetite for involvement in Middle East politics, nor has it anything approaching the military capability that the US can boast to help ensure the security of any regional allies.
The Xuzhou may be flying the red flag bravely, and for the first time, in Mediterranean waters, but she is alone and she does not even have enough fuel to return to her antipirate duties in the Red Sea without bunkering in Greece.
The US, any regional ruler will remember, has 21,000 men on 40 ships attached to the US Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, and another fleet of the same size in the Red Sea.