China’s Role in the Middle East
President Xi Jinxing’s visit to the Middle East last week appeared to be business as usual. Short and relatively low-key, his studious avoidance of controversy was in keeping with China’s longstanding approach to the region: focus on energy and economics, and keep your head down on security and political matters. The extended absence of a senior Chinese visitor to the neighborhood and the cancellation of Xi’s trip to Saudi Arabia and Egypt last year had given this three-country tour the flavor of a reluctant necessity, with an agenda rich on trade and investment but otherwise limited. Promote the Belt and Road initiative, deliver a speech to the Arab League, toast the 60th anniversary celebrations in Egypt, and pull off quick stops to Riyadh and Tehran without getting embroiled in their intensifying rivalry.
Yet for all Xi’s careful treading around its high politics, this is now the region where many of the most significant shifts in China’s global security role are underway. The last 18 months alone have seen a number of important firsts: an agreement to build the first Chinese overseas naval base in Djibouti, the first non-combatant evacuation by PLA-Navy vessels in Yemen, the first deployment of a battalion of combat troops for peacekeeping in South Sudan, and the first confirmed kills by Chinese drones, with the Iraqi army’s strikes on ISIS targets in Ramadi. Go further back and you also have the first deployment of Chinese warships for military operations outside Asia in the Gulf of Aden, and the first use of PLA naval assets to support a civilian evacuation in Libya. Another even more dramatic first has been under discussion in Beijing recently: whether the PLA should involve itself directly in military actions against ISIS in Syria.