China poised but not rushing to follow Russia plan for Middle East as Donald Trump's administration leaves vacuum by rushing out of Syria

South China Morning Post Dipublikasikan 04.10, 19/10/2019
China poised but not rushing to follow Russia plan for Middle East as Donald Trump's administration leaves vacuum by rushing out of Syria

Russia has moved quickly to step into the void left in the Middle East by the US' sudden withdrawal from Syria, but another world power is standing ready to seize the opportunities created by the major rebalancing under way in the region.

China, which has been making inroads into all the Gulf states through its Belt and Road Initiative, has tentatively welcomed a multilateral security vision put forward by Russia for the region - while remaining cautious over becoming entangled in its notoriously complex politics.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates this week were ostensibly about economics - with big-ticket investment agreements in energy, hi-tech and health care - but observers said they also underlined his geopolitical aims in the region.

Earlier this month, Putin described his "collective security" plan for the Middle East, which was submitted to the United Nations in July. Key to his proposal for a new security and cooperation organisation for the region is the participation of China and India, in addition to traditional geopolitical players from Europe and the United States.

Russia has moved quickly to fill the void left by the US after its sudden withdrawal from Syria. Photo: AFP

China has expressed openness to the proposal for the region. Beijing has a high stake in Gulf security due its dependence on crude oil imports, as well as belt and road agreements with eight states in the region, including Iran.

Last week Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that while specific information would need to be verified, "China welcomes all proposals and diplomatic efforts conducive to de-escalating the situation in the Gulf region".

His comments followed earlier remarks by foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, who said China "welcomes the relevant proposal of Russia" and "stands ready to step up communication and coordination".

China does not want to choose sides in the Persian GulfDegang Sun, Fudan University

"China champions a vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security," Hua said.

But while China is concerned about rising tensions and the knock-on effects to its security due to the waning position of the US in the region, it will be wary of signing on too quickly to a Russian vision, according to Middle East-China diplomacy expert Degang Sun.

"Russia's security proposal of multilateralism is in China's interest. However, China's concept of security is different to Russia's because they still have alliance politics, while China does not want to choose sides in the Persian Gulf," said Sun, who is a professor at Fudan University's Institute of International Studies in Shanghai.

Several investment agreements in the energy, hi-tech and health care fields were signed during Putin's visits to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Photo: Reuters

That meant China would have to "not just watch Russia's words, but their deeds" before joining any initiative, to ensure that it was in line with its stated spirit of multilateralism and "collective security", as opposed to veering into "zero-sum" politics or influence building, he said.

"The Chinese are very cautious in security proposals, because they want to have geoeconomic influence instead of geopolitical entanglement," Sun said, adding that this was acutely the case in the Middle East, "where China must not repeat the mistakes made by other outside powers" and "overstretch its power".

But other experts say China's growing engagement in the region through the belt and road strategy and trade interests makes it difficult to avoid becoming involved in geopolitics and security strategy.

Kevjn Lim, a doctoral researcher with the political science, government and international affairs school at Tel Aviv University, said "overlapping interests" between Russia and China in the region made their collaboration likely, even in terms of partnership with regional states related to security.

But a Russian "influence grab" in an area where China had carefully been cultivating ties through its belt and road plan could also "create friction" between the powers in the long term, he said.

"Until now, China has been the only major power and permanent member of the UN Security Council with good ties with regional adversaries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel," Lim said.

"While Russia is militarily stronger, China is exponentially richer. Russia's increasing diplomatic capital may alter that balance between both powers."

James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute, said recent events that had "undermined the US defence umbrella" in the region made this an opportune time for Russia to be advancing its geopolitical ambitions and could serve to make Russia's vision more appealing to China.

Among the actions eroding regional trust in US are the decision to withdraw remaining US troops from Syria earlier this month, a last-minute cancellation of an air strike on Iran in retaliation for downing a US surveillance drone in June, and US President Donald Trump's hedging on whether it would contribute any military might to back a hypothetical Saudi retaliation to what both countries characterised as an Iran-backed strike on Saudi oilfields last month.

While China is concerned about rising tensions in the Middle East it will be wary of signing on too quickly to a Russian plan for the region, observers say. Photo: EPA-EFE

"What all of that does to the Gulf and the larger Middle East is spark a process of a fundamental weakening of mutual security, so what Putin is doing with his proposal is stepping into the breach and coming up with a multilateral security approach that would include the United States, but where the United States would become one of many," Dorsey said.

"It serves Russian and Chinese goals, because they both want a multipolar world, where influence is shared," he said, noting that it would be a challenge for Russia to make its plan a reality.

Russia has no desire to be the sole regional guarantor in the Middle EastLi-chen Sim, Zayed University

Meanwhile, the US has been keeping a keen eye on how both countries are establishing themselves in the region, evidenced by a spate of expert testimonies presented this year to Congress, as well as Washington-based forums, on the subject.

In a speech at a think tank earlier this month, State Department official David Schenker said the US vision for the Middle East "stands in sharp contrast to the transactional relationships offered by Russia and China".

"Neither Russia nor China has shown a willingness, let alone a capability, to organise a collective effort to defeat a global threat," said Schenker, who is assistant secretary of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

But Li-chen Sim, assistant professor in the international studies department at Zayed University in the UAE, said that taking control to defeat a global threat on their own seemed far from the visions outlined by China or Russia.

"Russia has no desire to be the sole regional guarantor in the Middle East," she said, while China looked for security plans "inclusive of major and regional powers".

"Championing the creation of international coalitions of key states, including Russia, to tackle regional conflicts … is the modus operandi."

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