In her analysis of the first half of 2017, MERICS researcher Helena Legarda focuses on China’s increased presence in the Middle East, a region with which Beijing has traditionally had very limited ties. As the United States scales down its presence in the region under President Donald Trump’s America First agenda, Beijing is moving to fill the power vacuum by intensifying security diplomacy, mediation efforts, and a more regular military presence. China has also increased its investments in the region’s ports and infrastructure.
According to Legarda, the rationale for these activities lies in Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Beijing is investing heavily in BRI-related infrastructure, and a growing number of countries have signed up to the initiative.
The Middle East is located at the heart of this megaproject of maritime and overland transport links between Asia, Europe and Africa and thus requires China’s attention and involvement. China’s huge infrastructure push – mainly aimed at boosting its own domestic economy – could be hampered by instability in the regions involved.
A growing presence in the Middle East has many upsides for Beijing but also comes with increased risks. Beijing has little experience in international conflict resolution in the region and could become enmeshed in complex and politically charged disputes. These geopolitical risks can trip up efforts to turn China into an important global player.