“Without attributing any geopolitical intention to Beijing, the visible facts make clear that China has the capacity to exercise strategic influence in the Middle East, and it has an unambiguous interest in maintaining stability,” I wrote in October 2013 under the rubric “A Pax Sinica in the Middle East?.” China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. “American commentators have regarded China as a spoiler, the source of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons technology, Iran’s ballistic missiles, and other alarming instances of proliferation. It is worth considering a radically different view of China’s interests in the lands between the Himalayas and the Mediterranean: no world power has more to lose from instability than does China.”

After America’s strategic retreat from the region, China has the capacity to play a important role–eventually, perhaps, a decisive role–but it is a very long way from doing so. On the surface, China appears preoccupied with formal recognition of its global role, offering for example to join the Middle East Quartet (of the US, EC, Russia and the UN) in sponsoring peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs. This is not a policy, but a placeholder for a policy. China has tried to balance its relations between the Sunni and Shi’ite states (Saudi Arabia is its largest oil supplier, but oil imports from Iran and its satellites Iraq and Oman are growing faster). It supplies weapons to both sides (more in quantity to Iran, better quality to the Saudis).

China would prefer that the unruly barbarians beyond its Western border calm down and enjoy the benefits of its One Belt, One Road program, but has little confidence that they will do so. Implicit in China’s proposed $46 billion infrastructure investment in Pakistan is the hope that Pakistan’s military–for whom China is chief weapons supplier–will impose order in a society that has no viable path to modernity. China is Iran’s largest trading partner, but it has scant means to dissuade the Islamic Republic from military adventurism. Turkey is a “strategic partner” and a key Western terminus for the One Belt, One Road projects, but China remains frustrated by Turkey’s continued sponsorship of Uyghur separatists in its West, as well as the erratic path of Turkish policy in general.

Economic influence, though, is not the same as geopolitical sway. Speculation about a Pax Sinica is premature. David Grammig, for example, writes, in the May 3 Geopolitical Monitor:

Just like the British Empire’s expansion was built on regional stability to pursue commercial interests, China also seeks political conditions where business and investment can thrive. Once China pours large sums into the region it is likely to protect these investments by buying the support of those responsible for conflicts that might threaten Chinese economic interests. The price Beijing will have to pay for peace is likely to be lower than losing crucial links along the Silk Road, making the whole project redundant. Peace and stability – even more so when it is paid for – will in the long run create economic growth and prosperity that many will not dare to jeopardize as long as China engages in overseas trade and business in the Middle East.

But prosperity is hardly the Islamic Republic’s first goal; if it were, Iran would not have suffered under sanctions in pursuit of nuclear weapons and its regional hegemonic ambitions. The British Empire exercised power not by benign offers of economic benefits, but by playing dirty, and often brutally. China does not have the means to do either in the Middle East for the time being. That may change, but it would be the first time in its history that China undertook such a role outside its borders. For the time being, China must simply hope that the Sunni-Shi’ite conflict does not grow to dimensions that would disrupt its economic plans. That is not a good policy, but it is the only one that China presently has.

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