After courting China to secure infrastructure investment and revive the continent’s poor growth, many European Union (EU) countries — i.e. the ones most affected by mass migration from Africa and the Middle East — can hail Beijing’s recent pledge to boost humanitarian assistance with delight.
At the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last month, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang promised a further US$100 million in aid to contribute in solving the world migrant and refugee emergency. Li also hinted at the prospect of earmarking for this goal part of a $1 billion fund that China is to establish to bolster UN peace and development programs.
Furthermore, Beijing is moving forward with the registration of an 8,000-personnel permanent peacekeeping force at the UN, up from its current 2,650 troops, and taking steps to ensure US$100 million in military assistance for African Union peacekeeping operations in the next five years.
China is often criticized by the West for not committing itself sufficiently to tackle global crises. Now, it seems that China is ready to share the burden of settling challenging problems like mass migration, in line with its status of a great power.
EU-China converging interests
Li said at the UN summit that migration dynamics represented a threat to world stability and an instrument at terrorists’ disposal to realize their designs. Chinese and European interests could converge on that point. The European search for more Chinese involvement in humanitarian and security crises in the Mediterranean basin fits into the context of instability gripping the Old Continent and its neighborhood. Italy and Germany, which are struggling – albeit for different reasons – to handle migrant fluxes, are among the most eager EU countries to push for the Chinese engagement.
Europe is grappling with a growing influx of migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea from the coasts of North Africa and the Middle East to reach the continent. Most of them come from war-torn Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan, dictatorial regimes like Eritrea and poor and unstable countries in West Africa and the sub-Saharan region.
Mass migration along Europe’s southern border is an existential problem for the European bloc. It has accentuated the centrifugal tendencies at the core of the EU, which has coped for years with economic stagnation and geopolitical irrelevance.
Italy and Germany at the forefront
Southern Italy is one of the main entry points into Europe for migrants and refugees from around the Mediterranean. In early January, Italian Ambassador to China Ettore Sequi voiced Rome’s expectation that the Chinese presence in the Mediterranean would be increased. In his view, Beijing’s infrastructure foreign investment could help promote regional stability and contain migration there.
Chinese President Xi Jinping used similar words in a speech delivered at the headquarters of the Arab League in Cairo on January 21. Then, Xi stressed that development was the solution to calm turbulence in the Middle East. In accordance with China’s “Arab Policy Paper,” released a few days earlier, he underlined that his country would refrain from taking on the role of peace broker in regional disputes while privileging the economic, financial and infrastructure leverage to assert itself like a major global power.
Signs that China is expanding its investment policy toward the macro-region are quite evident. In the first three quarters of 2016, China’s foreign direct investment to the Middle East and North Africa topped US$13.2 billion, up from 2014 (US$12.6 billion) and in particular 2015 (US$8.7 billion), China Global Investment Tracker reports.
Germany’s attempt to engage China on Europe’s migrant policy focuses instead on humanitarian assistance. Berlin received the highest number of new asylum applications in 2015, among EU member states. In October last year, German Ambassador to Beijing Michael Clauss maintained that Germany and the EU would praise Chinese help, whether political or financial, in dealing with the migrant crisis. In doing so, the German diplomat noted that the international community would expect more financial commitment from China to managing the growing flow of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East and running the refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
At the time, Ambassador Clauss touched in reality a raw nerve. At the Syrian donor conference in London on February 4, China promised to donate 10,000 tonnes of food for Syrian refugees. During his tour of the Middle East in January, Xi pledged US$35 million in additional humanitarian aid to Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya and Yemen. Later in 2015, Beijing had allocated US$115 million to help improve the living conditions of refugees and the displaced people in the area.
By comparison with Japan, another Asian power, China lags far behind in terms of humanitarian assistance to the Middle East. Tokyo committed US$350 million in aid at the Syria donor conference, while it had pledged US$2.5 billion in non-military assistance, including support for countries hosting refugees from Syria and Iraq, to the region in January 2015.
Hard power still matters
In seeking a more proactive role of China in humanitarian support, Europe could play upon Beijing’s inevitable need to tie economic diplomacy and security engagement in the Mediterranean space. The former Middle Kingdom is the world’s largest importer of oil from the Middle East, which is also a transit space for its new Silk roads to Europe, and will have to protect both its investments and its nationals that work there and in North Africa.
In addition, the area between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf is a hotbed for Islamist extremism, as some ethnic Uighurs – a Turkic and Muslim minority coming from China’s Xinjiang region – have joined self-styled Islamic State or al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as al-Nusra Front) in Syria and Iraq. In the future, it is Beijing’s concern, these foreign fighters could become a threat to the nation’s internal security.
Now, China’s reluctance to shoulder global responsibilities is partially waning. Yet, the problem for the EU and its quest for more Chinese participation in the Mediterranean security affairs is that Beijing still has not managed to field a diplomatic conduct capable to survive the niceties of Middle Eastern politics. China’s diplomacy has so far faced many difficulties in achieving tangible results in a complex geopolitical chessboard like the Middle East, and the lack of military presence, which remains a key element of great power posturing, has hardly helped.
To date, Beijing is still an immature security provider outside Asia-Pacific, except when it comes to working within a multilateral diplomatic framework, as in the case of the deal that has limited Iran’s nuclear activities. The current political landscape in the Sub-Saharan Africa, which is ravaged by many conflicts and humanitarian crises despite the steady stream of Chinese investments, aids and loans, demonstrates that China’s trade and infrastructure diplomacy could encourage stabilization in a troubled region like the Eastern Mediterranean only in part.
For example, hard power is still needed to dismantle human-trafficking networks across North Africa and the Middle East, and it is doubtful that the Chinese leadership is able and, above all, willing to launch this sort of operations, which even the EU and Northern Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) appear hesitant to wage.