Tuesday, June 03, 2014

China and Islam

It is generally assumed that confrontations between Islam and the West are one of the most critical clashes of civilizations since the battle of Tours and Poitiers. However, China may emerge as another main collision counterpart to the Islamic world, because China has replaced the United States as the top oil importer of the world last September, before “overtaking” its GDP (“China surpasses US as biggest oil importer”; NewYork Post; October 10, 2013). This implies that China will have more contacts with Islamic nations overseas, and more frictions with them are expected as seen in Africa. This will undermine China’s self-assumed position as the liberator of Islam from Western dominance and the leader of developing nations. Also, the Chinese economy will be more vulnerable to political challenges in the Islamic sphere than the West.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency’s “China Country Report 2012”, main oil exporters to China among Islamic nations are Saudi Arabia (1st), Iran (3rd), Oman (5th), Iraq (6th), Sudan (7th), Kazakhstan (9th), followed by Kuwait (10th) and so forth (“Fueling a NewOrder? The New Geopolitical and Security Consequences of Energy”; BrookingsInstitution; April 15, 2014). So heavily dependent on Islam oil, China needs to adopt tightrope foreign and domestic policies in the Middle East and Central Asia, in order to secure its economic interests and strengthen its power on the global stage.

In the Middle East, China’s primary strategic focuses are Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Iran has been in close relations with China since the Islamic Revolution. However, it is an archrival against Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, and China needs to strike a subtle balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Unlike Israel that Tehran’s fears nuclear threats, Saudi Arabia worries Iran’s hegemony in the Gulf through Shiite encirclement from Iraq, Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, to its own eastern territory (“Next Test for Obama: Soothing the Saudis”; Los Angels Times; March24, 2014). In a military exercise this spring, Saudi Arabia demonstrated Dengfeng 3 ballistic missiles from China. Though Saudi purchased this missile in 1988, they kept it secret until this exercise. According to CIA, they imported more advanced Dengfeng 21 from China in 2007, which was not displayed in public yet (“Saudi missile parade a signal to Iran, Israelidefense expert tells ‘Post’”; Jerusalem Post; May 1, 2014).

Saudi Arabia is critically concerned with the Obama administration’s engagement with Iran. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had to soothe anxieties among Arab allies that the United States would not sacrifice security ties with Persian Gulf allies as it restarted nuclear talks with Iran, at the Gulf Cooperation Council this May (“Hagel Says Iran Deal Won’tWeaken Gulf Security”; Eurasia Review; May 15, 2014). There is nothing strange that Saudi Arabia turns to China as the security umbrella of the United States appears unreliable, and China needs oil from there. But is China really willing to get involved in geopolitical and religious rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Iran? Despite such a problem, China is in no position to behave  as a lovable and good customer of oil, while leaving dangerous responsibilities entirely to the United States, and to some extent to Britain and France, as Japan took it for granted from the 1960s to the 80s. China has to manage the power game in the region on its own, in order to augment influence and secure oil supply. Arms export is a key policy for these objectives.

Even a non-oil exporter like Turkey is a potential market for China’s arms export. Under Islamist Erdoğan administration, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu envisions Turkey at the heart of the Afro-Eurasian sphere, and moving closer to Islam and Asia, rather than the West, which is a deviation from Kemalism. China seeks more influence on a keystone country for its Middle East and Eurasian strategy. This is typically seen in the Chinese missile controversy between Turkey and its Western allies. The Chinese Precision Machinery Import and Export Corporation (CPMIEC) offered generous conditions to sell their anti-air missile systems, including lower price and less restrictive requirements for technological transfer. Western rivals such as Raytheon/Lochkeed Martin and Eurosam were about to be edged out by Red China, which could have dissolved the Trans Atlantic alliance. However, with pressures from NATO allies, Turkey’s missile deal with China was annulled (WhyTurkey May Not Buy Chinese Missile Systems After All”; Diplomat Magazine; May7, 2014). Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was involved in persuading Turkey to cancel the deal when he met Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan last October (“TurkeyCancelled the Missile Deal with China, due to the meeting with Abe?”; Xinhua News;October 31, 2013). However, the missile deal shows China’s formidable potential to penetrate defense markets in the emerging economies, according to Denise Der, Research Intern at the National Defense University.

Despite such a Great Leap Forward, China has an inherent disadvantage to tighten its grip on the Middle East. In the recent operation to search the missing Malaysian airliner in the southern Indian Ocean, China sent a huge squadron of 18 warships, coastguard vessels, a civilian cargo ship and an Antarctic icebreaker. It has become apparent that China needs overseas naval logistic network if it really were to be a blue water navy. China uses Australian ports for this mission, but most of the Indo-Pacific sea lane countries are allied with the United States (Search for MH370 reveals amilitary vulnerability for China”; Reuters News; April 22, 2014). More political and economic presence implies more contact with people in the region, which leads it more likely that Chinese are attacked by extremists. Despite rapid naval build up as shown in aircraft carrier Liaoning, poor backup will undermine China’s independent power projection capability in the Middle East.

Central Asia is landlocked and adjacent, thus, China does not have to worry about navy backup. However, China is already notorious for natural resource exploitation and environmental destruction in Africa, and even in the Far Eastern territory of Russia, its anti-Western comrade. More business with the Islamic sphere will cause more frictions between China and local people accordingly. This may have some impact on Xinjiang. Quite interestingly, Rabiya Kadeer, President of the World Uyghur Congress, comments that China takes repressive approaches to Uyghurs but not to other Muslim minorities so as not to offend Central Asian neighbors (“Incidents of unrest in the East Turkestanreflect a Uighur Awakening”; The New Turkey; November 6, 2013). How long can China adopt such a divide and rule approach in Xinjiang? Economic and cultural frictions with Central Asian residents can easily spill over into China’s north west frontier. Uyghur resistance is growing sharply this year (“Q & A: Xinjiang and tensionsin China's restive far west”; CNN; May 23, 2014). China’s gas guzzling economy can trigger further conflicts there.

The Sino-Islam clash will bring unprecedented uncertainties in the Middle East and Central Asia. Traditionally, China has assumed itself the leader of developing nations against Western imperialism, as typically seen in the aid to the TANZARA railway. But today, China is more likely to become another target of hatred among local extremists, along with the West. Remember that kaffirs are kaffirs for Islamic radicals, whether Christians or non-Christians, white or non-white. What influence will the clash bring to China’s relationship with geostrategic rivlals, primarily with the United States and Japan, and also, with Europe?