By Jackson Kwok, a former intern with the Lowy Institute's East Asia Program
China's state-owned news outlets used President Xi Jinping's first tour of the Middle East, which kicked off in Saudi Arabia last week and also included visits to Egypt and Iran, as an opportunity to espouse the merits of ‘Xi-style diplomacy’. While the reality may be that China will remain primarily an economic partner in the region, as opposed to a diplomatic mediator, at home China's growing influence in the region was enthusiastically feted. One editorial praised Beijing’s balanced approach, claiming that ‘China is perhaps the only great power that can still receive a red carpet welcome in both Saudi Arabia and Iran.’
President of China Xi Jinping and President of Iran Hassan Rouhani in Tehran (Phot: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
State-owned news outlets sought to highlight the positive role China is playing in the region. A commentary published in People’s Daily on Tuesday, the day China's leader arrived in Saudi Arabia, praised Xi’s tour for ‘injecting positive energy into the peaceful development of the Middle East.’
China’s position as both a member of the UN Security Council and as a responsible great power was cited to explain its increasing influence. An opinion piece by the former Chinese ambassador to Iran argued that Beijing’s deepening engagement with the Middle East was ‘commensurate with China’s expanding role in international platforms, where Beijing will and should assume more responsibilities.’
Foreign concerns about potential Chinese expansion were given short shrift. An editorial in the state-aligned Global Times stated that China did not aim to either convert its growing influence into a geopolitical hedge against the US, or compete for regional hegemony with other great powers. Instead, ‘China aims only to construct harmony, resolve differences, and build peace and stability.’ A few days later, another report claimed concerns about China replacing the US in the region were overstated.
Nevertheless, state media has sought to portray Beijing as an attractive alternative to Washington for future economic cooperation and strategic partnership. China’s policy of ‘involvement, not interference’ was juxtaposed against the ‘selfish interests’ of the US and the West. An article published in Xinhua claimed that ‘Western countries have exported arms and unrest to the Middle East in order to seize its oil; only China has brought the economic development initiatives that we all desire.’
China’s first ‘Arab Policy Paper’ released earlier this month asserted that China respects the right of Arab countries to ‘develop along lines according to their own national circumstances.’ In contrast to the West, perceived to have tried and failed to impose liberal democracy in the region, the paper stated: ‘China does not seek to impose its own values on the Middle East.’ Instead, China’s role as a responsible great power is primarily presented through economic and energy cooperation. In April last year, China overtook the US as the world’s biggest importer of crude oil. Saudi Arabia is Beijing’s largest provider of oil imports, and Iran’s location at the crossroads of the ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative is critical to China’s economic ambitions.
According to Beijing’s narrative, the peace and stability desired in the Middle East will be established through economic development. As vice foreign minister Zhang Ming said earlier this week at a press conference, economic development remains the ‘ultimate way out’ of conflict in the region.
State media reports have hinted at increased diplomatic involvement in conflict resolution but details remain vague. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Wednesday that China is looking to ‘promote peace talks in Yemen.’ China’s constructive role during the Iran nuclear negotiations have also been lauded. But the underlying message is that China should avoid falling into the trap of regional turmoil and conflict.
As a result, the issues of counter-terrorism and security have also been largely overlooked. An opinion piece published in Global Times late last week argued that Iranian cooperation is vital to containing the spread of religious extremism into the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. This was a a rare foray into the subject of security cooperation.
State-owned news outlets used Xi’s tour to send a strong message to domestic audiences: China’s diplomatic influence is increasing and this is welcomed by the international community. According to state media, China’s principle of mutually beneficial cooperation is transforming the international system. A commentary piece in People’s Daily argued that ‘today, China’s diplomacy has a global perspective, an enterprising consciousness, and a pioneering spirit. It has injected positive energy into the system of international relations.’
Such claims aim to reassure audiences that China’s process of national rejuvenation is progressing steadily. Allusions to the historical Silk Road are ubiquitous in state media reports. The Silk Road serves not only as a metaphor for friendly exchange between China and the Arab world, but also as a symbol of China’s past glory and prosperity. The Chinese public has been reminded that Xi and the CCP leadership are gradually steering the nation back to its rightful place on the world stage as a strong and respected global power.