China’s expanding geographic reach

China has moved forward and made its presence felt in the Muslim states of the Middle East

Shahid Javed Burki April 03, 2023
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank


A major change occurred in the political landscape of the Middle East when it was least expected. This has involved a series of steps taken by the authorities in Beijing. While the United States was involved in containing the expansionist Russia that invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, China, now under the leadership of the highly ambitious President Xi Jinping, moved forward and had its presence felt in the Muslim states of the Middle East. Xi has made it clear that unlike the United States, the government he heads will use economic power rather than force and intimidation to exert its influence in its neighborhood. That was the American way and it has not worked.

China brokered a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran. These two were long-time rivals in the area. Both were engaged in several proxy wars aimed at reducing the influence of each other. The two authoritarian states were also pursuing their rivalry concerning the reach of two sects of Islam — the Sunnis and the Shiites — that emerged soon after the death of Prophet Muhmmad (peace be upon him). Saudi Arabia followed and promoted in the Muslim world extremist Sunnism while Iran pursued the equally extremist Shiite faith. The proxy wars included Iran’s support of the Houthi rebels in Yemen while Saudi Arabia assisted the dissidents in Iraq and Syria.

China invited the senior leaders of Iran and Saudi Arabia to Beijing and worked on them to resolve their differences. The Chinese leadership persuaded the two sets of leaders to work constructively with one another rather than against each other. Riyadh and Tehran agreed and drew up a plan to establish diplomatic relations by opening each other’s embassies in the capitals of both countries. They also saw reason to bring long-lasting peace in the Muslim world. As I will suggest in a later article, this approach could significantly affect the area.

Iran was likely to follow the deal with Saudi Arabia with other Arab nations. Egypt appears to be next in line. Relations with Cairo were raptured after Egypt provided refuge to Raza Shah Pehalvi, the deposed Emperor of Iran, after the revolutionary clerics made it possible for the highly popular Ayatollah Khomeini to return to Tehran from exile in Paris where, fearing persecution at the hands of the Shah’s regime, he had lived for years in exile. He was received at the airport in Tehran by a large excited and cheering crowd that supported the establishment of an Islamic regime in 1979.

With the US attention turned towards Eastern Europe, with Washington using its military and economic power to keep Russia at bay, China took advantage of the American absence and advanced into the Middle East and the Muslim world in Western and Southern Asia. These were the areas from which China had stayed away until this time. The only exception was its growing involvement with Pakistan. The Riyadh-Tehran deal was a huge advance since it vindicated the idea that a maximum pressure of the type Washington had placed on Iran had largely failed. According to Sanam Vakil, the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a London-based research group, the American effort launched by former president Donald Trump to force Iran to give up its plans to develop a nuclear program and short-and medium range missiles had largely failed.

Instead of waiting for the West led by the United States to punish Iran into submission, several Arab states seemed to have embraced engagement, Ms Vakil said, adding: “It’s better to dialogue and incentivize Tehran, rather than live in the precipice of uncertainty and missile attacks.” For the government headed by clerics in Tehran, the gains from the China move are highly significant. Its legitimacy has been challenged at home by the launch of several noisy and bloody protests that erupted several months ago when a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, died in custody after being accused of violating country’s strict hijab laws. The regime feared isolation in the West as a result of its extraordinary crackdown on dissent. Of further worry to the West was the spread of the move to push women into social backwardness by the Taliban regime that took control of Afghanistan in August 2021. The Taliban moves occurred while the campaign to improve the social and economic situation of women had picked up a great deal of momentum in the United States.

Could Pakistan be next in line in suppressing the rights of women? Could the moves against women in Iran and Afghanistan — two of Pakistan’s four immediate neighbours — have consequences for the country? There could be an impact as the number of Afghan Pashtuns living in Pakistan continues to increase and their links with the extremist groups in the neighbouring country become more pronounced. More Afghan Pashtuns are arriving in Pakistan making their way through the porous border between the two countries. Pakistan has a majority of the world’s Pashtun population. With the migration of the members of this ethnic group from Afghanistan to Pakistan, some significant demographic changes are occurring in the country. One of them is to turn Karachi into the world’s largest Pashtun city, larger than Kabul and Peshawar.

Some of the Pashtuns who have drifted back into the country were expelled when the Pakistani military carried out an effective campaign against the Taliban who were operating from the bases in North Waziristan. They are now drifting back, targeting the military and the Shiite community. Could the Beijing-sponsored deal with Saudi Arabia and Iran bring peace and relative prosperity to the tribal belts in the areas that border Afghanistan and Pakistan? My answer to this important question is “yes”. It could happen if public polices in the Muslim world in the Middle East and West Asia focus on economic and social development rather than on the use of force and sanctions. Force or the threat of its use were the parts of the approach adopted by both the United States and the Jewish state of Israel. It has not produced the desired results. I will argue in the article to be published in this space next week that China could finance the development of land routes and ports in these areas to carry both imports and exports into the country. It has already made a start by investing in developing CPEC. The corridor could be extended beyond Pakistan’s borders into Iran and Afghanistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 4th, 2023.

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