Is China Pivoting to the Middle East?

Chinese people have begun casting their gaze westward. But will the government follow suit?

abdullahxi.jpgSaudi Arabia's King Abdullah meets with then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 2008 (Reuters)

By the time Pan Jiangjiang graduated from China's Zhejiang University in 2009, the environmental engineering major had decided that graduate school was the logical next step. Less conventional was his destination: Thuwal, a small Saudi Arabian town on the Red Sea. The new, cash-rich King Abdullah University of Science and Technology there had waived tuition for young, international talent like him, and had recruited the world's leading engineering professors.

Though Pan had accepted the offer without hesitation, he never expected to stay long, owing both to culture shock and longing for home. However, more than 15 months after the program ended, Pan remains in Riyadh as one of two Chinese employees at a think-tank specializing in energy and environmental issues. He has even considered bringing over his girlfriend of almost two years, who now works in Beijing. "Down the road I want to work for a Chinese oil and gas company, advising its Saudi strategy," said Pan, adding that he wouldn't mind working for China's top economic planning agency, either.

Thanks to Pan's Saudi experience, he'll likely have the chance. In recent years, trade and investment between China and Saudi Arabia has exploded. The Gulf monarchy became China's largest oil supplier in 2002, and now provides the country with one-fifth of its oil imports. China, Saudi Arabia's largest trading partner, has returned the favor with cheap, manufactured goods and a stream of sophisticated technicians.

Because of those growing ties, engineers like Pan are now almost guaranteed a promising career back home in China. But even as Chinese citizens and businesses have turned their attention westward towards the Middle East and Central Asia, seeking jobs, new markets and a share of the natural resources in those regions, some prominent voices in China argue that government policy has not followed suit. And that, they say, must now change.

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"While the U.S. pivots east, and Europe, India and Russia also eye the East, China should have a strategic plan of 'Marching West,'" wrote Beijing University professor Wang Jisi last October in the state-run Global Times.

"The U.S. is a two-ocean country, while China is a one-ocean state, so why should we not make use of the land connections we have on our western border?"

The United States is winding down its war in Afghanistan and President Obama has called for a "pivot to Asia," which will refocus American attention on the Pacific. With that backdrop, Wang's strategy might appear to be an attempt to fill the gap left by the United States in Central Asia and the Middle East and eventually replace it as the dominant power. In January, the Brookings Institution published an article comparing the proposal to Mao Zedong's war strategy: "Where the enemy advances, we retreat. Where the enemy retreats, we pursue."

"The underlying 'retreat-pursuit' philosophy of 'March West' still anchors on a zero-sum perception of the U.S.-China relations," wrote author Yun Sun. "As the U.S. pivots away from the region and becomes deeply immersed in Asia Pacific, it needs to seriously consider the implications of and prepare for China's 'March West'."

But Wang, who once taught at the elite Central Party School, a finishing school for China's ruling class, rejected that view. Speaking over the phone, he argued instead that China must "adopt an active attitude" towards the countries to its west because of its own internal needs.

"Look back to China's history, most of the capitals in Chinese dynasties were in central China, not on China's coast," he said. "So the 'March West' is primarily to re-balance China's domestic economic development. The U.S. is a two-ocean country, while China is a one-ocean state, so why should we not make use of the land connections we have on our western border?"

Those connections grew rapidly over the past decade. Since 2003, Chinese trade with South Asia and West Asia grew nearly thirty-fold, while trade overall increased just seven times. And since 2006, China's trade with Arab countries grew 50 percent faster than overall numbers, according to the state statistics bureau.

Wang and other experts agreed that if China's move westward brings it into contact with American interests, the relationship is more likely to be complementary than acrimonious. Wu Bingbing, a colleague of Wang's at Beijing University, argued that the two powers have historically used Middle East policy to patch over their differences.

The Gulf War, for example, had distracted the U.S. enough from its relations with Beijing to warm back up after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, he said, and following the jet collision incident in 2001 near Hainan Island in the South China Sea, the two countries repaired ties through joint anti-terrorism efforts. Rather than compete in the region, Wu suggested, China's recent history with managing a turbulent low-wage economy may help countries where the U.S. simply cannot.

"The Middle East's economy, unlike U.S.'high-technology and innovation-driven economy, is more akin to China's," said Wu. "In terms of dealing with its massive unemployment and driving a large economy, it needs China's experience."

"The greatest beneficiary of our work, other than the Afghan people, is China."

Both Wang and Wu believe that close Sino-American contact will promote stability rather than competition. And nowhere have the two countries come in closer contact than Afghanistan, where American government officials helped Kabul negotiate with Chinese companies over major development contracts.

Beibei Bao, Charles Eichacker, and Max J. Rosenthal

Beibei Bao is a China analyst at the Rhodium Group. Charles Eichacker is a reporter based in New York City. Max J. Rosenthal is a freelance reporter

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