LONDON (Reuters) - China’s likely sale of sophisticated missiles to Turkey over the objections of its NATO allies might have angered Washington and other capitals, but it should not have been a surprise.
Even as the U.S. has spent billions of dollars and lost hundreds of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, Beijing has been quietly upping its presence in the Middle East.
Militarily, the U.S. - which maintains a permanent aircraft carrier presence near the Gulf as well as dozens of other warships and major bases in Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates - is by far the dominant regional power.
China has tended to follow Russia’s lead on the Middle East, sometimes appearing sidelined on issues such as Syria.
Beijing’s economic, political and diplomatic clout, however, is growing fast. China’s Ministry of Commerce said last month China-Arab nation trade now reaches $222 billion a year, 12 times its 2002 level. That would outstrip U.S.-Mideast trade, valued at $193 billion in 2011.
Militarily too, China’s footprint is rising. As well as maintaining a three-ship antipiracy task force in the Indian Ocean and occasionally sending ships to the Mediterranean, Beijing has deployed UN peacekeepers to Lebanon.
Turkey’s choice of a $3.4 billion deal to acquire the Chinese FD-2000 missile defence system rather than rival U.S. or European systems may be a sign of things to come.
“It is a wake-up call,” said Christina Lin, a former U.S. official and now fellow at the School for Advanced International Studies who last year briefed the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs on the issue. “China is looking to get a lot more involved in the Middle East and is being increasingly accepted there.”
China’s interests in the region, she said, ranged from energy and investment to countering the spread of jihadist militancy, a major worry for Beijing in its Muslim provinces.
The firm that makes the missile system, China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corp (CPMIEC) is under US sanctions for violations of the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act. While Turkish officials said the deal was not yet officially finalised, it was likely to go through.
U.S. and other NATO officials complain it may not be compatible with other NATO systems and may increase the risk of cyber attack or other interference across the alliance. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Western states were overeacting to what was essentially simply a commercial decision.
Mixing commerce and geopolitics, experts say, is at the heart of Beijing’s approach. Chinese officials have become regular visitors to most Mideast states while a range of regional leaders including Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah have all visited China.
The aftermath of the “Arab Spring” and Washington’s abandonment of longtime proxies such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, some analysts say, has left some governments keen to find alternative allies. Even longtime U.S. partners feel the draw.
“I personally have close friendly relations with various Chinese leaders, current and former,” Jordan’s Abdullah told Chinese media last month. “We are interested in building on this relationship... because China plays a vital role in promoting world peace and stability and has an influential role in regional issues.”
Beijing has long been a major supplier of small arms to the region - the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute this month reported 2006-10 sales to Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Qatar. Still, the Turkish deal is seen as a major breakthrough for its advanced weapon sales.
China’s soaring energy needs are seen as a major motivator, coming just as the U.S. gets closer to energy independence and budget constraints and public reluctance hit its military presence.
The International Energy Agency expects China’s Mideast oil imports to grow from 2.9 million barrels per day in 2011 to 6.7 million in 2035, a projected 54 percent of total Chinese oil imports.
Already, Chinese national oil companies are amongst the biggest players in Iraq and Iran and Beijing is both Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner and the biggest single purchaser of Iran’s crude.
That purchasing power has effectively allowed China and other Asian powers to determine how successful U.S. and European sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program can be.
In the long run, some analysts suggest Beijing’s oil needs could actually bring it closer to the West, particularly on Iran. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute says Chinese defence sales to Tehran have already notably fallen.
“If Washington (were to) substantially reduce its military presence in the region, oil security concerns might compel Beijing to play a larger role in defusing the primary threat to the free flow of oil - the closure of the Strait of Hormuz,” former CIA energy analyst Erica Downs told a congressional probe into Chinese trade practices earlier this year.
China’s regional ambitions, however, go well beyond defence deals and oil. While some 75 percent of U.S.-Mideast trade remains energy-related, China has deliberately diversified and says more than half its regional trade is now non-energy.
Last month, China hosted a five-day China-Arab States Expo in Its north-west Ningxia Hui Autonomous region.
“Though the trade growth is fast, there is still room for improvement,” Zhu Weilie, director for the Centre for China-Arab States Co-Operation Forum Studies told Xinhua. “The two sides should enhance mutual trust to improve communications in political, economic and cultural fields.”
Infrastructure projects have been a major focus. Port operator Cosco owns part of Egypt’s Port Said container terminal. Rail ventures include Medina to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Mediterranean to Red Sea in Israel and Ankara to Istanbul in Turkey.
In the longer term, there is also talk of linking Turkey and Central Asia to China by rail, providing Chinese goods access to Europe through what some analysts call “a new Silk Route”.
Ultimately, Chinese investment may prompt the kind of backlash already seen in Africa. Its attempts to befriend everybody may also prove unsustainable - its stance on Syria has already irritated some Gulf states and prompted an angry protest at its embassy in Libya.
For now, however, it remains broadly welcomed. In July, a Pew Centre survey showed China viewed more positively than the U.S. in every Mideast state except Israel.
“If you talk to diplomats in the Gulf, they are very impressed,” former U.S. official Lin said. “Chinese ambassadors in the region tend to speak very good, classical Arabic while the Americans still expect everyone to talk in English.”
Editing by Anna Willard