Ignore Putin's Power Grab in Middle East, China's the One to Watch

The anxiety about Russia filling the American vacuum in the region is baseless. The real emerging power is China, whose winning influence through business, not bombing.

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At the gala Signing Ceremony of the Guangzhou Sino-Israeli Bio-Industry Investment Fund, Nov. 18, 2015.
China isn't trying to influence with its warships, but through economic power: At the gala Signing Ceremony of the Guangzhou Sino-Israeli Bio-Industry Investment Fund, Nov. 18, 2015. Credit: Shuki Gleitman

Here’s a lesson in Middle East power politics for dummies: American is retreating from the region, and Russia and Iran are filling the vacuum. Moscow is showing its teeth by sending bombers to Syria, and Iran now has the freedom and the money to do as it pleases, now that it has a nuclear deal with the West ending sanctions.

But the real Middle East isn’t a place for dummies. It is a place for religious fanatics and power-hungry autocrats -- and for doing business.

That commercial aspect often gets lost in the depressing bloody drip-drip of day-to-day events like stabbings, beheadings and bombings. But when you drill down, taking into account the big role economics plays in the region, the idea that Russia and Iran are emerging as the region’s new strongmen starts looking very doubtful. The real giant looming over the region is China.

The reasoning behind Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s decision to dispatch his air force to Syria has been subject to endless speculation – a distraction from his adventures in Crimea and the Ukraine, a bid to stop Islamic extremism from spreading to Muslim parts of Russia, worries that his friend Bashar Assad was on the verge of collapse and needed to be rescued, and/or the first step in a calculated plan to reassert the country’s role as a big player in the Middle East and its great power status.

Most of us think of the 1970s as a God-awful time of mediocre presidents, economic malaise and disco. But for Russians of Putin’s stripe it was an era of greatness, when the Soviet Union was a superpower almost on par with America. Putin would like to relive that.

Probably all of these factors played into Putin’s decision to go into Syria, but any one of them – especially the great power aspirations – show that Putin is a dummy when it comes to statecraft and the Middle East. 

A Russian fighter jet takes off from a runway in Syria, October 3, 2015.Credit: AP

Russia and little Russia

Putin presides over what for all intents and purposes is an undeveloped economy, reliant on producing and exporting energy with some weapons and nuclear-power technology thrown in. Russia’s economy is shrinking and so is its population. It has no soft power assets to market, whether ideology or culture.

It can offer military might, as Putin's foray into Syria demonstrates. But for anyone who doesn’t have enemies to destroy or weapons to buy, Russia has little to offer by way of trade, investment or technology.  

But, even on Putin’s terms, Russia’s anemic economy severely constrains its ability to supply military services, and will deprive of it of the staying power to fight for its friends on the size and scale that American does.

In this context, Iran is a little Russia. It has no air force to speak of, so it’s dispatched Revolutionary Guards to Iraq and Syria, but that hasn’t won it any decisive victories. Iran’s main economic asset, like Russia’s, is confined to energy exports and its soft power as the champion of Shia Islam has limited appeal in a mostly Sunni Middle East. It doesn’t begin to have the kind of economic might that could let it throw its weight around like the Gulf powers do.

Repairs at a Tehran oil facility: Iran doesn't have much soft power to export, mainly oil.Credit: AP

Now, let’s have a look at China. Beijing displayed a teensy bit of military muscle of late, sending a warship to the eastern Mediterranean last October, but it has a stayed as much as possible out of Middle East’s hopeless political and military crises. China’s real power is economic: Its trade with the Middle East has increased more than five-fold in the past decade. Bahrain, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia all import more from China than from any other country, and China is the top destination for exports from many countries in the region too, including Iran.

When China might send warships

In Israel, too, China’s presence is being felt without Beijing sending a single visiting warship to show the colors or a diplomat to solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Chinese companies are investing heavily in everything from high-tech to food manufacturing and insurance. They are winning infrastructure contracts, helping to fund research at universities and doing brisk trade, which last year added up to $8.8 billion.

With Russia, Israel’s dealings have been principally military, which is understandable now that Russian jets are flying sorties next door and Moscow has placed antiaircraft missile batteries that could pose a threat to Israeli military operations.

Russian tech investors have put some money in Israel, but it’s peanuts compared to the Chinese. Little business beyond that is happening, unless you count growing Israeli exports of fresh produce to Russia. A technology partnership like Israel is developing with China is unthinkable because Russia has neither the industry nor the markets to offer. Israel-Russian trade in 2014 was just $1.9 billion.

Between Russia and China, there’s no question who’s winning more influence and is here to stay in Israel and the Arab world. The only question is whether Beijing will complement its economic prowess by becoming a military and political player in the Middle East, too.

If China's going to send its warships anywhere, it will be to protect trading interests, not principles. And unlike Russia, it has the economic clout to do it properly.Credit: Jiang, Wikimedia Commons

Since the days of Mao, China has mostly kept to a policy of non-interference in other countries' affairs. But then again, until recently it wasn’t a major economic power with global interests to protect.

You can see how things will likely play out by watching developments in Sudan, which looks like the Middle East in miniature.

Sudan and the spinoff country South Sudan are relatively important suppliers of oil, accounting for about 5% China’s imports, and South Sudan has suffered violent political unrest that threatens to upset the energy supplies China is perpetually fearful of losing. So, for the first time this year, it contributed 1,000 troops to a South Sudan peacekeeping force.

China’s presence in Sudan is small change compared to what seasoned imperialists like America, Europe and Russia do all the time, but it’s a start. Military and political intervention in the Middle East, where the stakes are much higher, will inevitably come in their time. But unlike Russia, when China sends planes and ships, they will be backed up by economic interests and the wherewithal to make it real.

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