The world changed this past week in ways that it may take decades to fully appreciate. With the opening of its first overseas military base in Djibouti, China sent an unmistakable message that its role in the world is changing. The implications for the Middle East and Africa are immediate, but the larger message is that China is no longer pretending to be an inward-looking, exclusively Asian power.
Of course, that stance, one that dates back centuries in Chinese history, has largely been a fiction for decades. Since acquiring nuclear weapons in the 1960s and building an inter-continental ballistic missile capability that now includes submarines and land-based delivery systems and estimates exceeding more than 90 missiles capable of reaching the United States, the country has been a formidable global power for a long time.
Still, throughout the period since China first developed such capabilities, the country has maintained the stance that it did not have major international ambitions beyond serving its own economic growth. Quietly, however, it has been building its capacity in many areas including in terms of expanding its blue-water navy and building a substantial space programme.
However, as China’s economic interests have grown in far flung regions — today it is a top trading partner and investor in virtually every region of the world including the Middle East — it has begun to recognise the need to be able to protect those interests should the need arise.
In announcing the base, China sought to send a message that it was not about projecting force or Chinese influence. A foreign ministry spokesperson stated in a CNN report: “The completion and operation of the base will help China better fulfill its international obligations in conducting escorting missions and humanitarian assistance ... It will also help promote economic and social development in Djibouti." Meanwhile a state-run media outlet was more direct stating, “It is not about seeking to control the world.”
That said, the base gives China its first forward presence in the region. What is more, it comes during a week in which China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, made its first port of call outside of mainland China with a voyage to Hong Kong that sent several important regional messages. The ship sailed through the Straits of Taiwan sending a message to the Republic of China about its much larger neighbors increasing capabilities, it simultaneously offered a clear message about China’s growing ability to back-up its claims to territory in the South China Sea with force and it communicated Chinese strength to the people of Hong Kong with its visit. But the Liaoning sent a message about China’s growing global capabilities as well. Indeed, combined with the opening of the Djibouti base and with Chinese naval participation — also this week — in naval exercises in the Mediterranean it is clear that there has been a sea-change, both literal and figurative, both in China’s ability to project force and in the country’s willingness be much more forthright about its new role and possible intentions.
It is not news to the residents of the Middle East that China is playing a dramatically bigger role in the region. In the ten years between 2004 and 2014, trade between China and the Middle East has grown over six-fold according to the World Economic Forum. Saudi Arabia and Iran both sit on the board of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, the institution created by China that opened its doors in 2016. And in crucial security issues from Syria to Iran to Pakistan, China has played a more influential role than in the past. Indeed, from the dealing with Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles to the Iran nuclear deal, China has been an important player in way that is new for the Middle East.
What is more, it is clear that initiatives like China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative do not simply have economic or cultural goals. China is seeking to strengthen ties to vital trading partners and sources of vital resources via every means possible — and that includes having the ability to protect those ties. While Djibouti base is China’s first such overseas site, it almost certainly will not be the last. In fact, China’s government has promised to build other such bases “when necessary.” An often discussed site for the next such base also has implications for the Middle East, given its location in Pakistan — a country the Chinese see as a vital ally both in counterbalancing India and in ensuring access to the energy resources of the Middle East.
In short, when assessing the potential list of foreign powers that are in a position to exert influence in the Middle East in the years ahead it is clear that while the US may be more reluctant militarily and less dependent on energy, its role may be assumed at least in part by China. That is not to say China will replicate America’s approaches. It certainly will not. It will be less adventurous and less inclined to project its values or political beliefs on regional partners. Rather it will be as it has been in the past, dependably guided by fairly narrow self-interests. The difference will be that should those interests be challenged, China will have the military as well as economic leverage to defend them.
The geopolitics of the Middle East will never be the same again.
David Rothkopf is CEO of The Rothkopf Group, a columnist for the Washington Post, a visiting professor at Columbia University, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace