Beijing's westward pivot will make the Gulf a critical ally
China has long billed itself as the largest developing country in the world, yet it has a complicated relationship with non-western countries.
Under the late dictator Mao Zedong, the country was mainly interested in supporting revolutionary insurgents around the world. After the reformer Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1979, he shifted the focus of Chinese foreign policy. Realising the indispensability of western capital, technology, and markets, Deng made Chinese foreign policy Western-centric.
Thirty-four years and three changes of leadership later, Beijing seems to be focusing its attention increasingly on the developing world. This was reflected in the itinerary of the first overseas trip taken last month by Xi Jinping, the newly installed chief of the Communist Party.
While his choice of Moscow as the first stop was not unusual (his predecessor also picked Moscow as the first foreign destination in 2003), Mr Xi took the unprecedented step of becoming the first Chinese leader to visit Africa on his maiden diplomatic foray. He visited South Africa, Tanzania and Congo.
Two motives lie behind China's embrace of these resource-rich countries.
The first is obviously China's continuing quest for resource security. China may have grown rapidly since Deng opened its doors to the outside world, but the country is still in the middle of an industrial revolution. Its per capita consumption of energy, steel and other commodities is a quarter to a tenth of that of developed countries. Even if its economy slows down to between 5 and 7 per cent growth per year, it will still need to import huge quantities of raw materials and energy for decades to come.
The second motive is geopolitical. Mr Xi's trip to Moscow was meant to underscore the strategic importance of Sino-Russian ties. Russia is not only China's biggest arms supplier, but also a close diplomatic partner. The two countries have cast nearly identical votes in the United Nations Security Council in recent years. In February last year, they shocked and angered the West by jointly vetoing a UN resolution on Syria. China and Russia resent the West's democracy and human rights agenda, and so are ideological allies even though one does not fundamentally trust the other.
The burgeoning ties with developing countries, from Africa to the Middle East, are more complicated.
For China, key African countries are not just depositories of natural resources. They are useful diplomatic allies. South Africa, for example, is key to China's efforts to bolster its image in Africa, and its president, Jacob Zuma, has not disappointed Beijing.
Mr Zuma has publicly defended Chinese investments and business practices in Africa. Even less influential African countries may be valuable partners. By deepening its ties with such countries, China may be able to count on their support in its future quarrels with the West over human rights and sovereignty issues.
Where does the Arabian Gulf fit in China's emerging new diplomacy? Based on the recent flurry of diplomatic activities involving the Gulf and China (Chinese premier Wen Jiabao visited three Gulf states in January last year and the speaker of the Federal National Council of the UAE, Mohammed Al Murr, met last week in Beijing the head of the Chinese parliament), the Gulf remains an essential part of China's resource-focused diplomacy.
China, already the world's largest importer of crude oil, depends on the Gulf for 44 per cent of its oil imports.
Given the worsening air-pollution in China, Beijing must also find the Gulf's abundant natural gas supply attractive. To be sure, China has massive deposits of shale gas, but the geological challenges, lack of infrastructure, scarcity of water and uncertain property rights make it unlikely that China will start tapping into its shale gas as a source of energy any time soon.
In the meantime, any sensible Chinese official in Beijing knows that he must get his hands on as much clean natural gas as possible. Compared with Russian gas, which will not start shipping until 2018, gas from the Gulf can be imported immediately.
To some, Beijing may even have a long-term military design on the Arabian Gulf. With its growing military might, China will naturally want to protect its own energy sources. However, it is unlikely that Beijing would risk confronting the Americans by deploying its navy to the Gulf (at the moment, it simply does not have a blue water navy capable of being deployed far away from China). The Chinese are experienced free-riders. As long as the United States is keeping the international shipping lanes open for them, China needs not waste its own money duplicating the task.
To be sure, the implementation of this pragmatic resource-focused diplomacy occurred some time ago. But Mr Xi's deliberate choice of resource-rich African countries as his first overseas stops suggests Beijing intends to double down on its strategic bet.
It is impossible to predict whether such a gamble will pay off for China. But one thing is certain: resource-rich countries, those in Africa and the Arabian Gulf, will greatly benefit from the rising competition for their products caused by Beijing's new diplomatic strategy.
Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States
Updated: April 4, 2013 04:00 AM