China and the Arab Awakening

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GR:EEN Policy Brief 4
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China’s active involvement in the MENA region is a relatively new phenomenon. Indeed, perhaps it is the speed at which China has emerged as an important external actor in the region from a relatively  peripheral  position  that  explains  at  least  some  of  the  concern about what this might mean for existing powers. That China is  not  only  competing  with  others  (including  major  western  powers)  economically  in  the  region,  but  also  takes  a  (relatively)  firm stance  on  non-infringement  of  sovereignty  probably  explains  the rest  of  the  concern.  Within  the  region  itself,  however,  China’s emergence  has  been  largely  welcomed.  Lacking  the  historical baggage  of  previous  colonial  powers  and  not  promoting  a  preferred normative basis for international relations and/or domestic economic  and  political  governance,  China’s  presence  in  the  region seems to have been largely welcomed – not least as a counterweight  to  American  power  and  an  antidote  to  a  militarily backed  superpower  presence.  China  has  even  managed  to  develop  extensive  ties  with  Israel,  particularly  in  the  latter’s  provision  of  military  hardware  and  equipment  to  the  former,  without losing its image as being essentially pro-Palestinian. The Arab Awakening might not have derailed Chinese policy, but it  has  resulted  in  some  important  changes  in  both  thinking  and  strategy. Immediately, and most clearly, this was more to do with domestic Chinese politics than politics within the region itself, and concerns about potential spillovers of discontent into China. Over the  longer  term,  crises  within  the  region  have  highlighted  potential  tensions  between  the  underlying  principles  that  supposedly inform  Chinese  diplomatic  positions  and  a  more  pragmatic  approach  that  takes  into  account  Chinese  commercial  interests overseas.  It  also  perhaps  suggests  that  while  China  clearly  has interests  in  the  region  and  is  a  regional  actor,  it  seems  primarily focused  for  the  time  being  on  its  own  Asian  regional  concerns than on extra-regional and/or global leadership