Asia China Diplomacy & International Relations Politics & Government US

How China Uses “Promise Diplomacy” to Get What It Wants 

The Chinese government is showing particular interest in Afghanistan and Syria, two states in which China sees ample opportunities and dire economic needs that it can exploit.

Matthew Dodwell is a guest author at the Journal. He graduated with a  Masters in International Relations from The University of Melbourne, where he focused  on security issues in the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific. All views expressed in this article are strictly that of the author’s.

While the United States and its Western allies are looking for ways to safely pull out from the Middle East without disengaging from the region entirely, China is busy ramping up diplomatic efforts to increase its influence in the area, strike a blow to America’s prestige, and highlight Washington’s waning hegemony. In particular, Xi Jinping is interested in developing partnerships with states and actors where foreign direct investment is both attractive to the host country and provides ample strategic opportunities for the Chinese. The Chinese government is showing particular interest in Afghanistan and Syria, two states in which China sees ample opportunities and dire economic needs that it can exploit.

There are many instances where China has invested in its partner countries through its Belt and Road Initiative. This “promise diplomacy” has afforded China a significant increase in influence across the Middle East through alliances and partnerships with a distinct diplomatic and rhetorical pivot away from America and its NATO allies. Promise diplomacy is a tool Beijing uses to extract benefits, build leverage, and gain influence. However, there is also a history of China falling short on their promises to invest in economically-impoverished areas一that is, China can reap the benefits of promise diplomacy without necessarily having to pay the price.

In 2015, China signed an economic corridor agreement (CPEC) with Pakistan, and the two have since allied, thus wedging India (China’s regional nemesis) between them. Although CPEC’s flagship project Gwadar Port is complete, many other projects in the corridor have stalled. It would seem that the Chinese Government achieved its principal objective in Pakistan and is wiping its hands of the rest of its projects, while Pakistan continues to support China. Beijing also signed a Strategic Cooperation Agreement with Tehran earlier this year, promising up to $800 billion into Iran in return for cheap access to oil. Many have noted that the agreement appears to be non-binding and there has been no money actually committed to any investments in Iran, but China is already buying up Iranian oil. The Belt and Road Initiative is notorious for benefiting China more than the recipient country, but it is likely that Tehran is suffering from Western sanctions too much to care about the inequality of the deal. 

Now China is turning its attention to new power vacuums in the Middle East. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently met with the Taliban after they declared Beijing a “welcome  friend,” and is taking steps to encourage the world to normalise relations with the Taliban. Similarly, in Syria, Wang became the first foreign dignitary to visit President Bashar al-Assad after his recent contested re-election. Fortunately for Beijing, this interest is not one-sided, as the Taliban and Assad are both vying for China’s favor in an attempt to rebuild their broken countries.

Decades of conflict have devastated Afghanistan’s economy and infrastructure, and although the U.S. has withdrawn from the current war, the situation has exponentially deteriorated. Despite Afghanistan’s reliance on international aid, assistance will almost certainly be withdrawn now that the Taliban has taken control of the country. Likewise, Syria has been under heavy sanctions from the international community, and a decade of civil war has obliterated its economy. Both Assad and the Taliban need legitimacy to shore up their control over their people and position themselves as equals with the rest of the international community, and they can achieve this by allying themselves with a global superpower that is decidedly not the U.S.

China has built itself up as the antithesis of the United States, and projects itself as a power that respects the sovereignty of other states. Beijing exerts power and influence primarily through economic means rather than military means, and has often advocated for less intervention in other countries’ internal affairs. Having funded vast infrastructure projects across the globe, it is well-placed to invest billions into Afghanistan and Syria if it so desires. Currently, any investment in the two states will be filled with great risk and little monetary return compared to some of China’s other Belt and Road projects. However, China will be interested in investing for the purpose of garnering influence over and support from Assad and the Taliban, the access to key industries and infrastructure, and the prestige of power within the Middle East. In return, Assad and the Taliban see China’s friendship as a means to rebuild their war-torn countries, restart their economies, and gain support amongst their people. China’s friendship can also be used as a shield: as long as Assad and the Taliban are within China’s sphere of influence, the West is less likely to take action against them for fear of Chinese retribution. 

The Taliban sees China as a way to get much-needed investment into their country, and they have already pledged protection for Chinese investors and  workers. Although the situation is too volatile for major construction projects, China has already made its ambitions for Afghanistan clear. In return for Beijing’s friendship and the promise of investments, the Taliban is willing to look the other way with China’s treatment of its Muslim Uyghur population. Although the Taliban has a history of oppressing its population and committing numerous human rights abuses, their ideology is based on following an extreme interpretation of religion. In the Xinjiang region, reports claim that Beijing is oppressing its Uyghurs under the guise of counter-terrorism, including through the use of indoctrination camps, cultural persecution, and the destruction of mosques. By preventing Uighur Muslims from following their religious beliefs, China is acting against the Taliban’s values in Xinjiang. Despite this being an issue one would expect the Taliban to feel strongly about, they have promised to keep out of China’s internal affairsーparticularly in Xinjiang.

Beijing is interested in Afghanistan because of its largely unexploited natural resources and its location. The two states share a small land border in the Muslim-majority Chinese province of Xinjiang, and a war-torn Afghanistan is a breeding ground for terrorism that could easily spill across the border into Xinjiang and create security problems for Beijing. The Taliban values friendship and closer ties with China, and sees potential in the possible investments that the Chinese Government is touting, even if that means denouncing the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM)ーa Muslim Uyghur extremist group in Xinjiangーand preventing  them from operating in Afghanistan. 

In Syria, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Assad to offer support in  managing Syria’s “domestic affairs” and in opposition to  any “foreign interference,” ostensibly referring to the United States and the other Western powers backing the various belligerents of the Syrian Civil War. In doing so, Beijing gave Assad legitimacy, particularly after most of the world rejected Syria’s election results, and gave explicit support to Assad’s regime in the civil war. Beijing has also used Syria as another opportunity to counter US global power. Assad has declared himself as the only man who can rebuild Syria, and the possibility of doing that with the help of the Belt and Road Initiative may give him legitimacy amongst his constituents/citizens and support for his authoritarian regime. 

It will take a long time for the situation in Syria to settle and for any investment projects to begin, but China now has goodwill with Assad and is well-placed to capitalize on this opportunity in the future if Assad emerges victorious from the civil war. There is much money to be made rebuilding Syria, and Beijing is unsurprisingly eying Syria’s Mediterranean coast, where the Chinese government seeks to extend its influence. With a presence on the edge of Europe, China has a platform to assert itself into eastern Europe and cause divisions within the European Union, and be well-placed to challenge NATO. Beijing may even extend itself to providing military support to ensure Assad emerges victorious from the civil war and Beijing gains a foothold in Syria. After all, the Chinese Foreign Minister considers Assad’s enemies to be ‘terrorists’, and during his visit, he confidently stated that China is “willing to strengthen cooperation with Syria to help improve its  anti-terror capabilities.” 

Even if Wang’s talk is mere rhetoric, China has already scored diplomatic gains. Assad has affirmed his support for Beijing’s stance on Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang, which gives China more legitimacy over its actions and extends its own coalition of supporters. Furthermore, Beijing may see Assad’s goodwill as an opportunity to rid itself of the ETIM fighters embedded in the conflict in Syria. Many Chinese Uyghurs have traveled to Syria to fight under ETIM’s “Turkestan Brigade” banner, possibly posing a grave threat to China’s national security if they return home to Xinjiang. It is thus possible that ETIM forces may find themselves particularly targeted by Assad’s troops.

Beijing has made promises of support and investment in return for Afghanistan’s and  Syria’s friendship. But despite Beijing’s rhetoric, the promised investments have not started flowing yet and likely will not for some time. Beijing is exploiting the political vacuum and the absence of economic resources in Afghanistan and Syria to extract favour in return for the mere promise of Chinese investments.

China’s promise diplomacy ought to make the West nervous. China is gaining influence across the Middle East (and the world) through alliances, partnerships, and its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Promise diplomacy is yet another tool Beijing can use to expand its sphere of influence一and quickly. China can benefit immediately without needing to first follow through with its commitments, and it can do so in many areas at once without the risk of overreach. This puts it at an advantage over the West, particularly after the West has damaged its reputation in the Middle East and is now struggling to build any positive rapport in the region.

There is no reason to believe that Beijing will invest in Syria and Afghanistan, especially with such deteriorated security situations. Both Assad and the Taliban could look to Pakistan and Iran as evidence that Beijing does not always back its promises with actions.

The West should be alert to China’s growing involvement and increasing influence in the Middle East. China is in the process of building an anti-American coalition of states that can become a serious challenge to the West and the international order. Beijing is quietly buying support and legitimacy for its actions at home, subduing threats to its crackdown on its Uygur population, and is now positioning itself to have control over vital oil supplies and a Mediterranean port to house its navy on Europe’s doorstep. But most shockingly: it has barely cost Beijing a cent to achieve some of these diplomatic victories.

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By Matthew Dodwell

Matthew Dodwell graduated with a Masters in International Relations from The University of Melbourne where he focused on security issues in the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific.

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