31 May 2018
China’s relations with the Middle East have evolved over a thousand years. Historically, the land-based and maritime Silk Roads provided the context for significant economic and cultural interchanges between peoples residing in large swathes of land from the Pacific to Central Asia and the Middle East. The re-emergence of China as a world power has revived interest in this topic, which is what this issue is devoted to.
A powerful force behind China’s new approach is the ‘One Belt, One Road’ (or the Belt and Road) initiative. Unveiled by President Xi Jinping in 2013, this is an ambitious drive to expand the region’s infrastructure to boost economic relations along the old Silk Roads. In Insight, Sara Hsu argues that despite the risks involved, this initiative is likely to be a win-win proposition. China’s promise of non-interference and funding for development projects is attractive at a time when MENA economies are either reeling from low oil prices or caught up in uncertainty after the Arab uprisings.
But does the flag follow trade here too or not? Growing economic interests in the region inevitably have geo-strategic implications. This is what the next three contributions address. Neil Quilliam predicts China will find it necessary to change its relationship with MENA from transactional to strategic. By contrast, Degang Sun maintains that such a transformation is already under way as China is no longer a ‘bystander’ but a ‘stakeholder’ in the region. Michael Singh addresses the same issue from a different perspective: increasing competition among great powers and a shift in the US defence policy could result in a power vacuum increasing the regional stakes for China in the long run.
The implications of such a transformation on specific regions and countries are of equal fascination. John W. Garver contrasts China’s approaches to regional politics in the Middle East with the South Asian-Indian Ocean regions. In the latter, China actively outmanoeuvres and encircles the Indian ‘tiger’, whereas in the former she exploits the advantages of ‘sitting on the mountain and watching the tigers fight’. Yitzhak Shichor underscores such pragmatism in China’s contradictory policy towards Israel: consistently supporting Palestinians through official UN channels, yet cooperating extensively with Israel in other fields (security, culture, science and technology, etc).
The last two pieces focus on cultural dimensions. Wen-chin Ouyang examines the encounters along the Silk Roads looking at how substantial two-way movements in people and objects over years brought with them everlasting influences in languages, stories, cuisines, music, visual sensibilities and cultural practices. The final piece by Xue Qingguo provides a rare insight into challenges of the translation of Arabic literature into Chinese over distinct phases, arguing that despite an established presence, efforts for translation of Arabic literature in China remain limited and suffer from many specific problems and difficulties.
Whatever one’s verdict on the transformation of the old into new Silk Road aspirations, we are indeed living in interesting times! We hope this issue – produced in collaboration with SOAS’s China Institute – will contribute to that interest.
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