After decades of distance, China is moving closer to the region’s sectarian feuds — and its vital oil reserves.
By Gal Luft
FOREIGN POLICY - January 26, 2016
At the start of 2016, prospects weren’t good for what would later become one of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s most consequential international tours. The January execution of leading Shite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the voice of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority, and the subsequent severing of diplomatic relations between several Sunni countries and Shiite Iran came at a particularly inconvenient time for Xi. His planned maiden trip to the Middle East was to include stops in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, all majority Sunni countries. Visiting Sunni leaders at a time of great tension with Shiite Iran would have created the impression that China supported one of the two major branches of Islam over the other, undermining Beijing’s long held policy of staunch neutrality in the Middle East. But postponing the visit for a second time in less than a year would have had consequences too. China had already called off a similar trip scheduled for spring 2015, after a Saudi-led coalition of Sunni states launched a military campaign in Yemen against the Houthis, an Iran-backed Shiite group. Since becoming president, Xi has visited almost every region of the world — but not the Middle East. The same is true for Premier Li Keqiang. Another delay would have signaled that regional spoilers could easily interfere with China’s foreign policy. Instead, Xi decided to use the crisis in the Muslim world as an opportunity to raise the curtain on China’s new Middle East strategy, one that finally involves China getting off the sidelines and plunging into the Middle East’s stormy waters.