By Mohammad Ali Shabani, for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iran Business News.
Chinese economic might is not a prospect in the distant future, but a current reality. Last year, China’s economy — in terms of purchasing power parity — overtook that of the United States for the first time. Yet, this momentous recalibration of the global economic power balance has not translated into a commensurate political shift.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East, where China holds the position of top trading partner of several states, yet is effectively a third-rate power in terms of its political influence. If China wishes to become a true global power, it needs to step up to the plate, and it should do so on the foremost stage of geopolitical showdowns: the Middle East.
In recent conversations with Al-Monitor, several Chinese experts on the Middle East, on condition of anonymity, acknowledged the mismatch between China’s economic and political influence. One leading academic with close ties to the ruling elite pinned it down to what he referred to as core principles of Chinese foreign policy: “mutual respect, dignity and noninterference.”
Yet, the trajectory of Chinese involvement in places such as Africa tells a different story. While short of relegating their stated noninterference to a thing of the past, it is apparent that the Chinese have been assertive when their interests in Africa have been threatened.
Indeed, the most striking example of China overlooking its noninterference policy is Beijing’s response to the instability in oil-rich South Sudan, where Chinese state firms have important energy interests. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has been directly involved in conflict resolution efforts there, while Beijing earlier this year took the unprecedented step of sending hundreds of combat troops to join the UN peacekeeping mission in the country.