China should tap cooperation potential in the Middle East and continue to build trust through more exchanges
The growing bloodshed in Iraq and Syria is being watched as keenly in China as anywhere else in the world. Indeed, the greater Middle East is becoming a greater focus of Chinese foreign policy.
At the just-concluded sixth ministerial conference of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, held in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping called upon his Arab counterparts to upgrade their strategic relationships with China, by deepening bilateral cooperation in areas ranging from finance and energy to space technology. This reflects China's broader goal - established partly in response to the United States' "pivot" toward Asia - of rebalancing its strategic focus westward, with an emphasis on the Arab world.
Of course, economic ties between China and Arab countries have been growing stronger for more than a decade, with the trade volume increasing from $25.5 billion in 2004 to $238.9 billion in 2013. China is now the Arab world's second-largest trading partner, and the largest trading partner for nine Arab countries. Within 10 years, the volume of China-Arab trade is expected to reach $600 billion. Engineering contracts and investment have also enhanced ties.
Under Xi's leadership, China is attempting to reshape its relationships with Arab countries according to its new "march west" strategic framework. The most notable component of this strategy is the Silk Road economic belt, which is to run along the ancient Central Asian Silk Road, and the modern maritime Silk Road - initiatives that Xi promoted heavily at the recent meeting in Beijing.
This effort highlights China's goal of establishing hub-and-spoke relationships with the key developing economies around it. To this end, Premier Li Keqiang has proposed an economic corridor linking China to Pakistan, and has spoken of other corridors running through Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar.
Unsurprisingly, energy has been a key factor in economic ties with the Arab world. From 2004 to 2013, China's crude oil imports from Arab countries grew by more than 12 percent annually on average, reaching 133 million tons per year. And China's west looking strategy furthers its goal of safeguarding access to these resources. As the director of the State Council's Development Research Center, Li Wei, pointed out in February, at the current rate, China will be consuming 800 million tons of oil annually, and importing 75 percent of its petroleum, by 2030.
In this sense, China's trajectory contrasts sharply with that of the US, where the rapid growth in output of shale oil and gas, together with energy-saving measures, has brought energy independence closer than ever - a point that President Barack Obama emphasized in his most recent State of the Union address. In fact, according to the US Energy Information Administration, China surpassed the US as the world's largest net oil importer earlier this year.