Protecting its citizens in the Middle East: China’s expanding interests in the region

China’s policies towards the Middle East region, including policies aimed at protecting its citizens there, have been based on the principle of non-interference. But with growing engagement and the increasing frequency of violence against Chinese nationals and assets in the region, the efficacy of this approach will be increasingly challenged in the coming years.

China’s influence and presence in the Middle East have broadened and deepened in the last decade, with thousands of Chinese businesses, hundreds of thousands of Chinese nationals working and living there, and several million Chinese tourists visiting annually. The Middle East has emerged as China’s most strategically important region beyond its immediate neighborhood. It is crucial for Beijing’s economic interests, its quest for global influence, and as a hub for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Beijing’s need for energy imports underlies its interest in the region — China is the largest trading partner of many countries in the Middle East.

Apart from this, the Middle East has also become a key destination for leisure and religious tourism for Chinese nationals. China is now one of the fastest-growing source markets for tourism for many countries in the Middle East. In 2019, 989,000 Chinese tourists visited Dubai, 510,000 to Egypt, and 400,000 to Turkey. Since the Covid-19 outbreak, Chinese arrivals in the Middle East have taken a hit. But Chinese travel to the region is expected to bounce back in 2021 and beyond.

For China, protecting nationals abroad has become one of the central pillars of its foreign policy objectives and practice, according to China’s National Defense In the New Era. But in the Middle East, Chinese travellers face a volatile region with growing numbers of political upheavals, terrorist attacks, and violent conflicts. This makes the Chinese Government’s traditional adherence to its non-interference policy in the region more challenging.

In order to maintain its non-interference policy as China becomes more deeply involved in shaping the developments in the Middle East, Beijing has adopted a proactive diplomatic approach.

This proactive diplomatic approach is also aimed at ensuring the security of its nationals in the region. The approach includes five diplomatic and military measures: non-combatant evacuation operations and peacekeeping operations; construction of infrastructure and logistical capacities; legal framework and security cooperation; mediation and conflict management; and consular protection.

This approach is regarded by Beijing as the “legitimate way” to influence the domestic politics of other states without violating its traditional non-interference principle. Through this, Beijing believes it can secure its national economic interests and the safety and rights of Chinese nationals abroad, along with its political influence in the region.

But the efficacy of this approach may be challenged in the coming years with China’s growing engagement with the Middle East along with added exposure to regional instability and violence for Chinese nationals. The expectations of the Chinese public for the government to keep its nationals safe abroad may steer Chinese foreign policy towards a more interventionist approach.

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