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Sergio Restelli

China’s strife for the Middle East and Central Asia

Xi Jinping received Mahmoud Abbas: Screenshot from youtube used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mnBWq6OCRw)

The recent visit of the Palestinian National Authority and PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas to Beijing has brought up China’s will to act as a peacemaker in the Middle East. Not only was the visit the equivalent of a state visit, but China made all the right noises to not only appease Abbas but also give a clear message to Arab states that it was supportive of their rights and aspirations vis a viz Israel. The visit also helped white-wash the genocide of the Uyghur Muslim population which Abbas has justified by ignoring the Uyghur issue and said Chinese policies were about “excising extremism and opposing terrorism and separatism”. While most muslim leaders, from Abbas to Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan are very vocal at equating political battles with Islamophobia and Islamic repression and vehemently appeal to the global ummah to come to the aid of their fellow Muslims, when it comes to China they all fall very silent.

While China’s policies in the middle east have changed quickly over the past months in order to assume leadership, one such important step is the Saudi-Iran peace deal that Beijing brokered. In a way, but becoming Iran’s prominent sponsor, China has taken over Russia’s role as well as in some way hopes to indirectly control Israel by waving not only its power over Iran, but also its influence with Saudi Arabia. As a continuation of the Abraham Accords its is well known that Israel seeks recognition and a peace deal with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Surprisingly China’s biggest friction for influence is not in the Middle East, but in its own backyard. The last few years have been marked with Turkey’s attempts to emerge as a strategic player in Central Asian Region (CAR). Aiming at increasing influence among the countries in the region, Ankara is widely seen as riding upon the plank of Turkish culture. Withstanding a shared heritage of history, language and culture, Turkey’s relations with Central Asia have had their highs and lows. However, Ankara’s policy has been to get past the phase of Soviet administration to give a fresh pivot to bilateral relations with countries in the region. For this, it is banking upon language which is the most unifying element of cultural relations, with particular focus on Turkic- speaking Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Turkey is also believed to be bolstering its goodwill and influence in the region through getting the name of ‘Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States (OTS)’ changed to ‘Organisation of Turkic States’. The Council which was established in 2009 got renamed to OTS during the 8th summit (2021) held in Istanbul. While Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkey are founding member states, Uzbekistan became member in 2019. Subsequently, Turkmenistan joined as an observer in 2021. OTS is an observer at the Economic Cooperation Organisation and has also applied for an observer status at the UN and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Understandably, the organization represents a more pragmatic approach by blending commercial, economic, and developmental ties with cultural cooperation among member countries.

By increasing foothold in CAR, Turkey stands to gain through economic cooperation, improved connectivity and access to Central Asian markets for trade. On the other hand, the CAR countries see potential of a long term strategic partnership with Turkey which can serve as their gateway to Europe. The Trans Caspian corridor also known as the Middle Corridor connects countries like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan to Turkey. CARs can access European markets through this corridor, while Turkey and Azerbaijan can serve as transit hubs. Their trade volume with Turkey has also witnessed an uptick during the recent past. Additionally, the countries are also looking towards Turkey as a feasible destination to diversify their energy exports.

However, not everyone in the region seems to cherish the vision of a close partnership between Turkey and Central Asian Countries. China which has emerged as a major power in the region is believed to be increasingly alarmed by Turkey’s outreach moves in the region as it may undermine its own influence. Another major factor behind this uneasiness is the potential impact of OTS on the Turkic-speaking ethnic groups in China, particularly on the Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Consequently, Beijing has been closely monitoring the nature of engagements between the OTS and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (FTIM) to prevent the former from becoming a platform for the Uighur groups to counter China’s repression against the Uighur Muslims.

Since their independence in 1991, CARs have adopted a foreign policy with focus balanced among the major powers. Initially, they developed large- scale engagement with China to balance Russia; resulting into China becoming a major trading partner of the region along with Russia. However, since Beijing started to penetrate deep into the CAR, the countries apparently started to look for diversity of options. This has considered to have cleared the stage for Turkey which simultaneously started coming up with more accommodating plans. The success of such plans will however depend on Chinese view and possible counter strategy on it.

About the Author
Sergio Restelli is an Italian political advisor, author and geopolitical expert. He served in the Craxi government in the 1990's as the special assistant to the deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice Martelli and worked closely with anti-mafia magistrates Falcone and Borsellino. Over the past decades he has been involved in peace building and diplomacy efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. He has written for Geopolitica and several Italian online and print media. In 2020 his first fiction "Napoli sta bene" was published.
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