Xi Jingping’s first foreign visit this year starts today. He is heading to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran for a round of previously unplanned “work visits”. It was obviously hastily scheduled, and urgently necessitated by recent developments.
The blow-up of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the new year has raised the tension and instability of the Middle East up several notches. All the major powers are so tangled up in the affairs of the region themselves that nobody has the independence and credibility to mediate this latest confrontation in an already boiling pot. China is stepping up to try to cool things down. Xi is the ideal person to lend an ear to all sides. That, in crisis management, is at least a beginning.
Why does it matter to China? Why the stopover in Egypt?
To put it briefly, China’s core objective in foreign relations is development. An overall stable global environment is conducive to development and, over the long-term, a prerequisite to its sustainability. China’s principal initiative for its long-term developmental strategy is spelled out in the “One Belt, One Road” visionary plan. Large stretches of the Middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Europe are the throughways for the land portion of that plan. Even though it is a “belt”, meaning there are multiple routes traversing east and west (as did the historical Silk Roads), regional instability must be contained and not allowed to radiate outward. That is the basic approach: try to make big conflicts smaller, and small conflicts disappear. Development, not war and violence, holds the only key to resolve rivalries and conflicts.
Egypt is itself not very stable. It is such a big piece that its blow-up will certainly represents a big quake. With all the battles in the region and the elusive forces of caliphate lurking across borders, an economically fragile and highly-populated Egypt is potentially a balance-tilting piece of the jigsaw. One immediate threat is the proliferation of terrorist forces in Egypt’s surounding countries, with those in Libya, Somalia and Yemen all ready to run about (some of the IS forces from Syria and Iraq are reportedly “fleeing abroad” also).
There is not much China can and will do militarily in the proximity of the Middle East. But the threat of terrorism emanating from the Middle East and Central Asia is already keeping China on very high alert and in action.
In the meantime, giving Egypt a big hand economically seems to be a viable step toward maintaining stability that would otherwise be extremely vulnerable.
And that is the latest update on China’s Big Diplomacy.