In a speech before the Arab League in Cairo last January, Chinese President Xi Jinping described his view of China’s role in the Middle East: “Instead of looking for a proxy in the Middle East, we promote peace talks; instead of seeking any sphere of influence, we call on all parties to join the circle of friends for the Belt and Road Initiative; instead of attempting to fill the “vacuum,” we build a cooperative partnership network for win-win outcomes.”1

Disdaining traditional great power politics in the Middle East, President Xi presented China as a viable new alternative: a sui generis great power in the region, employing fresh tactics to solve problems its peers have not. China’s economic reach in the Middle East is burgeoning through oil imports and machinery and textile exports, and its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, touted as the most important feature of President Xi’s foreign policy, aims to gradually rebuild the legendary Silk Road network of trade routes that ran from China through Central Asia and the Middle East into Africa and Europe.2 The country has for decades maintained a policy of “non-interference” in the Middle East, a region in which the United States remains the major outside player, and today Beijing holds the unique position of friend to all Middle Eastern leaders and enemy to none.

But recent moves may signal a shift toward greater Chinese diplomatic and security engagement in the area. In 2016 alone, China began construction on its first foreign military base just off the tip of Yemen in Djibouti, publicly released its first “Arab Policy Paper,” and appointed a special envoy to the Syria crisis. It currently ranks fifteenth in a list of weapons suppliers to the region, but it is increasing sales and just signed an agreement to start manufacturing Chinese drones in Saudi Arabia—only the third such factory outside of China and the first in the Middle East. Ahead of a visit by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to China on March 16, China’s foreign minister suggested that Beijing would venture so far in the diplomatic realm as to play the role of mediator in talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, regional rivals with whom China has strong ties.3

Recent moves may signal a shift toward greater Chinese diplomatic and security engagement in the Middle East.

China’s status as a rising world power is by now clear, reflected in its economic prowess4 and growing military strength.5 Its position in Asia is well-established, and actions in the East China and South China Seas of late have rankled American policymakers and are likely to be on the agenda when President Trump meets with President Xi this week in Florida.6 With that as a backdrop, some see China’s growing role in the Middle East7 as signs of an opportunistic long game8 to fill the “vacuum” left there by the United States under the Obama administration.9 However, these actions are more accurately understood as incremental steps that represent a deepening investment in a strategic region—not necessarily a Chinese plan for an activist engagement in the Middle East.

This report looks at China’s policies and commitments in the Middle East, including its regional alliances, role in regional conflicts, and trade relationships. It collates research on arms transfers to the Middle East and Chinese imports and foreign direct investment in the region. It also examines Beijing’s troubled relationship with its Muslim population at home, which is often cited as a complicating factor in diplomatic relations with the Middle East. Finally, it provides information on China’s overall military spending and international footprint, which sheds light on current and future involvement in the Middle East. It concludes with recommendations of issues to watch as China explores new engagements in the region.

China’s Pivot West?

China has historically played a minimal security and diplomatic role in the Middle East, but recent discussions in the Chinese foreign policy community reflect increasing interest in looking west. A widely publicized 2012 article by Wang Jisi, a prominent and highly respected Chinese political scientist, articulated a new strategy: “While the U.S. pivots east, and Europe, India, and Russia also eye the east, China should have a strategic plan of ‘Marching West.’”10 The article was the first of many on the same topic, with Chinese analysts and scholars reevaluating Beijing’s grand strategy, from a primary focus looking east toward a more balanced approach in both directions. The shift toward Central Asia and the Middle East may be in part an attempt to check and balance western actions in the far east. Indeed, just as the United States views China as a revisionist power, U.S. moves to strengthen alliances with Australia, Japan, and the Philippines, as well as to court new partners in Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam, have unnerved China.11

Beijing publicly released its first “Arab Policy Paper” in January 2016 “to promote China-Arab relations to a new and higher level.”12 The paper states an intention to increase military cooperation and exchange with Arab countries, including personnel, weapons and technologies, and declares China’s desire to increase cooperation to “jointly address the threat of international and regional terrorism,” including intelligence sharing. It also reinforces China’s commitment to anti-piracy operations and says that it will continue to send warships to the Gulf of Aden and Somali waters. China has cited its extensive anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden as one of the main reasons behind its decision to build its first overseas naval base in Djibouti.13

China’s “One Belt One Road” Project (OBOR; also known as the “Belt and Road Initiative”) is an ambitious plan to rebuild the old network of trade routes that ran westward from China through Central Asia and the Middle East into Africa and Europe, known as the Silk Road. Beijing launched OBOR in 2014 with $40 billion in investment, and it has been largely focused on developing infrastructure and gas and oil pipelines throughout Central Asia.14 As part of the project,15 in 2015 China took control of Pakistan’s strategically located Gwadar port, giving the Chinese access to the Strait of Hormuz (through which 20 percent of the world’s crude oil is transported) and the Arabian Gulf.16 OBOR is now beginning to show its reach into the Middle East as well with important connectivity points in Iran, Egypt, and Israel.

The Chinese military participates in a multinational joint maritime blockade drill on February 13, 2017, in waters off Karachi, Pakistan. Source: China Military.

Iran will play an important role, given its geographical centrality between China and Europe. Showcased as a major accomplishment for OBOR, the first freight train from China to Tehran arrived in February 2016, paving the way for a modernization of Iran’s railway system and boosting Iran-China trade.17 Egypt is also pivotal: The Suez Canal has long been China’s primary shipping route for goods to Europe, and investment in its development has increased through OBOR.18 In Israel, China has expressed interest in investing in a proposed railway connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean (known as the “Red-Med” railway) that could serve as an alternate route for cargo that normally travels through the Suez Canal.19 China is presenting other joint Chinese-Middle Eastern projects in the region such as Kuwait’s “Silk City” as parts of OBOR as well.20

Regional Relationships

Most China analysts agree that Beijing’s top foreign policy priority is promoting its own economic interests, and that appears to hold true for the Middle East. During Saudi Arabian King Salman’s recent visit to Beijing, President Xi said, “the solution to many issues in the Middle East lies in development.”21 (The two nations signed a memorandum of understanding worth $65 billion in investment cooperation during that visit.)22 China is the largest exporter to the Middle East and North Africa region23 (MENA; see map below) and the largest importer of MENA oil since 2010.24 Its economic interdependence is high with its closest allies in the region, and growing with others.

Map Source: World Integrated Trade Solution and Observatory of Economic Complexity, MIT Media Lab.

As the world’s top oil importer, China has tight relations with top oil exporter Saudi Arabia. Saudi oil exports to China have grown exponentially over the past two decades to satisfy China’s increasing demand, and Saudi Arabia had been China’s top source of imported crude oil since 2002 until Russia outpaced it for the first time last year (Saudi Arabia remained a close second).25 Reports surfaced during King Salman’s trip to Beijing in March that China may become the principal investor in the planned initial public offering (IPO) of state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco.26 There is historic weight to this news for the United States, seen by many27 (including its current president) as a superpower in decline—while all the while, China is rising.28 “Aramco” is derived from the original “Arabian-American Oil Company,” named when the company was founded in 1933 as a joint venture with the old American oil tycoons.29 The Americans took home most of the profits until Saudi Arabia gradually nationalized the company throughout the 1970s, taking full control in 1980. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is leading an economic reform program30 that aims to reduce the kingdom’s reliance on oil, has said the IPO will value Aramco at a minimum of $2 trillion.31 If confirmed, that would make Aramco by far the highest valued company in the world. The IPO would sell up to 5 percent of it.32

Saudi Arabia has also long relied on China for weapons sales, a business relationship that has grown over time. Riyadh began purchasing Chinese intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) in the 1980s—weapons its number one arms supplier, the United States, was unwilling to provide because of opposition from Israel. Today, China continues to supply Saudi Arabia with weapons it cannot buy from the United States, including drones that can carry cameras and missiles.33 At a ceremony this January, Saudi Arabia unveiled one of its Chinese CH-4 drones armed with at least two Chinese-made missiles,34 confirming press reports that China had indeed armed the drones it sold to Saudi Arabia (imagery of the drones on display carrying missiles was analyzed for TCF by Senior Researcher Pieter Wezeman at the Stockholm International Peace Institute (SIPRI)).35 China recently boasted that its new Wing-Loong II armed drone had secured the biggest overseas purchase order in the history of Chinese UAV sales,36 although the quantity and recipient were not disclosed (an unconfirmed report37 suggested it was Saudi Arabia with a purchase of 300 drones).

That adds Saudi Arabia to the short list of countries who own armed drones,38 and thanks to China, they are also about to join the even shorter list of countries who produce them. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology just announced a partnership agreement with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation to manufacture Chinese-made drones in Saudi Arabia39—the first such factory China has licensed in the Middle East and only the third outside of China (the other two are in Pakistan and Myanmar).40 The drones will reportedly be used for both military and civilian purposes and be marketed to other countries in the region.41 In the fall of 2016, Saudi Arabia and China also held their first joint counterterrorism drills in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing.42 Two issues have muddied their growing relationship in recent years: China’s non-interventionist approach to the war in Syria, and its friendship with Saudi regional nemesis Iran.

China’s relationship with Iran grew significantly43 during the years that international sanctions were in place, and it is now Iran’s biggest trading partner.44 Beijing was widely praised for the positive role it played in the P5+1 negotiations45 that produced the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which restricts Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international economic sanctions against Iran.46 China has continued to defend the Iran nuclear deal since the inauguration of President Trump, who made repeated threats on the campaign trail to tear it up.47 Chinese President Xi Jinping was the first international leader to visit Tehran in January 2016 after the deal lifted restrictions, and the first Chinese leader to visit in fourteen years. That visit yielded seventeen accords between China and Iran48 for cooperation in areas including energy, trade, and industry, and an agreement to increase trade up to $600 billion over the next ten years.49 Iran is also seen as a central waystation in the OBOR project.

China is also Egypt’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade in 2014 reaching $11.6 billion, and a large trade imbalance favoring Beijing.50 As part of the bilateral support Egypt recently needed to secure a $12 billion IMF loan, the two countries signed a currency swap deal for $2.6 billion in December 2016.51 This was the first time the yuan was showcased as a reserve currency; it joined the U.S. dollar, euro, yen, and British pound in the IMF’s officially recognized basket of reserve currencies just a month earlier. China is a big investor in the Suez Canal and, until recently, a plan to build a new Egyptian capital city east of Cairo.52 The China State Construction Engineering Corporation pulled out of the deal in February after price disagreements.53

Role in Regional Conflicts

China’s “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence,” first put forth by Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in 1953 in a meeting with the Indian government, continue to form the official basis of China’s foreign policy and help to explain their approach to conflicts in the Middle East.54 The principles are: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad spoke warmly of Syrian-Chinese relations in a recent television interview by Chinese broadcaster Phoenix Television.55 China has repeatedly cited its policies of mutual non-intervention, respect for sovereignty, and non-aggression in its decision to side with the Assad regime in the war. In 2014, China sold 500 anti-tank missiles to Damascus,56 and the Chinese ambassador to Syria recently commented that “Syria has witnessed a positive progress, particularly after the Aleppo battle late last year, in terms of the war on terror.”57 Beijing has seemed content playing no more than a small part in international attempts to end the conflict, including through the United Nations Security Council58 (UNSC) and the International Syria Support Group,59 despite having appointed a special envoy to the crisis60 in March 2016.

China stood with Russia by vetoing six out of seven61 resolutions put forward in the UNSC to condemn the Syrian authorities for using force against their civilians (it abstained from voting on a resolution put forward by France and Spain62 calling for a halt to bombing over Aleppo last October while voting for Russia’s resolution calling for a cease-fire). Indeed, Special Envoy Xie Xiaoyan has said that China intends to work closely with Russia toward a political solution.63 In August, the Chinese military stated its intention to increase military cooperation with Syria,64 including training. China’s humanitarian donations to Syria are miniscule65 in comparison to those of the United States and Europe, and as of 2015 the country had only accepted nine Syrian refugees (more on China’s overall refugee policy here66 and foreign assistance here).67

China has also consistently supported the Yemeni government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in its ongoing war against the Houthis, citing non-intervention and respect for sovereignty. Efforts to gain support by a Houthi delegation that visited Beijing late last year were rebuffed. China’s official news agency Xinhua stated that “China’s concern over the Houthi-GPC government and reiteration of its support to the internationally recognized government signaled its intention to play a greater role in bringing peace back to [Yemen].”68 This has seemingly created tension with Iran, which expresses strong public support for the Houthis and has likely provided them with some weapons and training. In April 2015, Chinese naval forces engaged in anti-piracy patrolling missions in the Gulf of Aden were diverted to evacuate almost 600 Chinese citizens and 225 foreign nationals from Yemen amid fierce fighting. A government spokesperson said it was the first time China had helped to evacuate non-Chinese citizens from a conflict zone (including citizens of Pakistan, Ethiopia, Singapore, the UK, Italy, and Germany)—and only the second time it had evacuated its own (more on the first time, in Libya, below).69

Some analysts have said that China’s difficult experience at the beginning of the Libyan conflict may be influencing its current approach to the war in Syria70 and its posturing in the region.71 Beijing was heavily economically invested in Libya before the 2011 uprisings began, and it initially did its best to remain publicly neutral in the conflict by abstaining from the UN Security Council vote authorizing NATO intervention in April of that year.72 However, it was revealed in July that Chinese companies were prepared to sell weapons and ammunition to the Gaddafi regime, a violation of UN sanctions.73 In addition to suffering a blow to its reputation, China also struggled to mount the largest evacuation mission in its history to extract some 36,000 of its citizens from the war-stricken country.74

On the region’s most incendiary conflict, China has managed to carve a neutral place for itself and has offered help with negotiations multiple times. China was one of the first countries to recognize Palestine, in 1988. It did not establish official diplomatic relations with Israel until 1992, mainly for fear of harming its close relationship with Arab countries.75 The relationship between China and Israel is largely based on extensive economic interdependence, but China continues to tread carefully in its public support of Israel because of its relationships throughout the Arab world.76 During a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Beijing on March 21 this year, President Xi told Netanyahu that peace with the Palestinians would be good for both sides, adding that China “appreciates Israel’s continuing to take the ‘two state proposal’ as the basis for handling the Israel-Palestine issue.”77 Beijing has advocated for a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, a position it reiterated in the 2016 “Arab Policy Paper,” along with its support of a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine based on the pre-1967 borders. In 2013, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu visited China in quick succession, though they did not overlap, and President Xi presented a four-point plan to bring the conflict to an end.78 In 2014, China produced a five-point plan.79 Neither have moved forward.

Difficulties with a Muslim Population at Home

China’s difficult relationship with the Muslim population inside its borders is often cited as a complicating factor in moves to expand Chinese influence in the Middle East, although few Middle Eastern leaders have spoken publicly about China’s difficulties. Most attention is focused on the Xinjiang autonomous ethnic region, which is populated by around 11 million Muslims from the Uyghur ethnicity. The oil-rich region is strategically located on China’s far-west border at the gateway to Central Asia and thus pivotal for the OBOR project.80 The Uyghur movement to secede from China is based on the fact that Uyghurs are not Chinese but Turks from Central Asia (Uyghur nationalists refer to their region as “East Turkestan”).81 The region only really fell under Chinese control in 1949 when the People’s Liberation Army defeated Uyghur and Kazakh “rebels” and introduced the majority Han ethnic group to the area.82 Today, Han-Uyghur relations are contentious and the government restricts many forms of Uyghur cultural and religious identification.83 Unsanctioned traditional male gatherings are forbidden, fasting for Ramadan is discouraged and even prevented in some cases, and the language is frowned upon. Uyghurs are discriminated against by employers and hotels in Central and Eastern China rarely accept them as guests. The Chinese government says it is concerned that the region is under the influence of the “three evil forces”: terrorism, religious extremism, and separatism. Sporadic ethnic violence erupts both within and outside of the region.84

In 2009, 197 people were killed in Uyghur riots in Xinjiang, the worst inter-communal violence in China since the Cultural Revolution.85 While most Muslim majority nations remained silent during the subsequent crackdown,86 Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan likened government actions to “genocide87 and several high-ranking Iranian clerics issued statements of strong condemnation.88 U.S. diplomatic cables released through Wikileaks revealed that Egyptian officials said Beijing put pressure on Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others to refrain from official declarations condemning the violence and to suppress media coverage of the incident in Egyptian media.89 In 2014, a gang of Uyghurs killed twenty-nine people at a railway station in the university town of Kunming in the southwest province of Yunnan. Some militant Uyghurs have joined the Islamic State90 and others have reportedly fought alongside the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.91 In February, the Islamic State released a propaganda video featuring Uyghurs vowing that they would return to China to “shed blood like rivers.”92

Military Spending & International Footprint

A look at China’s overall military spending and international footprint helps to contextualize its actions in the Middle East. China’s military budget in 2016 was $145 billion, second only to the United States (which dwarfed all other countries with a budget of $600 billion).93 Despite an economic slowdown, China remains committed to developing and modernizing its defense capabilities.94 The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has stepped up military exercises with Russia as part of an overall increase in defense cooperation between the two countries.95 China is also engaging in more joint counterterrorism drills in Central Asia.

China is building its first foreign base in the tiny African nation of Djibouti, strategically located in the Horn of Africa just twenty miles across from Yemen’s coast. Beijing, which has a longstanding policy of no foreign military bases,96 calls it a “logistics facility” and says it is set to install “a few thousand” troops97 there but is pledging not to engage in military expansion.98 The Chinese government also says the base will mainly serve as a rest and relaxation post for the upwards of 2,400 Chinese troops helping with anti-piracy, U.N. peacekeeping and humanitarian rescue missions in the area.99 The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been conducting anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and off the Horn of Africa since December 2008, along with ships from several other nations.100 More than a fifth of Chinese-owned, -cargoed, or -crewed ships faced piracy while transiting Somali waters, and seven were attacked. Although the piracy threat has faded since 2012, China has not reduced its involvement.

Nearly one-third of the world’s shipping, including most of China’s $1 billion in daily exports and half of its oil imports, passes by Djibouti’s coast through the Bab-el-Mandeb on the way to the Suez Canal. The United States, Japan, Italy, and France all have bases there as well, and Saudi Arabia announced its intentions to build soon after China. The United States’ Camp Lemonnier is a vital part of AFRICOM, housing some 4,000 military and civilian personnel and serving as a drone launching pad for drone attacks on Al-Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Yemeni-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.101

China has assigned more peacekeepers to Africa than any other permanent member of the UN Security Council, with more than 2,600 troops, police and experts participating in seven of the nine UN missions on the continent.

China has assigned more peacekeepers to Africa than any other permanent member of the UN Security Council, with more than 2,600 troops, police and experts participating in seven of the nine UN missions on the continent.102 In 2015, President Xi announced a series of measures to increase China’s participation in the missions in Africa.103 This included a pledge to set up a permanent peacekeeping police squad, build a standby force of 8,000 troops, increase Chinese training of foreign peacekeepers, carry out ten minesweeping assistance programs over the next five years, and deploy its first helicopter detachment.

Lu Huiying, the Chinese ambassador to Mali, presents the United Nations Peace Medal of Honor to peacekeepers from the 4th Chinese peacekeeping engineering detachment to Mali on Feb. 2, 2017. Source: China Military.

China currently ranks fifteenth on a list of arms suppliers to the Middle East, but retired Lieutenant Colonel James Dickey, of defense and security intelligence firm IHS Jane’s, said that he expects them to move up in coming years. “The Chinese have been making a concerted effort to make inroads into the Middle East arms sales market,” Dickey said in a phone interview.104 According to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), China’s exports of major arms nearly doubled over the past five years.105 The majority go to states in Asia and Oceania, with Pakistan the main recipient followed by Bangladesh and Myanmar (sales to the Middle East make up less than 2 percent of total sales). In the same period, China’s arms imports decreased by 25 percent, signifying that it is increasingly capable of producing its own advanced weapons. In the early 2000s, China was by far the largest importer.

A Boon for the Middle East

China’s “pivot west” may not materialize entirely as some analysts have predicted, but it is clear today that the rising power’s economic bounty is seen as a boon by many in the Middle East. It may be criticized for its mercantilist policies, but it has proven more willing to participate in economic initiatives in the region, such as in Egypt, and it has shown greater interest in doing so in the future in countries currently racked by war, like Syria.106 It also provided a market for Iran while U.S. and European sanctions were in place, and continues to be its largest trading partner. On the other end of the regional spectrum wealth-wise, China’s already robust economic interdependence with oil giant Saudi Arabia appears to be on the rise, as are its relations with other Gulf nations.107 Many more opportunities for investment are likely in the region, particularly if the ambitious plans for OBOR begin to be translated into reality.

On the military front, U.S. policymakers are likely keeping an eye on China’s increasing weapons sales to the region, and their latest decision to open a drone factory in Saudi Arabia. U.S. arms sales to the region far exceed those of China, but while the United States has only sold its armed drones to the U.K. and Italy, China has supplied them (both armed and unarmed) to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt.108 China is also filling the gaps for countries who cannot purchase arms from the United States—it is in the top three suppliers, behind Russia in each case, to Iran, Syria, and Algeria. China’s promise to step up military cooperation with Russia in Syria should be watched. On the other hand, the United States and China may eventually cooperate militarily on counterterrorism campaigns in the region. Even before the recent ISIS video that showcased Uyghurs vowing to retaliate against their oppressors in China, Beijing had stepped up joint counterterrorism operations in its Western provinces and in Central Asia. It recently staged its first such operations with Saudi Arabia,109 and claimed that it was doing the same in Afghanistan110 last month after reports surfaced that Chinese troops had been spotted in the country.

Chinese high-speed rail products on display at the China-Arab States Expo 2015 in Yinchuan, the capital of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Source: Xinhua/Wang Peng.

Finally, as China’s economic and military engagement grows with countries throughout the region, it could soon gain the standing and desire to try its hand diplomatically. A new arbiter is likely to be welcomed in some of the region’s conflicts. So far, the only test was its role in the P5+1 negotiations that led to the Iran nuclear deal, for which it was widely praised but hardly the driving force. China’s good relations with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders may eventually leave Beijing in a position to play a negotiating role in one of the region’s most intractable conflicts. And China is also well-placed, and apparently interested, in mediating the simmering rivalry between two of its closest allies in the region, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

If the experiences of past superpowers are any predictor, China will have a difficult time maintaining a neutral position in the Middle East while stepping up its diplomatic and security engagement there.

If the experiences of past superpowers are any predictor, China will have a difficult time maintaining a neutral position in the Middle East while stepping up its diplomatic and security engagement there. But President Xi’s stated intention is to distinguish China from others, so perhaps measuring Chinese actions in the region through the lens of the U.S. experience, or that of Russia during the Cold War, or the U.K. or France during colonial times, is misleading. As of now Chinese involvement is nowhere near such levels or ambitions and it remains to be seen whether it will evolve in that direction. A more realistic predictor of what is to come in the Middle East may be China’s relentless economic and development activities in Africa and Latin America—which have been heavily criticized in each case as exploitative, even a “new form of colonialism,” but continue apace nonetheless.111 The Chinese have dramatically changed landscapes in many African and Latin American countries112 through investment that benefits their own economy, primarily,113 but has also created local jobs and improved infrastructure. They have acknowledged “growing pains” in their relationships with African countries and tried to reassure them that they were not following in the footsteps of “Western colonists.”114 In a region similarly sensitive to the vestiges of colonialism and Western meddling, it will be interesting to see how China’s increasing role is received.


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