China and the Islamic World: How Expanding Interests May Lead to Militarism in the MENA Region

By Ralston Hough

China famously enjoyed nearly 500 years of peace between 1400 and 1894 A.D. Except for a few internal conflicts and a handful of peacekeeping expeditions, China abstained from engaging in military adventurism. Now, more than a century later, rapid industrial development has replaced an introverted agricultural society, and China’s role continues to grow in international affairs. China’s foreign policy, which traditionally precluded them from meddling in other countries’ affairs, has changed. Chinese investment is now increasingly attractive to developing nations with authoritarian governments that resent the “baggage that typically accompanies Western aid. However, success abroad can lead to challenges for China. Growing instability in the world may not allow China to remain non-interventionist for long, and China must evolve if it wants to secure its interests abroad. 

The pressures of expansion

The growth of China’s interests in the Islamic world has recently accelerated due to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a program that aspires to recreate the Silk Road of antiquity. New, large-scale development efforts are underway in Muslim-majority countries, such as port facilities in Oman and Pakistan, a railway in Malaysia, and new investment projects in Lebanon. China’s rapid development has also made the country thirsty for oil, and more than 40 percent of what it imports comes from the Middle East. For many countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, China is the largest export partner. And these investments will only grow, which could one day commit China to engage in a potential military confrontation. 

China’s recent business activities are not necessarily winning the country any new “friends.” Last year, China drew the ire of the United Arab Emirates when it illegally took over operating a Djibouti port from Dubai at the behest of the local government. These aggressive tactics, often used in BRI projects, can also place countries in “debt traps.” A notorious example of debt-trap diplomacy happened recently when Sri Lanka was forced to hand China control of the Chinese-financed Hambantota port. In Malaysia and the Maldives, elections brought new governments that quickly revealed administrative corruption in past dealings with China. These new leaders are now renegotiating those BRI deals.

China also risks angering the citizens of these Muslim-majority countries. While most of these governments have either ignored or defended the Communist Party’s “re-education” campaign involving the Uighur people in Xinjiang—Turkey, Malaysia, Qatar, and some members of the Kuwaiti parliament have strongly objected. Only a decade ago, the Saudi government, which supports what is happening in Xinjiang, was permitting fierce criticism in the popular press of the “atheistic” Chinese regime’s treatment of Muslims. Just last month, the Saudi-controlled Arab News published a piece highlighting the hypocrisy of Chinese tourism policies in Xinjiang. Arab media, both independent and non-independent, regularly carry stories decrying the Uighurs’ plight to a sympathetic Muslim audience. 

The Islamic world is ripe for bottom-up disruption similar to the Arab Spring. Sudanese and Algerian regimes have already fallen to popular movements, and the Iranian and Jordanian governments face increasing displeasure from their populations. That unrest will not go away anytime soon, and there is no guarantee that future protests will be peaceful. As any superpower throughout history can attest, popular animosity can be dangerous, which is something China knows too well. For instance, in November 2018, members of the Baloch Liberation Army launched an armed attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi, killing four. An attack on a luxury hotel hosting Chinese workers quickly followed suit in May 2019. The motivations for these attacks were economic and political rather than religious, but those lines can quickly become blurred.

Increasing military engagement

Broader geopolitical developments could also involve China in a military campaign in the Middle East. Gulf Arab unity has continued to collapse, as the Gulf Cooperation Council remains fractured between Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt on the other. Civil wars in Syria and Yemen also continue to provide venues for proxy warfare among the Arab powers, while Iraq remains dominated by unaccountable militias of dubious loyalties.

At the same time all this turmoil is occurring, the United States is slowly withdrawing from the region. While it is unlikely China would enact regime change, it may feel pressured to prop up a friendlier government. Absent the United States, China will also need to find a new way to guarantee the safety of its interests, facilities, and personnel.

Recently, China’s policies and rhetoric have signaled the government’s interest in playing a more significant role in global security. China’s military budget has steadily increased over the past two decades. And with this heightened spending, the country has subsequently increased its military activity abroad. China has continued to take an expanded peacekeeping role in Africa and advise African governments. The South China Sea has also experienced increased naval activity as China asserts its dominance with naval exercises and island construction. In August 2017, the People’s Liberation Army Navy established a military base in Djibouti on the strategic Bab-el-Mandeb strait, its first overseas base. This base serves as an explicit gesture of Chinas long-term commitment to staying militarily engaged in the Islamic world, with this base only the beginning. In case the message was unclear, in January 2019, President Xi Jinping urged the PLA to “prepare for a comprehensive military struggle.” 


China’s policy of non-intervention has been immensely successful, and, ironically, its success may soon necessitate its abandonment. As China deepens its engagements across the globe, it increasingly gains interests that will need protecting. This is especially true in the Middle East, where China will not be able to ignore instability and unrest for long. With the United States’ commitment to the region uncertain, the world may soon witness the dawn of an interventionist China.

Ralston Hough is a due diligence, strategic intelligence, and political risk advisory analyst specializing in emerging markets. He lives in New Jersey.

Photo courtesy of Marc Curtis at Pexels.