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Politics

Region's rising powers may find hegemony isn't all it's cracked up to be

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Chinese President Xi Jinping, second from left, speaks with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, second from right, after a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 13.   © Reuters

DALIAN, China -- When top members of the Saudi royal family travel, they are accompanied by a secretary, a doctor, a squad of bodyguards and a man who irons their kaffiyeh. Keepers of the traditional Middle Eastern headdresses, when filling out hotel check-in forms, write "Ironman" as their occupation.

     The Ironman assigned to Saudi Arabia's No. 2, Crown Prince and Defense Minister Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, was particularly busy jetting around Asia this spring.

     In 18 days, the prince and his entourage traveled to Pakistan, Japan, the Maldives, India and China. The packed itinerary served a purpose. The 78-year-old Prince Salman apparently wanted to prove he is in good health, dispelling rumors spread by royal rivals that he has Alzheimer's. That Salman chose to show his fitness by visiting not the U.S. nor Europe but Asia revealed something else: The Saudis believe this region is becoming the world's center of gravity.

     That sentiment is increasingly shared across the Middle East and beyond.

     On March 13, Salman's delegation of more than 100, including his Ironman, arrived in Beijing. It was the day China's two-week National People's Congress session closed. The men made their way to the Diaoyutai State Guest House. A portrait of Saudi King Abdullah was hung above the shan shui Chinese paintings that fill the walls.

     Soon, Salman was ushered to the Great Hall of the People to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping. The prince praised China as "an international magnate with a great political and economic weight" and expressed Saudi Arabia's desire that China "play a prominent role in achieving peace and security"  in the Middle East.

     Two days later, 30 Saudi businessmen -- including Abdullatif al-Othman, governor of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority -- filled the lobby of the China World Hotel. They were there for a business forum with Chinese companies, including telecommunications equipment makers Huawei Technologies and ZTE as well as the Export-Import Bank of China. Sipping tea over dinner, the Saudis had a message to convey: The U.S. cannot be replaced by any other country, but that does not mean the U.S. is indispensable.

     Saudi Arabia worries about Washington's cordial approach to Iran, which Riyadh fears will gain hegemony over the Middle East if not contained. King Abdullah is also unhappy with the Barack Obama administration's inaction on Syria. And the recent soft response to Russia over Crimea was not encouraging. American indecisiveness means "we will see the same situation continue in dealing with Iran, Hezbollah or Russia," said Abdulaziz Sager, chairman of the Gulf Research Center, a Middle Eastern think tank. "We need to move forward."

Red-Med steppingstone

Israel, too, is looking to Asia.

     In Eilat, a Red Sea beach resort at Israel's southern tip, officials are talking with China Communications Construction about building a high-speed rail connection between the city and Ashdod, on the Mediterranean coast. The Israelis say the line would allow Chinese companies to deliver goods to Europe even if the Suez Canal is blocked due to turmoil in Egypt.

     Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made a strategic decision to strengthen ties with China, and the Red-Med railway is a steppingstone. "By increasing economic relations, we will have better access to the decision-makers in China," said Yaakov Amidror, who until recently was Netanyahu's national security adviser. "It is a slow process, but relations are definitely better than five, three or even two years ago."

     Iran's "look East" diplomacy is geared toward India. In late February, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was in New Delhi talking to his counterpart about building an underwater oil/gas pipeline between the two countries. Securing an energy-hungry customer like India would aid Iran's sanction-bitten economy and perhaps discourage a future military clash between the two.

     As China and India pursue superpower status, both nations are building up their militaries. IHS Jane's projects that by 2015, China's defense budget will be larger than that of the U.K., France and Germany combined. By 2020, India's budget is expected to rank fourth worldwide, up from seventh now.

Amassing arms

On March 1, as pro-Russia forces were taking over Crimea, the Ukrainian government rushed an uncompleted Zubr hovercraft onto a China-bound cargo ship. This was the second of four Zubrs China had ordered for $315 million. The craft can swiftly ferry 500 special forces to a warzone.

     China has gone through Ukraine to acquire Soviet- or Russian-designed weapons that Moscow might otherwise be hesitant to sell. Buying from Ukraine is also said to have been significantly cheaper than from Russia. China's purchases helped Ukraine become the fourth-largest arms exporter in 2012.

     For India, meanwhile, Israel has become a go-to source for military hardware. At Defexpo 2014, a large exhibition in New Delhi in February, 21 Israeli companies presented an array of technologies, from unmanned aerial vehicles to advanced radar and air defense systems.

     One of the companies present was Israel Aerospace Industries. IAI's missile plant in the central Israeli town of Beer Yaakov has a sign at the entrance reading, "Hodu la'Hashem Ki Tov," or "Thank God for all that is good." The word hodu, which means "thank," could also mean "India" in Hebrew. This has employees joking, "Thank God for India for all that is good!"

     India is now Israel's largest military equipment customer. Israel's arms sales were worth $200 million in 2001. By 2009, the figure reached $9 billion, a 45-fold increase.

"Prepare to be hated"

As China and India add muscle, other countries are cozying up to them. But will regional hegemony bring China and India peace of mind?

     In the 20th century, the U.K., France and Germany fought two world wars -- draining coffers and engineering their own declines. The fight for Cold War dominance led to the Soviet Union's collapse and is now shaking the U.S.

     When China became isolated after quashing the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping is said to have gathered his aides and ordered that the country "maintain a low profile, keep a cool head, bide our time, build our capabilities and never take the lead in international affairs."

     Some 25 years later, China is the world's second-largest economy and its diplomats are eager to branch out. In early March, when Premier Li Keqiang delivered his policy speech to the National People's Congress, he made it clear the government is no longer shy about "taking the lead." "As a responsible power, China will actively participate in international, multilateral affairs" and "play a constructive role in resolving global and hot-spot issues," Li said.

     But international relations are complex, and it is often difficult for China and India to take decisive stances. "China should prepare to be hated by the world, a burden that comes with being a superpower," joked one American diplomat.

     On the evening of March 15, Prince Salman's last night in Beijing, he held a banquet for Middle Eastern ambassadors. Absent from the guest list were diplomats from Syria, Qatar and Iran.

     "Of course there was no invitation," Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha said days later in his sunlit Beijing office. "Saudi Arabia is funding the extremist anti-government mujahedeen in my country. Even if there were an invitation, how could I possibly eat the food that the crown prince prepared?"

     Middle East dynamics are not simply about the Israel-Arab conflict. Tensions between the Sunni Muslim bloc, led by Riyadh, and Shiite Iran are equally serious. There are also new divisions between Sunni nations.

     The Ukraine situation has been awkward as well. When the U.N. Security Council voted on a resolution against recognizing Crimea's referendum on breaking away from Ukraine, China was unable to choose a side and abstained. This prompted a fierce condemnation from The Wall Street Journal.

     "The Ukrainian crisis," the editorial said, "is a good reminder that Beijing stands on the wrong side of the freedom-authoritarian divide and can't be counted as a friend of the post-Cold War order."

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