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East Asian Soft Power Strikes Hard In The Middle East
Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) visited Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (left) in the UAE capital to finalize oil and trade deals between the two countries. (Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images)

East Asian Soft Power Strikes Hard In The Middle East

China and South Korea have developed different ways of influencing politicians and attracting markets in the region

David Lee co-authored this report.

With a focus on developing long-term partnerships in the Middle East, China, Japan and South Korea have become the leading destinations for exports from Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). China alone, for example, annually imports $20.8 billion of goods, mainly oil, from Saudi Arabia.

Unlike the U.S., which often concerns itself with fostering regional stability, China has mostly refrained from military involvement in the Middle East. Instead, it has focused its involvement in the region around lucrative oil deals and massive investment projects.

And while Japan has sought to provide diplomatic and developmental support to the region, it is South Korea that has made a significant imprint. Many products from the East Asian nation are imported to Middle Eastern countries, a development that has spurred curiosity about South Korea as well as an unprecedented increase in tourists from the Middle East heading there.

China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative

China’s 1954 non-interference policy—which entails respect for the sovereignty of other countries, including non-aggression and peaceful co-existence—is being refashioned under current President Xi Jinping to better serve Beijing’s evolving ambitions. According to Dr. James Dorsey, a Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, China’s government has been forced to significantly alter its foreign policy over the past decade.

“With its policy of non-interference, a win-win economic-driven approach, and no foreign military bases, the fact of the matter is that China has been forced by the Middle East to basically throw out most of those principles,” Dorsey told The Media Line.

Though China’s reputation of neutrality has been long-established, “that changed in effect in 2011 during popular Arab revolts when the Chinese suddenly had to pull out 35,000 of its people from Libya.” It also had to withdraw Chinese personnel from Syria, Yemen and Iraq, Dorsey added.

These surprise evacuations, coupled with China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, launched in 2013, has created more pressure on the Chinese government to help stabilize ongoing conflicts and tensions in the region.

China is also developing economic relationships with African countries. The reason, says Dr. Jonathan Fulton, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Zayed University (UAE), is simple: “Africa is full of resources, that’s basically…the story.”

The African continent, Fulton explained to The Media Line, was left behind by Western powers after the Cold War. “This means that if the Chinese want to get energy, or cobalt, or whatever it is they need, they can find it in Africa and no one else is really challenging them for it.”

The idea behind China’s Belt and Road plan, a key change of direction in China’s foreign policy, is to improve trade and transportation links in partnering countries, mostly through infrastructure investments.

While it is not the only strategy Beijing is using to expand its influence in the Middle East, analysts estimate that its investments through the Belt and Road, amounting to a staggering $25 billion by 2020, will provide it with a significant amount of  political and economic clout.

“China has had a bunch of stumbles out of the gate as the country has tried to explain to the world how it is going to become a global power, and the Chinese have finally hit on it with this,” said Fulton.

Speaking to The Media Line, an official at the Israel Export Institute who did not want to be identified, expanded on the different initiatives that aim to strengthen economic ties between Jerusalem and Beijing. One recently signed agreement promotes exporting Israeli technology to China, and Chinese enterprises have acquired or are buying large stakes in Israeli companies. For example, China’s Bright Food just purchased a 70 percent stake in Tnuva, one of Israel’s largest food companies.

However, analysts have warned that investments from China carry a risk. Some have been described as debt traps, with countries like Sri Lanka having to cede critical assets to Chinese control when the country was unable to pay back loans. In Israel, there is a deep concern that China is spearheading and controlling too many government projects.

Experts are split on whether China’s presence in the region is a burden or an asset. China generated a third of the world’s economic growth in 2017 and, according to Dorsey, “the Middle East doesn’t see China just as an economic behemoth but as an emerging world power. This means that countries are almost compelled to create economic relationships with it.”

Middle East tourists flock to South Korea

South Korea has attracted millions of globetrotters to a country that is home to Kpop—the Korean fusion of boy bands and Western music—spicy cabbage and spicy rice cakes. This tourism wave has in turn generated international interest in Korean dramas and television shows. At the same time, Korean consumer products are rapidly spreading around the world. This interest, having first peaked in China and Japan, then the Americas and Europe, has arrived in the Middle East over the past few years.

“The recent trend in South Korean tourism has been Muslim visitors over Chinese tourists,” a representative of the Seoul Tourism Organization told The Media Line. “We’ve invested in restaurants with menus that include ‘halal’ [permissible according to Islamic law] options.”

Such businesses would not serve pork or alcohol and instead offer foods such as lamb, a popular meat among Muslims. Halal restaurants have not been common in South Korea until now. This trend follows neighboring Japan, which has already developed a halal tourist sector.

South Korea is, in fact, slowly redirecting its focus away from East Asia in anticipation of an unprecedented growth in tourists from countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

While there are indications of closer economic activities between South Korea and Middle Eastern countries—Korea’s total trade with the UAE has increased by 50 percent in the last ten years—there are still inroads to be made.

“Their geography and culture makes their relationships too distant,” said a Kuwait-based representative of the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.

Kuwaitis are largely drawn to European products, the representative explained, as Middle Eastern countries have always been strongly influenced by European culture since colonial times.

“However, beauty and electronic consumer products from South Korea are popular because of their high quality and affordability compared to other competing products,” the representative concluded.

(Jinitzail Hernandez and David Lee are Student Interns in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)

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