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A Rising Asian Transactionalist Player in the Middle East: Deciphering China’s Infrastructure Diplomacy in the Region
China’s overseas infrastructure building is a type of foreign commercial activity involving foreign aid, foreign trade and foreign investment. As Beijing is actively investing in and constructing infrastructure in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), numerous stories and misconceptions have spread about the changes China can and will bring through its infrastructure diplomacy to the region. The paper seeks an understanding of China’s infrastructure diplomacy in the MENA and how this diplomacy affects the presence of other powers in the region, particularly the United States and the European Union. In doing so, this research conducts spatial quantitative analysis of the American Enterprise Institute’s China Global Investment Tracker Database, combined with a qualitative study of government documents, companies’ briefings, media reports, and interviews with business executives. Applying the transactionalist behavior theory and role theory, the paper argues that contrary to certain interpretations, in its internal new role conceptions, Beijing seeks two objectives which are not necessarily compatible: 1. to become a conditional supporter of the prevailing world order in which it can be placed in a better position to secure its own commercial and political interests; 2. to enjoy maintaining the role of ‘a shirker’ which tries to avoid assuming excessive responsibility and confronting established powers over issues not directly related to its domestic interests. Moreover, instead of following well-designed scripts as the established powers in the region used to do, China’s identification of what ‘roles’ it plays and its role performance in the region serve immediate, non-systematic initiatives, with a focus on short-term benefits. Our preliminary findings show that so far China is in a beneficial position in the MENA compared to the established powers and has achieved significant economic gains and political influence through infrastructure diplomacy. Yet, China–MENA interactions in infrastructure have not reached their heyday as was expected. This derives from several factors, the most important of which being China’s predicament in its role-taking, which despite bringing flexibility to its policy implementation, makes its foreign policies such as the infrastructure diplomacy subject to shifts and open to interpretation. The paper draws from Role Theory and International Political Economy and from innumerable interviews with senior business executives and government officials in China and the MENA.
International Relations/Affairs
Geographic Area
All Middle East
Sub Area