Category Archives: China-Middle East

China’s CNPC Takes Advantage Of Total Retreat From Iran

WITH WASHINGTON AGAIN turning the financial screws on Iran, China stands to pick up a lot of the pieces that will get broken in the process.

The Iranian state news agency yesterday announced that China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) would take over Total’s 50.1% share of the $4.8 billion Phase 11 (of 24) development of the giant South Pars gas field, the world’s largest unitary gas reserve.

Terms, including financial ones, are unknown. Neither Total nor CNPC has made a public comment at this point. Confusingly, the Iranian oil ministry subsequently said that the terms of the contract remain formally unchanged, though that is not necessarily inconsistent with CNPC taking over.

Last year, in signing on, the French energy company became the first sizeable Western oil and gas company to invest in Iran following the lifting of sanctions on Tehran the previous year.

Now the Trump administration has pulled out of the nuclear agreement that enabled those sanctions to be lifted, fresh US sanctions have been imposed that force companies to choose between trading with Iran and trading with the United States.

For most Western companies, it is no choice at all. Total had already indicated that it would have to walk away from the South Pars project in the new circumstances.

CNPC, which has had a presence in Iran since 2004, already had a 30% stake in Phase 11. Iranian state-owned Petropars owns the rest.

The project is intended to supply gas to the domestic Iranian market from 2021 with excess to that requirement being exported, now assuredly eastwards rather than westwards. That gas could either be shipped or sent to China via the network of pipelines existant, under construction or planned across Central Asia and Pakistan.

China is already the largest market for Iran’s exports of crude oil and condensates, taking 24% of the total last year.

In addition, Chinese banks have extended $25 billion in credit lines for infrastructure investment, suggesting Chinese firms will easily be able to slip into the spaces vacated by Western multinationals and be in a position to negotiate favourable terms now they will be the only game in town for Tehran.

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China’s Western March Into The Middle East

President Xi Jinping (C, front) poses for group photos with Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (6th L, front) and heads of delegations to the eighth ministerial meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in Beijing, July 10, 2018. Photo credit: Xinhua.

CHINA’S INTERESTS IN the Middle East are quietly expanding, driven by the region’s growing role as a source of energy and as a recipient of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) investment.

The eighth meeting of the China Arab States Cooperation Forum, (pictured above) held with some fanfare in Beijing this month, brought that into focus, with Beijing promising $23 billion of funding to its guests.

Such large-headline-number funding packages (not that $23 billion is that large by the standards of these things) tend to comprise money already spent or committed and money that will never materialise. But $150 million that will likely be shelled out is the sum allocated to ‘social stability’. As in Africa, Chinese investments in the Middle East are at risk from social and political developments in the region. (See Libya, Zambia and Angola for precedents.)

That $150 million promise will probably manifest itself as sales of Chinese security equipment and the training to use it. Afghanistan provides a rudimentary model.

And, as in Afghanistan, China is recognizing it has to play a more active diplomatic and security role in the Middle East, and has been doing so — incrementally — since at least 2012-16, part of the ‘March West’ to counter the ‘Pivot East’ of the then US administration of Barak Obama. This was outlined in a policy paper published at the start of 2016.

The bulk of the latest tranche of offerings, $20 billion, is earmarked for loans for reconstruction and development, though that is a relatively modest sum in overall BRI investment. What the money also does is help Beijing straddle the historical rift in the region between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

China is unlikely to break its ties with Tehran and will continue to be a market for Iranian oil as restored and new US sanctions cut off sales to the West. The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, which Beijing played an instrumental role in setting up, is likely to leave Chinese firms better positioned commercially than they were on the ‘last man standing’ principle as Western firms are driven to retreat from Iranian business by Trump’s reversal of policy.

But equally, China needs good working relations with Riyadh and its allies, whose influence in northern and eastern Africa touches directly on China’s greater economic interests in those regions, too (from oil fields and copper mines to China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti and anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa).

Outreach to the Gulf States also balances within the Arab world China’s long-standing relationship with Egypt. The $65 billion memorandum of understanding for investment cooperation that Saudi King Salman signed during a visit to Beijing in March last year had already underlined this.

China sells Saudi Arabia the weapons and military kit that the United States will not out of deference to Israeli objections. One of only thee Chinese armed-drones manufacturing plants outside of China is in Saudi Arabia.

One complication for the countries of the Middle East is Beijing’s repressive treatment of its Muslim minority, and particularly the Uighers. However, few Middle Eastern leaders have spoken out publicly on this — a sign of the importance of the growing ties in other areas and China’s ability to use its economic clout to dampen international criticism of its domestic policies.

The more significant issue for Beijing in the region will be the one that has confronted the other outside powers that came before it: it is difficult to maintain a neutral position in a part of the world where there are so many overlapping and longstanding rivalries and conflicts while stepping up diplomatic and security engagement beyond the purely mercantilist.

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