There has been an increase to unprecedented levels of the People's Republic of China's (PRC) initiatives in Africa and the Middle East, both bilaterally and multilaterally, over the past decade. The push in Africa has been spreading since the establishment of the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Through the BRI, China has similarly strengthened its foothold in the Middle East. In fact, the Heads of State in the Euro-Atlantic area have labelled the stated PRC ambitions and assertive behaviour as a "systemic challenge" to the global order.
This paper uses a unique and innovative approach, both from an academic and military perspective, to analysing PRC engagement in these two regions. Firstly, China's actions within the Diplomatic, Informational, Military and Economic (DIME) domains were investigated. Then, an Alternative Analytical technique, in particular an Alternative Futures analysis, was carried out to identify firstly the composite drivers of China's activity, and then delineate the four Alternative Futures which would encompass every plausible evolution rather than the most likely scenario.
While the DIME framework led to an up-to-date review of the PRC's use of Instruments of Power (IoP) in Africa and the Middle East, the Alternative Futures analysis identified two composite drivers, 'economic relevance' and 'great powers competition – battle of narratives'. These were then used to generate the four Alternative Futures which focus attention on the key underlying forces and persisting commonalities. From a new 'Chinese Hegemony' to an alternate 'EXIM Bank' to a 'Selective Dominance' approach, all the way to a retreat and return to a 'Tributary'-type system, these hypothetical futures help to form the boundaries of an analytical 'sandbox' which provides fertile ground for future analysis.
Several highly interesting conclusions were drawn. Firstly, the DIME analysis demonstrated that the most relevant aspects of PRC engagement are in the economic and diplomatic domains, where it is slowly tightening its grasp on Africa and the Middle East. Secondly, the Alternative Futures analysis demonstrated that the low profile which the PRC adopts, irrespective of the future being addressed, would continue to blur China's true objectives, thus preserving its ability to manoeuvre below the radar. Thirdly, the PRC will continue its search for allies and use Private Security Companies (PSCs) to a greater or lesser extent. Finally, since the PRC web of partners could evolve either into solid partnerships or leave a gaping vacuum of power, China's impact would be consistently evident.
Whether its influence in the regions increases or decreases, whether it augments or diminishes its engagement and whether it supersedes other great powers or disappears into the relative background, the fact that China can have possible destabilizing effects on the African and Middle Eastern scene for some time to come is unquestionable..