Is it necessary for China to take sides in the Middle East?
“Israel may attack Iran? I didn’t know that. Israel bombed Syria? I didn’t know that, either. What do I know about Palestine? Well, wars. With Israel, it seems,” answered Mr Huang, a young designer in Beijing who has contacts with Israeli and Iranian designers from time to time. The conflicts of the Middle East do not concern him. He is fascinated by both Israeli and Persian art and design, which, as he told NewsChina, blend modern and traditional elements very successfully.
Huang’s political indifference when it comes to the Middle East, as well as his pursuit of friendship with opposing sides in some of the region’s conflicts, could be taken as a microcosm of China’s attitude to the Middle East in general. China shares no borders with Middle Eastern nations, nor do the varied, chaotic politics of the region have much of an impact on China’s domestic or international affairs when compared to the US, Europe and Japan.
Chinese tourists understand the appeal of Egypt and Turkey, but given recent events, they are more likely to choose the palm-fronded Maldives as a safe and luxurious holiday destination.
For decades, China has committed itself to befriending any and all countries willing to recognize it as a world power. In the Middle East, this has translated into direct, cordial engagement with most countries, some of whom are intermittently at war. Hua Chunying, spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, has publicly referred to China as the “common friend of both Israel and Palestine,” an assertion difficult to imagine coming from a US politician.
However, as China has globalized, the Middle East, and its troubles, have moved closer to its borders. The source of almost half of China’s crude oil imports, conflict and economic instability in the Middle East directly affects the price of fuel and other petrochemical products in China.
As a result, the recent visits to China in tandem by first the Palestinian Territories President Mahmoud Abbas, followed by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, have triggered widespread speculation on China’s wider role in the Middle East, most specifically the sustainability of its “friend to all” strategy.
Discussions on the possibility of China rethinking its Middle East policy, though not headlined in the State media or online, have begun to surface in academic and diplomatic circles.
First and Last
The relations between China and Middle Eastern countries did not begin with pragmatism. In 1950, Israel was the first Middle Eastern nation to officially recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC), lobbying for full PRC representation at the UN.
The same year saw the League of Arab States pass a resolution calling for its members to continue to boycott the PRC. China soon sent diplomats to meet Israeli delegates in Moscow, while the Chinese media labeled Arab leaders “reactionary elites,” according to a book by Li Hongjie, a former Chinese diplomatic attaché in the Middle East.
According to the account of Professor Yitzhak Shichor at the University of Haifa, an expert on China’s Middle East policy, Israel, increasingly dependent on US aid, had to refrain from deepening its relationship with the PRC in the 1950s to accommodate Washington’s increasingly hostile attitude toward all Communist states allied with the Soviet Union. When hostilities broke out on the Korean peninsula in June 1950, China and the US became embroiled in a proxy war, with China’s formerly friendly attitude toward Israel changing accordingly.
In 1955, China decided to side with the Arabs when newly-liberated former monarchies in the Middle East began gearing up for a showdown with Israel. Egypt, for example, established diplomatic ties with China in 1956. However, the Sino-Soviet split in 1960 led to most Arab countries choosing the Soviet Union over China, or, as in the case of Saudi Arabia and other monarchies, cozying up to the West. With the US and the USSR by far the most visible players in the Middle East, China found itself on the outside looking in.
In 1980s, Deng Xiaoping’s determination to save China’s failing economy rather than continue the ideological struggles of the past, finally saw pragmatism return to Chinese diplomacy. In 1988, China even sold missiles to Saudi Arabia simply to acquire US currency.
Professor Yin Gang, Deputy Secretary General of the Chinese Association for Middle Eastern Studies, told NewsChina that it was not until China established diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia in 1992 that China’s lukewarm Cold War in the Middle East finally ended. That same year, Israel, the first Middle Eastern nation to officially recognize the PRC, ironically became the last to establish diplomatic ties with Beijing since the 1950s. Israeli weapons and agricultural technology, however, were already flowing into Deng Xiaoping’s China.
A Friend to All
China has become Israel’s third largest trading partner. The country is eager to develop further cooperation with a country described as “strong in innovation,” by Gao Yanping, Chinese Ambassador to Israel in an article published in the Chinese State-owned newspaperPeople’s Daily during Netanyahu’s recent visit to Beijing. The Middle East has also been a major overseas market for Chinese construction contractors, though its market share has recently seen a slump. China’s less-developed western areas, as they rush to industrialize, are also keeping their eyes on the rapidly developing economies in the region.
Saudi Arabia has become China’s largest oil provider and has big petrochemical projects in China, while the Qatar Sovereign Wealth Fund, the largest in the world, is one of the most enthusiastic foreign investors in China’s capital market. Gulf countries are looking eastwards for LNG buyers, and due to UN sanctions Iran may be more reliant on orders from China than any other country in the region.
In 2012 China’s trade with Arab countries was only slightly lower than with its fifth largest trading partner, South Korea, though it still accounts for less than half of China’s bilateral trade with the EU and the US.
China’s oil consumption has outpaced its domestic production for years. It is widely reckoned that Chinese reliance on Middle Eastern oil will increase, even as the US increasingly shifts its oil supply toward domestic and Canadian resources.
In addition, with more than 20 million Muslims among its general population, China has become increasingly aware of the importance of maintaining good relations with Muslim countries.
Some academics have even hinted that the US “pivot to Asia” could open up further opportunities for China in the Middle East, formerly US political territory, somewhat rebalancing international relations at a time when China is in need of stronger global friendships. At a recent forum sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the concept of China “moving west” seemed to be gaining traction.
However, as Professor Yin noted, the build-up of China’s stakes in the Middle East has already been in progress for decades. While the region’s many conflicts might highlight China’s role, specifically on the UN Security Council, there is little evidence to suggest that China is willing to take the place of the US in this chaotic part of the world.
The Art of Distance
While China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs offered to provide “necessary assistance” should Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas wish to meet during their respective, separate, visits, this was more a diplomatic courtesy than a signal of genuine will to act as a go-between in perhaps the world’s most delicate political relationship. Abbas departed Beijing while his Israeli opposite number was in Shanghai, and their respective meetings with Chinese officials were largely by-the-book.
Nevertheless, in his meeting with Abbas, Chinese President Xi Jinping put forward four proposals to resolve the Palestine-Israel conflicts, each one essentially a reiteration of China’s official “land for peace” policy. While Chinese officials continue to express political support for the “national liberation” of Palestine, they are more than happy to continue business as usual with Israel.
Netanyahu’s delegation, as the Prime Minister himself admitted during an online discussion with Chinese Internet users on the Xinhua website, “was here to build a perfect partnership.” The “partnership” Netanyahu was referring to, was that between Chinese manufacturing power and Israeli R&D. US$400 million deals signed during his visit were far in excess of the total value of China-Palestinian trade for a whole year.
In Professor Schichor’s view, Netanyahu’s visit showed nothing other than that the two sides were “disillusioned about each other’s limit,” and “were concentrating on bilateral relations.”
“It’s impossible for China to be the place where any international meetings on the Middle East, whether the Palestine-Israel conflict, or Iran, or Syria, will be held,” Professor Yin told NewsChina. “It is neither possible, nor is it geopolitically necessary, for China to lead the peace process in the region or provide guarantees for any party involved.”
Li pointed to the expectations following the collapse of the Soviet Union that China would become a major political force in former Arab allies of Moscow. China simply refused to fill the void left behind by the end of the Cold War, a void later filled by the US, the EU and the newly-formed Russian Federation.
Today, more political involvement does not sound like a good idea, either. “The Middle East is far away not only in geographical terms but also in historical, cultural, religious, political and social terms, making it marginal to China’s interests,” said Professor Schichor.
China’s ability to befriend opposing sides in Middle Eastern conflicts, Schichor added, was “precisely the outcome of its low political profile.”
In the wake of the Arab Spring, and faced with major domestic and global challenges even the US is more reluctant to be involved in Middle Eastern politics. China, meanwhile, is embroiled in saber-rattling over territorial disputes with its neighbors, as well as struggling to maintain economic growth. In the view of Professor Schichor, more political involvement in the Middle East, a region with so much diversity, means China has to begin taking sides now, something the government has avoided. It also runs the risk of deeper scrutiny of its international policy, also something the government wishes to avoid.
China’s hands-off approach, however, has frustrated some of her Arab friends. Refusal to “take sides” in the Libyan and Syrian conflicts could prove a handicap in dealing with these nations in the future. This, Yin insists, is just a short-term problem. Two months after taking office, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi chose Beijing as the destination of his first overseas visit, despite China’s failure to support the overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak. On May 12, the Libyan Housing Ministry signed an agreement with the China State Construction Engineering Corporation to resume projects in Benghazi suspended during the revolt against Muammar Gaddafi.
China’s continued opposition to regime change will not prejudice Middle Eastern countries against stronger ties. Indeed, Yin believes that China’s refusal to intervene in what it calls the “domestic affairs” of other countries is more likely to earn Beijing support rather than criticism.
Third-party factors remain important. Nearly all experts, including those most eager to talk about greater Chinese involvement in the Middle East, still view her interests in the region through the lens of China’s much more strategically important relationships with the US, EU, Russia and India. The consensus is that if China can adequately balance diplomatic relations between these major players, the Middle East is unlikely to present a problem.
For now, at least, China, and her Middle Eastern partners, have bigger fish to fry.
Sign-Up for the News China Email Update
Every month you"ll receive the latest stories from the most recent issue of News China.
Badeling Pass | Beijing
Sep 2011 | Submitted by Brian Snelson
Or send photos to email@example.com
Please include your name, location and date of photo