By Pan Hu
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.
The rise of China as an important player in the global economy and political structure has far-reaching ramifications for various regions of the world, and the Middle East is no exception. Understanding China’s strategic aims in the Middle East will be of fundamental importance to policymakers in the belt of countries extending from Libya to Iran.
Beijing’s principal economic interest in the Middle East, of course, is oil. A net oil importer for the past decade, China’s need for foreign petroleum is expected to grow exponentially in the coming generation, to sustain high levels of economic growth. China therefore has a growing stake in the stability of the region.
As it will be decades before they even begin to approach the global military might available to the United States, it logically follows that the Chinese must rely on US power to ensure the security of their oil supplies for the foreseeable future, not unlike the other energy-hungry states of the Far East. With this in mind, it is easy to understand China’s unease over the intensifying friction between Washington and the Islamic world. Should a genuine “clash of civilizations” erupt between the two, China will be one of many external parties with considerable interests hanging in the balance, yet limited capacity to influence the outcome.
For years, the possibility of a Sino-Islamic axis aligned against the United States has been a distinct fear in the minds of US conservatives. Chinese weapons proliferation in Islamic states that deeply distrust or resent US interests, including states that are deemed sponsors of terrorism, lies at the heart of their concern. A few of the more hardline commentators have suggested that China is waging a proxy war against the United States through its support of Iraq, Iran, and Syria – perhaps even the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In fact, while China can find common cause with many Muslims in its fear and loathing of US unilateralism, its overall relationship with the Islamic world is anything but rock-solid, and Chinese cooperation with the “rogue” elements of Islam is restrained by several key factors.
Two of these factors are well known. First, China does not dare jeopardize its booming commercial relations with the US, which is perhaps the greatest single factor in its rise as an economic power. Second, not only is Islamic fundamentalism as unsavory to Chinese civilization as it is to the West, but Muslim militancy in general is regarded as a potential threat to China’s territorial integrity. The heavy-handed communist authorities are determined to prevent the far-western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region from becoming a Chinese Chechnya.
Beijing is therefore unlikely to forge formal alliances with the Arab and Muslim worlds. Its technical assistance to the militaries of Iran, Libya, and other Middle Eastern countries are only manifestations of a loose strategic cooperation – not dissimilar to the kind of assistance Beijing receives from Moscow. From the US viewpoint, Chinese behavior is disturbing enough, but the reality is that neither China nor its Muslim clients are inclined toward a genuine commitment as allies. In other words, today’s marriage of convenience can well be tomorrow’s diplomatic divorce.
There is, however, a third element that colors China’s Middle East policy: Israel. Though rocky as of late, the Sino-Israeli bilateral relationship is considered strategically important by both sides. The Chinese need access to Israel’s military know-how, while the Israelis are keen to tap the increasingly lucrative Chinese arms market, a major source of income for its defense industry and, by extension, its ongoing defense research. Indeed, Israel ranks second to Russia in its military cooperation with Beijing, and recent events suggest that only US pressure has prevented the transfer of its most sophisticated systems.
China’s hands-off, minimalist approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is indicative of its reluctance to assume a higher profile in the Middle East. With much at stake in its relations with Arabs and Israelis alike, and only limited leverage for now, Beijing must remain as aloof as possible from the most emotionally charged political conflict in the world. On the surface, it would appear that China sympathizes with the Palestinian uprising, especially considering Israel’s close alignment with the United States. More likely, however, such sympathy is mixed with apprehension over the international community’s demonization of Israeli activity in the West Bank.
Beijing’s opinion in global affairs – especially territorial disputes – is obviously shaped greatly by its own sovereignty issues. From the Chinese point of view, it is very difficult to reject Israel’s claim to the West Bank outright. Inasmuch as the Jewish state has a right to exist at all, it might as well include the ancient Jewish provinces of Judea and Samaria – the very lands that make up what is commonly referred to as the “occupied territories” in today’s media.
As many would have guessed, this Chinese perspective of the Mideast conflict is a reflection of Beijing’s own cherished view of national sovereignty. If Israel does not have inalienable rights to Judea and Samaria, what gives China inalienable rights to Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Taiwan? Israeli right-wingers have tried to remind the world that not only was “Palestine” never recognized as an independent state, but the term “Palestinian” itself is for the most part a post-1948 ethnic designation. In much the same way, China defends its right to rule Tibet by claiming that no international treaty or agreement ever recognized the existence of a Tibetan state.
Move away from what the world community officially endorses, and the sovereignty arguments are even less favorable for China – at least in comparison to the case for Israel. For instance, China never annexed Tibet into its empire as a true province. The Chinese in Tibet today do not have ancestral roots there, whereas Jews have roots in Judea/Samaria. Moreover, unlike the Palestinians, the Tibetan people did enjoy self-rule for most of their recorded history, with sharply fluctuating levels of Chinese influence in their internal affairs, even during the heyday of the far-flung Manchu empire.
It is not uncommon to hear the Chinese say to the Americans, “You shouldn’t lecture us on Tibet because you yourselves stole a whole continent from the natives.” Yet if Israel cedes parts of the West Bank to a Palestinian state, it would potentially call into question Beijing’s position on vast tracts of territory that are officially said to be an integral part of China. Such a high-profile settlement is bound to have repercussions worldwide. For this reason alone, the Chinese are reluctant to play a more active role in mediating the dispute, even if they had more regional influence. Chinese leaders will occasionally give lip-service to the cause of Palestinian self-determination, but in private they probably hope that Israel will retain control of as much of the West Bank as possible.
For the foreseeable future, China must walk a tightrope in pursuing its interests in the Middle East. It has compelling interests on both ends of the Arab-Israeli rivalry and must balance them accordingly. At the moment, things are manageable from Beijing’s viewpoint, but should a confrontation develop between the US-Israeli alliance and the Islamic peoples, China would be caught in a major dilemma.
For their part, the countries of the Middle East must realize that China expects its impartiality on the region’s controversies to be rewarded – with more oil deals in the Persian Gulf states’ case, with continued defense technology collaboration in Israel’s case, and with strict disinterest in what Beijing considers its internal affairs in everyone’s case. The need to keep relations smooth is a two-way street, for China would have no shortage of cards to play should it feel compelled to throw in its lot with either side.