The politics of the Middle East has always been a complicated affair. It is rife with conflict of all sorts: from nationalist and sectarian to ideological and anti-imperialist—a veritable morass where everyone gets sucked in and no one stays clean. And for one reason or another, all the great powers have been drawn to this troubled region like moths to a bright light, sooner or later getting zapped for being too close. In the early 20th century Britain, France, Turkey and Russia all spent vast resources to assert control, only to lose their empires. Now it is the United States—bogged down in two wars, pitted in a third, abstract and potentially unwinnable war on terrorism, a massive military force spread across the Arabian Gulf, and the main arbiter in the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict—that has become so overstretched and widely loathed that history looks set to repeat itself once again.
Conspicuously absent from the Middle East imbroglio has been China, the world’s rising star. Wary of the lessons learned from watching other powers operate in the region to their own detriment, by imposing themselves and their values, the Chinese believe the region poses such problems for outside powers because of the people’s staunch resistance to external dominance and influence. For the moment, the Asian power remains all too happy to let the United States shoulder the burden of global leadership in the Middle East, while it concentrates on servicing the energy needs of its flourishing economy. However, although rational, is such a policy ultimately sustainable?
The obvious attraction to the Middle East over the past 75 years has been its abundant and easily accessible oil resources, the lifeblood of the modern economy. Cheap and secure access to oil is what has allowed the United States, in part, to flourish over that same period, and brought the global hegemon into its entanglement with the Middle East. Yet, while the US has supposedly been trying to break its ‘dependence on Middle East oil,’ China has just surpassed it in oil imports from the region, taking around 50 percent of its imported oil, mainly from Saudi Arabia and Iran. Moreover, China has also replaced the United States as the largest exporter of goods to the region, with exports and imports nearly doubling in the past five years. Last September, several Arab leaders attended the first ever Sino-Arab Economic and Trade Forum in Ningxia, a sign of the improving relationship between China and the region.
Given this changing reality, will the time come when the Arab countries start seeking greater involvement of China into the region’s politics to counterbalance the United States and Europe? For the time being, China has been averse to such an outcome. An assertive role for China in the politics of the Middle East would inevitably pit China in confrontation with the United States, something it is all too ready to avoid. Despite its heavy involvement in the Middle East, it pails in comparison to the business China has with the United States, not to mention the potential consequences of entering into a US-Soviet style conflict for control of the region. Furthermore, a business-only approach to the Middle East has allowed China to build relationships with all parties without getting involved in the myriad political disputes that have bogged others down.
There may come a point, however, when China is criticized for its lack of involvement and its choice to stay on the political sidelines while reaping the economic benefit of its ties to the region, particularly when countries begin seeking a new political patron and are refused. Indeed, over the past decade China has made various forays into Middle Eastern politics in a possible attempt to ease that tension. In 2002, it sent a Middle East peace envoy to the region—albeit a low-level retired diplomat—and has showed signs of wanting to take a greater role in the peace process. In 2006, while the US took a hard line stance to Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian democratic elections—China invited the foreign minister of Hamas to attend the second meeting of the Arab-Chinese Forum for Cooperation in Beijing.
In the recent conflict between Iran and the international community over its nuclear program, China—which is the largest importer of Iranian oil—was forced to take a stand on the issue at the Security Council. China took the better part of a year watering down a sanctions regime that it ended up voting for in the end, therefore not crossing the United States or its oil supplier. Instances like this may only increase as countries look to China more frequently, especially because of its blind stance to the types of regimes with which it deals. Iran and Hamas are just two examples of parties that China, unlike the US, is unafraid to engage. China has also established close ties to Syria, Libya and Sudan.
Yet, China’s relations do not end with nations on the United States’ black list. China is also close with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and even Israel, proving itself adept at playing politics with both sides of the coin. Chinese relations with Israel have advanced greatly since the 1990s over the sales of high-tech military equipment, a relationship that has aroused American ire more than once.
As John Alterman says in his book, The Vital Triangle, “Basically, China seeks multidimensional cooperative relations with all governments in the Middle East, especially those ruling the more powerful nations in the region, regardless of the condition of those government’s relations with the United States.”
According to Alterman, China has also become a bit weary of the destabilizing effect US foreign policy is having in the region, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it may not be long before China thinks it can do a better job. Although the country has the cash reserves to insulate it from conflict-induced fluctuations in the market, growth and stability of supply have been China’s main concerns for quite some time. Moreover, China’s leadership could eventually see entry into politics as a tool serving its economic optimization.
If China does choose to take a more active role in Middle Eastern politics and fill the void that America’s sluggish economy will inevitably force it to leave, it may eventually find itself engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although China is not even part of the Quartet on Middle East peacemaking, despite being a permanent member of the Security Council and the second largest economy in the world, its good relations with Israel and the Arab world could allow it to play a very constructive role. Furthermore, unlike the United States, China’s population is not driven by any religious sentiments. There are no Christian fundamentalists or Jewish Lobby influencing Chinese foreign policy on the issue, just cold calculation.
Thus far, China’s position has largely reflected international consensus, calling publically for negotiations based on two states and an end to occupation. Yet, in the popularity contest of winning hearts and minds, resolving the Palestinian question is the Middle East’s trump card. China already recognizes Palestine as a state, which it first made after Yasser Arafat’s 1988 declaration. At the same time, it has spent the past two decades building cooperative relations with Israel.
As the Palestinians seek to internationalize the conflict by heading to the United Nations in September, it may be high time for China to make its move. President Obama has already signaled his readiness to open up the globe to a multi-polar system, allowing emerging nations to take a larger role. Indeed, Brazil, Russia and Turkey have spent the last few years laying inroads into the region’s politics. With its robust economic and strategic relationships, will it now be China’s moment to sacrifice its neutrality and take a greater lead in the Middle East?
A version of this article was originally published in The Majalla.