A slight sideways step for me, though if you read it you will see there is some links to other stuff I have done, this is a paper commissioned by the Europe-China Research and Advice Network (ECRAN), an EU vehicle that funds research on China for European policymakers. I have written other papers for them in the past. This one was written late last year and focuses on China’s relations with the Middle East in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’ and looks in particular at the cases of Libya, Syria, Egypt and Iran. The full paper can be found behind this link. I have pasted the introduction below.
Short Term Policy Brief 79
Author: Raffaello Pantucci
What are China’s key strategic interests in the Middle East and what is the status of its relations with key countries in the region?
During his opening speech at the first China-Arab Expo (an event that had been upgraded from the previous Ningxia International Investment and Trade Fair and the China-Arab States Economic and Trade Forum), Yu Zhengsheng, Standing Committee of the Politburo member and fourth most powerful man in China, highlighted trade and energy as the two main pillars of Chinese-Arab cooperation.Delivered in September 2013, this speech crystallized a policy which has been abundantly clear for some time with China and the Middle East, where the policy priority and focusis on securing energy and developing trade partnerships, while remaining as detached as possible from the intransigent regional politics.
As prominent Qinghua academic in international affairs Yan Xuetong has put it, ‘China can strengthen cooperation economically with countries in the Middle East, but politically, it had better stick with declaring its stand…the complexity of the Middle East politics is far beyond our comprehension.’ With ample domestic turmoil and local difficulties to manage, Chinese
leaders have little appetite to be dragged into a region that has challenged western policymakers’ capabilities for decades.
Nevertheless, events in the wake of the Arab Spring have challenged China in a number of different ways, forcing it to re-evaluate long-held positions and think more deeply about the implications of its growing international footprint. Questions around citizen security were highlighted in the wake of the rushed evacuation of some 35,860 nationals as Libya collapsed, while the decision to abstain from the vote to impose a no-fly zone meant that resolution 1973 was passed. This led to questions about this possibly being a signal that Beijing might be adapting its position on Responsibility to Protect– something it had previously treated as anathema to its sacred ‘non-interference’ principle in international affairs. Particularly raised during the Libya crisis, both issues have hung heavy both over China’s considerations of other aspects of the fall-out from the Arab Spring in the broader Middle East. It remains, however, unclear that they have signalled a dramatic shift, rather than a course adjustment that means such issues are now a higher priority for Beijing policymakers.
Adjacent to these considerations are other larger questions about China’s geopolitical position. For example, the hawkish line often advanced that the current conflict in Syria is part of a larger trajectory of regime change that flows from Damascus, through Tehran to Moscow and Beijing is one that resonates amongst a certain (predominantly nationalist and military) community. This perspective is one that is echoed in Moscow, and is often touted as a reason why the two vote in lock-step with regards to the events of the Arab Spring, Syria and Iran. Chinese foreign policy thinkers who adhere to this perspective often see the world through a binary US versus China lens. For them, the Middle East is an ideological battleground where the US is seeking to upturn the table in favor of a new chaotic order that it controls, and one that will ultimately undermine Chinese national interests. Found amongst academics at prominent think tanks like CASS, it is unclear the degree to which such perspectives dominate senior levels of Chinese foreign policy thinking.
At the same time, China continues to be concerned about the spread of jihadist ideas (with little clear understanding of what motivates them or nurtures their growth) and the possibility that these might filter back into the Xinjiang autonomous region of northwest China still dominated by the Muslim Uighur ethnic group. There have been reports that Chinese nationals – both Uighur and non-Uighur – have participated in the fighting in Syria, and China has grown concerned by the growing appearance of jihadist videos and materials during investigations into violence in Xinjiang from the unrest there in July 2009 until today. China has also increasingly featured as a potential target in a growing array of jihadist material. Most recently, al Shabaab’s al Kataib media published a video in which they discussed the Uighur’s plight, while in May 2013 (though likely produced substantially before his reported death in December 2012) al Qaeda ideologue Abu Zaid al-Kuwaiti released a video through the Turkestan Islamic Party’s media wing, Islam Awazi, in which he provided ‘advice for the Muslims of East Turkestan.’ For China, the potential danger of becoming too involved in Middle Eastern politics is that the eyes of violent Islamists who have thus far focused on the west, might eventually turn to China and portray it as a target– a situation Beijing has thus far managed to avoid thanks to careful diplomacy and the fact that Islamists remain focused on the west as the principle ‘far enemy’. However, Beijing’s concerns remain heightened in the wake of a number of incidents. For example, the suicide attack in Tiananmen Square Beijing in early November 2013 was linked to a Uighur Muslim protester, and was subsequently praised, but not claimed, in a video by TIP. That particular incident came in the wake of110 detentions in Xinjiang of people accused of ‘disseminating religious extremism and material. Highlighting the ongoing violence in the province, in December there was another incident at a police station in Bachu County outside Kashgar that led to 11 deaths (the same county saw 21 killed in another incident in April 2013). All of these examples help underline how nervous the central leadership in Beijing are about this issue.
But these worrying local concerns remain secondary to more large-scale energy concerns, something that reflects a long-standing pragmatism in Chinese foreign policy towards the Middle East. Back in 1994, leader Jiang Zemin highlighted that China should oppose ‘hegemony’ by helping dissident states in the Middle East like Iran, but at the same time should ensure that international stability remains sound in order to facilitate China’s ongoing growth and development. This approach is one that resonates today, where, for example, China is clearly supportive of Moscow’s approach towards Syria and Iran through
measures in the UNSC, but at the same time takes a secondary seat to Russia’s willingness to take a more prominent position in making its point.
For example, in the wake of the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta, east Damascus, Syria on August 21, 2013, the Russian government took the lead in countering the western push to define this as the red line that justified intervention against the Assad regime and instead worked to develop a way for Syria to give up its chemical weapons. Russia’s public interventions culminated in an opinion editorial in the New York Times on September 11, 2013 by President Vladimir Putin. In contrast, throughout this period China made regular statements through the Foreign Ministry, but avoided much further publicity. At the regular MFA briefings, Hong Lei offered support for the Russian efforts: ‘the Russian proposal offers an important opportunity to ease the current tension and properly address the international community’s concerns about Syria’s chemical weapons.’ They later offered Chinese experts to participate in the disarmament assurance group, but otherwise remained relatively low profile. China is publicly supportive of Russia’s positions on Syria, but is not as eager to attract the sort of confrontation that Russia seems to prefer. This Quietist approach to foreign policy is something that can be found across China’s foreign policy agenda.Ultimately, China does not seek to upset the international order that is allowing it to slowly grow into the world’s largest power.
This brief paper touches upon Syria, Egypt, Libya and Iran. This is not a comprehensive overview of China’s relations in the region, but highlights the priority ones as requested by ECRAN. Amongst the important relationships omitted, China continues to be willing to cultivate close relationships with both Israeli and Palestinian authorities, but beyond proposing general suggestions about peace processes, has not engaged in the minutiae of the conversation (nor is it likely to want to). On Iraq, China has profited quite effectively from the toppling of the old regime to get its firms in to develop Iraqi fields (something it has been able to do in part thanks to western firms’ concerns about going in to the country), while Saudi Arabia remains one of China’s biggest energy partners, notwithstanding the mute background of Saudi-style wahhabbist ideology slowly filtering in through Gulf money into Xinjiang. Thus far, Chinese officials have not chosen to acknowledge this linkage too publicly, although some academics discuss the growing spread of such ideas and suggest Saudi Arabia as one of the possible origins. None of these relationships currently seem in any sort of dramatic shift and therefore are placed to one side.