It is always a global concern whether Beijing will invest more diplomatic efforts in the Middle East. But the answer will not only depend on the willingness of Beijing, but also on that of the international community and the United States in particular.
The US has long been the single most important power that can influence outcomes of major Middle East problems. Without acceptance from the US, China will not be able to play its due role. Although American scholars and even high-level diplomats have frequently expressed their wish for China to share more responsibility, the US has neither politically nor psychologically been prepared for China’s due role in the Middle East.
The concern of the US for China’s growing influence constitutes the first major obstacle in China’s deeper engagement with the Middle East. After news of visits of Palestinian and Israeli leaders was released in early May 2013, voices in American media expressed concerns over China’s potential encroachment of America’s influence in the Middle East.
The media response reflects the complicated mentality of Washington in seeing China’s role in the troublesome region. On one hand, Washington does expect Beijing to invest more resources in the Middle East since it is short of resources dealing with so many problems at the same time in the region; on the other hand, Washington worries that China’s growing influence might shake its dominant role in a region so crucial in its global geopolitical strategy.
It is unknown to what extent China can play a constructive role. So long as China can have its voices on the major Middle East conflicts heard across the region, it will increase its geopolitical influence. Beijing’s more balanced approach would even enhance its soft power in Muslim nations in addition to its traditional commitments to Palestinian nationhood.
Washington’s concern should be understandable, but not legitimate. The Middle East should never be the domain of any individual country. Peace, stability and prosperity should prevail above anything else. Unfortunately, it seems least possible that Washington would like to give up its hegemony over the region.
The incompatible nature of China and US policies in the Middle East will be another obstacle for China’s significant engagement. To be more specific, China’s non-intervention for peace promotion conflicts with the US’s intervention for democracy promotion. This is mainly embodied in China-US interactions on the issues regarding the domestic order of some regional countries.
China’s Middle East policy starts from its peaceful development strategy and concept of harmonious world. China has long been a society that regards peace and stability as a precondition for prosperity. Though evolving in modernization and globalization, China still keeps peace as a basic concept and principle in its diplomacy.
China also regards peace and stability in the Middle East as relevant with its national modernization drive. China believes that its stable supply of energy from the region, its market in the region and its economic cooperation with the region can only be achieved with a relatively peaceful and stable political and security environment in the region.
While China regards peace and stability as a basic principle in dealing with the Middle East, the US enshrines democracy and other Western values as both the ends and means of its Middle East policy. To be more concrete, the US intends not only to construct the Middle East according to its own political model but also to realize its own geopolitical interests in the name of democracy promotion.
Noble as it is, democracy promotion, as evident in the last decade, has been practiced in the means of intervention into internal affairs of a number of North African and Middle Eastern countries. It might be true that figures such as Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Qaddafi of Libya had been ruling their countries in an inhumane manner. But the wars toppling them have caused far more humanitarian problems.
On the contrary, peace promotion, which is finally embodied in non-intervention, has become the banner China upholds for its Middle East diplomacy. China well understands that various Middle East conflicts are based out of profound religious and ethnic reasons and territorial disputes as well. But China also believes that external intervention led by the US and the West is even more detrimental to the regional security situation.
The US policy toward the Syria crisis has become more prudent. The US is reluctant to provide lethal weapons to Syria’s oppositions, and even more reluctant to intervene militarily into Syria. It might be out of the concern that these lethal weapons might go into the hands of extremist factions, and Syria might finally fall into the hands of Islamic extreme forces. But it is also due to opposition from China and Russia.
However, it by no way means that the differences between the US and China have substantially narrowed. It is least likely that the US will give up its policy of democracy promotion. It is equally least likely that China will abandon its non-intervention principle. So long as the distance remains, the US will not accept China’s due role in the Middle East.
All in all, some conditions, for instance, sufficient economic resources and willingness, for China to play a meaningful role in the Middle East have become mature while some others, for instance, Americans’ attitudes, have not. Therefore, China’s role should never be over estimated.
Neither the US nor China will easily give up their principles. More profound cooperation between the two, with Beijing having a bigger say, will finally depend on either wisdom of reconciliation or the comparison of powers of the two.
Dr. Jin Liangxiang is a Research Fellow with Shanghai Institute of International Studies (SIIS).