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Beyond Economics in the Middle East

Jan 07, 2022
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

China’s Middle East policy always gets a lot of attention from international media and academia. Economic cooperation has long been a major dimension of international observations, as indicated by the 7th International Forum on Asia and the Middle East, which was held in Shanghai in November. Long-held principles and cultural traditions play a key role in defining China’s Middle East policy.

First, China stands on the right side of history. Many observers mention that China maintains good relations with all Middle Eastern countries, and some even argue that it is playing a balancing game in the region, maintaining the same distance with respect to all Middle Eastern countries.

This is only partly true. China does attach great importance to all Middle Eastern countries, with all their different ethnic and religious backgrounds. But it does so always on the basis of an objective evaluation about what is right and what is wrong and will not sacrifice its long-held principles and values.

China’s policy on the Syrian crisis provides a good example. China, together with Russia, has vetoed several UN Security Council resolutions that might lead to military interference in Syria since 2012. Pressure came not only from the United States and some European countries but also from some Arab countries having good relations with China, including Gulf countries. But China had been persistent in its own judgment and principles. It believes that only the people can decide the future of their country. External interference will only make things worse, and Syria’s sovereignty should be respected.

Facts on the ground 10 years later indicate that China has taken the right approach. Its policy had greatly contributed to efforts to maintain a minimal level of stability in Syria and has prevented the worst scenario of total disorder, for example if external military interference had happened. In that case, more refugees would have been produced.

Some Arab countries were dissatisfied with China’s vetoing the UN resolutions, but finally came to understand China’s position. Today, a decade later, Arab countries in the Gulf region are extending an olive branch to Syria. The visit of Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed of the UAE to Syria on Nov. 10 was a good example. According to some analysts, the visit suggests that the Arab League was willing to reinstate Syria’s membership.

Syria is one — not the only — example in this regard. China’s strong opposition to the U.S.-led Iraq war in 2003, China’s opposition to excessive use of military force in Libya and China’s policy on other major regional issues have proved that the best way to maintain good relations with all is to stand on the side of what is right.

Second, China cherishes traditional friendship. It attaches great importance to economic cooperation in its relations with Middle East countries, it’s true, but it is equally true that China attaches great importance to friendship, and will always keep in mind those who helped and supported it through difficult times.

Egypt is the first country in the Middle East with which China has established a comprehensive strategic partnership. This has laid the foundation of future long-term cooperation between the two, both politically and economically. And China has encouraged its enterprises to invest in the Suez Canal Special Economic Zone, a joint project between the two that creates tens of thousands of jobs. China has also helped Egypt in the construction of a new capital city.

One of the most important reasons behind China’s readiness to cooperate with Egypt is the strong friendship established by the former leaders of the two countries. In 1955, China and Egypt were both important parties invited to the Bandung Conference. It was there that Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt, acknowledged Premier Zhou Enlai’s introduction of China’s foreign policy, and later led Arab and African countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China, which marked a major step in China’s break from diplomatic isolation. Despite changing times, the friendship founded on that encounter between the two has remained unchanged.

China’s relationship with Algeria is another example in this regard. Algeria is another country with which China, early on, had established a comprehensive strategic partnership. Within the framework of CSP, cooperation has been moving forward steadily, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Algeria in July.

The reason China attaches great importance to Algeria is mainly that the two share a profound traditional friendship. China lent a hand to Algeria during its fight for national independence, and in 1971 Algeria, together with Albania, backed the restoration of China’s seat in the United Nations. China saw this as precious help, and it has never forgotten.

Third, China upholds justice. It is part of Chinese culture that international relations should not be defined by strength. Justice should always be upheld in with regard to international conflicts.

China’s policy toward Palestine issue is a good example. China does not have any special interest at stake in the Palestine-Israel conflict, but it has long supported the efforts of Palestinians to realize their legitimate aspiration for nationhood. In a speech in Cairo on Jan. 21, 2016, President Xi Jinping said: “Without fairness and justice, a peace accord can only bring about a cold peace. The international community should stick to the principle of fairness and justice and address historical injustice as soon as possible.”

China’s policy on the Iran nuclear issue is another case. The evolution of the issue, as witnessed, is not only one of nonproliferation but also of bullying. Iran has been committed to the JCPOA since it was approved by the UN Security Council in mid-July 2015. But the United States withdrew from the deal in May 2018, and launched a maximum pressure campaign against Iran, demonstrating American unilateralism and power politics to the extreme. While adhering to the principle of nonproliferation, China opposed the bullying by the US against a party that was committed to the deal. China believes that without justice, no international crisis can be properly resolved.

To sum up, China regards the countries of the Middle East as economic partners. But non-economic factors play a critical role — in some ways a decisive role — in many contentious matters in the region.

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