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Will China Fill a Middle East Vacuum?

Jun 07, 2021
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

It has been many weeks since late March and early April, when Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited six Middle Eastern countries. But international attention to the visit has not dwindled. Various webinars held by institutions both in and outside the region continue to focus on the visit. In these webinars, one of the most frequently asked questions is whether China will fill the void left by the United States.

To many international observers, Wang’s visit seems to suggest that China intends to supplant the U.S. in helping to manage the affairs of the region.

These speculations are mistaken in many ways. First of all, it is not likely that that America will leave the Middle East, a signal sent by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on visits to Israel and several Arab countries. In addition, such ideas about China’s Middle East policy and its posture toward the U.S. are inaccurate.

It is true that recent years have seen China-U.S. relations turn more confrontational because of unreasonable U.S. policies toward China. The Donald Trump administration had launched an all-around “maximum pressure” campaign against China in 2017. The Biden administration, while expected to take a different approach, has followed Trump’s policy in many ways and regards China and the U.S. as entering a period of “stiff competition.”

But despite U.S. policy becoming more confrontational, China’s policy toward the U.S. has always been reasonable and consistent. China well understands that confrontational relations with the U.S. will be good for neither country, nor for the world. Therefore, no matter how difficult it is, or how unreasonable the U.S. side becomes, China will work hard to develop cooperative relations. Though struggling for its legitimate interests, China’s objective in its relations with the U.S. is cooperation. China on many occasions has expressed clearly that its development is designed to improve the livelihoods of its people, and its objective is not to replace the U.S. in international affairs or to compete with the U.S.

China’s policy in the Middle East is an integral part of its overall foreign policy. It also wants to cooperate with the U.S. and with other major parties regarding regional affairs, and it regards cooperation on Middle East issues as part of its overall relations with the U.S.

The assumptions about China filling the vacuum is also based on an incorrect interpretation of China’s perceptions of the international and regional order. China regards the world as a collection of various nation-states that enjoy sovereignty equally, and it respects the sovereignty of other nation-states. While it is large, it has been consistently and more forcefully defending the principle of non-interference. As for regional affairs, China will always argue that countries in the region should cooperate to work out ways to manage their own affairs. Therefore, the discourse of filling a Middle East vacuum is actually not in the dictionary of China’s foreign policy.

Regarding its own policy in the Middle East, China has expressed very clearly that it does not seek allies or proxies in the region, nor does it want to build spheres of influence. This stance is clearly demonstrated in many speeches by President Xi Jinping, for instance, during his visit to the Middle East in early 2016, and by State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in recent years. What China wants to do is to build circles of partnerships for common development, and the Belt and Road Initiative provides an opportunity.

Regarding the security framework of the Middle East, China believes that countries in the region should work out security mechanisms via dialogue, and that they themselves are the deciders of regional affairs. External actors should neither stand by nor impose solutions for regional affairs or security mechanisms. They can mediate among regional rivalries and push for collective efforts.

Though China has expressed its position many times, its policy has not been well understood partly as a result of a broad and persistent Cold War mentality, or power politics, of the West. Such a mentality takes it for granted that China on its developing course would move into the vacuum or launch some sort of geopolitical competition with the U.S.

On the other hand, though it is not China’s course to fill the vacuum in the region, it does oppose unreasonable and irresponsible policies of the U.S. Examples are numerous.

China, together with Russia, France and Germany, strongly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. China, together with Russia, opposed the U.S. and its European allies bombing Libya in 2011 by over-interpreting a UN Security Council resolution. And China, together with Russia, since 2012, has vetoed several UN Security Council resolutions that could lead to interfering in the war in the sovereign nation-state of Syria.

China also is a major opponent of the unreasonable U.S. policy approach on the Iran nuclear issue. China cooperated with the U.S. during Barack Obama’s term as that administration stayed on a cooperative track and observed a multilateral approach. But China opposed strongly Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal), as the policy seriously undermined multilateral efforts to address the issue of potential nuclear proliferation in the region. China opposed Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran, even though it was implementing the nuclear deal normally.

China is also a major critic of the biased U.S. policy on the Israel-Palestine conflicts. The latest tension has drawn China’s explicit criticism on U.S. policy. China, holding the chair of UN Security Council in May 2021, criticized the U.S. policy blocking the efforts of the UN Security Council to discuss the conflict and to issue a statement calling for a cease-fire between the two parties. China has good reason to criticize U.S. for disregarding the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and in Palestine.

All in all, the question of whether China will fill the void left by the U.S. in the Middle East is laden with false assumptions. China intends to have cooperative relations with the U.S. in Middle East affairs, though it does explicitly criticize unreasonable U.S. policies in the region. China stands ready to help but always respects the efforts of countries in the region to make their own decisions on regional issues.

And, by the way, it is too early to talk about the U.S. leaving the Middle East. 

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