16 May, 2013
CISS Fellow John Lee recently wrote a topical piece on Chinese interests in the Middle East for the South China Morning Post.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ‘four point plan’ presented to Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is not original in content but the offer to enter the quagmire of Middle East politics is several steps removed from Deng Xiaoping’s advice to keep a low profile. Some might argue that this is evidence that China seeks a political and diplomatic role that is commensurate with its enormous size and importance to the global economy. That is one part of the reason for these latest moves. The other part speaks as much about Chinese vulnerabilities into the future as its strengths.
Superficially, China is well-placed to play some role in the peace process. It has not taken a high profile stance on the Israeli-Palestinian border issues, meaning that it carries little contemporary baggage as potential negotiator. Although avoiding headlines, China has frequently voted to give Palestine more rights in the United Nations since the 1990s and has regularly criticised Israeli moves such as the construction of the West Bank barrier (or ‘the Wall’) and settlement policies in occupied territories.
On the other hand, China has no history of anti-Semitism that could hinder future relations Sino-Israeli relations. Both countries are openly admiring of each other’s achievements and are eager to share civilian technologies and knowhow. The People’s Liberation Army has an excellent relationship with the Israeli Defence Forces, even if Israel still maintains an export ban on high-technology defence equipment to China at America’s insistence.
That China has a poor record of negotiating agreements when complex historical, cultural and political enmity between parties is involved is beside the point. Being seen as a willing peacemaker in this dispute is a boon for Chinese hopes that it be seen as a constructive great power. The likelihood that it will never actually have to play this role, and get its hands and reputation, dirtied in the process is a further windfall.
If China’s capacity to play peacemaker is limited, its desire for stability in the Middle East is genuine, and yearning for greater influence in that region understandable. It currently imports over half of its oil, and most if it comes from the Middle East. By 2020, it is estimated that about four-fifths of its oil needs will come from the Middle East; almost all shipped through American patrolled waters. Even though the PLA’s strategists fear ‘strangulation’ by the American Seventh Fleet, it has become apparent to Beijing that its greatest energy security threat is instability in a major oil producing country that could jeopardize reliable and affordable supply.
It has also dawned on Beijing that for a region of such immense importance to its future, China has relatively little standing in the Middle East which would offer it some chance of shaping events into the future, or at least helping to stabilise the region. As recent events demonstrate, the cosy formula of signing exclusive resource contracts with authoritarian governments can fail when those regimes fall – as occurred in Libya, likely Syria, and perhaps one day in Iran. Besides, the large oil supplier governments like Saudi Arabia will never enter into large-scale exclusive supply agreements with China as African governments in places like Angola and Sudan have done.
Although the Israeli-Palestinian issue has no direct impact on its energy supply calculations, Beijing has been searching for non-military avenues to extend its influence and standing in the broader Middle East – and role of peacemaker is potentially one. China currently has no clear strategy for what it wants to achieve, with whom, or how. Offering to hold an Israeli-Palestinian peace summit is a stab in the dark. But it knows it needs new friends outside Iran and Syria, and more relevance in a region that holds the key to its energy security future.
Finally, Beijing’s interest in improving its standing amongst the Muslim states of the Middle East speaks to one of its great vulnerabilities. We generally focus on Chinese activities in the maritime domains of the Indo-Pacific. But Beijing views its geo-strategic future not just vertically but horizontally, as evinced by its relatively recent articulated ‘Go West’ strategy. This involves not just holding on to the traditionally Muslim dominated Xinjiang Autonomous Region but winning friends and acquiring influence in countries such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As its continual troubles in Xinjiang demonstrate, Beijing needs to engineer an enduring Sino-Islamic Entente of sorts to achieve this. To be sure, the Muslim world is culturally alien and bewildering to the Han Chinese, and far from homogenous. Any constructive role in an Israeli-Palestinian peace process is unlikely to earn Beijing meaningful brownie points amongst Muslims in Central Asia, or even throughout the Middle East.
But as China grows in global prominence, it would be domestic disaster were Beijing viewed as an ‘enemy’ of Islam as Muslim elements in Xinjiang could attract sympathisers and supporters. It is no coincidence that Beijing has consistently emphasised its support for an independent Palestinian state when meeting with leaders of Islamic republics. To counter its record of cultural and religious intolerance in Xinjiang, Beijing is desperate that it be seen as a partner of Islamic actors rather than a suppressor of them.
Xi’s four point plan will not bring peace to the Middle East. But its size is too great and interests too vast to ‘hide brightness and cherish obscurity’. A lonely great power, playing peacemaker is how it would like to reveal itself to the world.
First published on May 14th. Click here for a downloadable PDF of this article.
Dr John Lee is the Michael Hintze Fellow and adjunct associate professor at the Centre for International Security Studies, Sydney University. He is also a non-resident senior scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC and a director of the Kokoda Foundation in Canberra.
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