China Power

China and the Middle East

China has traditionally put economics above politics in the Middle East. Is that about to change?

Following is a guest entry by Beijing-based journalist Mu Chunshan on China’s Middle East policy.


At the start of September, as the leaders of the Palestinian Territories, Israel, Egypt and Jordan were arriving in Washington for talks with US President Barack Obama, officials in China had just seen off North Korean leader Kim Jong-il after his second trip to China in less than a year.

On the surface, the two sets of talks might appear to be two very different diplomatic matters. But in China, both incidents were treated in much the same way—with an effective media blackout.

For Kim’s visit, the media blackout was mandatory, with Chinese officials only confirming his visit after he had already left the country. But the absence of coverage on the Middle East peace talks was self-imposed. Why? Because the Chinese public just wasn’t very interested.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

China has always prided itself on a ‘more work, less talk’ approach to its ‘quiet’ diplomacy, placing economic considerations above political ones. And this has been no more evident than with its approach to the Middle East.

Traditionally, China has always seen its policy towards Israel and the Palestinians as ‘balanced diplomacy’—maintaining friendly relations with Arab countries, while not neglecting the relationship with Israel.

One reason for this is that the key diplomatic principle established by Deng Xiaoping—concealing one’s strengths and biding one’s time—is still followed today. With no direct conflicts of interest in its relations with Israel and the Palestinians, and recognizing that the dispute between the two is extremely deep-rooted and complex, China is wary of involving itself in a way that may come back to haunt it. After all, no involvement means no harm done.

By this calculation, the only reason China might be tempted to stray into direct involvement in Middle East talks would be if it saw any economic benefits to doing so.  The economy is, after all, the Chinese government’s top priority and all policy matters are subservient to the need for economic growth and the creation of a positive environment for fiscal expansion. And, after having seen the United States get its fingers repeatedly burned in the Middle East peace process, it’s in many ways an understandable approach.

This standoffish approach has come as ties between China and Arab countries have been continuing to improve. The most notable recent example is the Sino-Arab economic and trade forum that was held in September in Ningxia, China, which was attended by a number of Middle East leaders and was seen by analysts as part of an ongoing process of strengthening economic ties between China and the region.

But while this co-operation isn’t coming at the expense of China-Israel relations—Israel’s Industry, Trade and Labor Minister visited China in September to discuss economic cooperation—the postponed visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to China also underscored the fact that China has little input or influence on the Middle East peace process.

Indeed, whenever high-ranking Israeli government officials visit China, the main subject of discussion is usually the Iran nuclear problem, not the peace talks. This is hardly surprising—the Israelis know they’ll make more progress in a day talking with US officials than they would in a month of talks with Beijing.

China’s studied distance from the peace process was underscored by the fact that the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks wasn’t accompanied by any images of Chinese officials shaking hands with Israeli or Arab leaders, nor intervention from China when talks broke down in the first place.

But all this might be set to change. Government sources I’ve spoken with have suggested that the Chinese government, wary of falling too far behind the United States and Europe in dealing with Hamas, is considering ways of establishing contacts with the organisation.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

What’s prompted the rethink? In part it seems to be down to the visit by a ‘representative team’ from the US Congress to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, where they had contact with officials of the group.

Although the US lawmakers weren’t representing the US government, the visit underscored the point that it might be better for the Chinese government to be involved rather than isolated. After all, the West has recognised that success depends not just on engaging with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but also the still-popular Hamas.

It’s a reality that no major nation with interests in the Middle East can ignore (and its one that China, which has never adopted a hard-line stance against Hamas, is in a reasonable position to exploit).

China could use the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China’s International Department or Foreign Affairs Committee of China's National People's Congress to launch inter-party exchanges, which could ensure that while contact is made, it wouldn’t be deemed official state-to-state contact.

But the shift on the Middle East is also part of a broader recognition that the world’s second-largest economy needs to engage widely—major powers have political as well as economic responsibilities. With this in mind, China’s diplomacy in recent years has involved establishing contact with countries that it has previously had little contact with, including in Africa, South America—and the Middle East.

This isn’t to say thatthese recent signs of change have come out of the blue. Between 2002 and 2006, China appointed a special envoy for Middle East issues, who shuttled between the parties involved—a move that was seen at the time as the first indication of direct Chinese participation in the peace talks (although that said, the envoy’s rank wasn’t high and as a result he was unable to talk on equal terms with the US and British special envoys).

For Western analysts though, a clearer catalyst for change may have been the May 2009 uprising in Xinjiang. The eruption of unrest there, and the subsequent reaction from the Arab world, underscored for many the reality that if China wants to maintain stability in Xinjiang, it will require the support of the global Muslim community.

In addition, later the same year, China took the rare move of endorsing a report by a UN investigative team in Gaza that condemned the humanitarian crimes committed by Israel in Gaza.

The events of the past decade have demonstrated that it’s still too early for China to directly participate in the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. However, with its growing economic development, national strength and more vocal stances on international affairs, it seems only a matter of time before the Chinese directly enter peace negotiations.