Complementing Eddie Walsh’s Flashpoints interviews on China’s role in Syria, I had the opportunity to spend late August in Beijing, conducting interviews and participating in roundtables with Chinese academics and government officials. Most of these talks addressed recent developments in the Middle East, an area of growing interest for China due to its energy resources and the religious ties linking Middle East Muslims with co-religionists in Central Asia. Although Chinese officials and academics perceive threats to their country’s national interests in the current crisis, some believe the Arab Spring does offer China opportunities to develop new ties in a region that until now has been most heavily controlled by other foreign powers, especially the United States.
In its formal policies toward the region, China adheres to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. These are to let Middle East nations choose their own social and political systems; support these countries’ independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity; and oppose external intervention in their internal affairs. The Chinese strive to develop correct relations with all these governments, while making efforts to secure China’s access to the region’s vital energy resources.
But when it comes to recent regional developments, despite their nominal commitment to Marxist doctrine, the assessments of Chinese Middle East specialists of the causes of the Arab Spring disorders for the most part resemble those of non-Chinese experts. They also tacitly agree with non-Chinese analysts that Beijing lacks a well-developed comprehensive strategy toward the Middle East, and that, like other outside powers, China has largely adopted a passive and reactive stance toward the unanticipated events in the region.
Where China’s Middle East experts most diverge from their Western counterparts is in their very negative views of the US role in the region—though that perception doesn’t keep them from advocating that the Chinese government try to work with Washington to advance Beijing’s interests in a region of growing importance to China, but in which Beijing’s instruments of influence remain weak.
Chinese Middle East specialists identify a range of plausible causes for the recent wave of political change in these countries. They most often mention the region’s long-term social and economic problems. These sources of instability include slow economic growth resulting in elevated rates of unemployment, widespread illiteracy and poverty due to a paucity of educational opportunities, and high birth rates. The combined effect of all these problems is a bulging cohort of alienated young people. In addition, Chinese specialists cite pervasive corruption and inefficiency, extensive state control over national economic activities, as well as a yawning wealth and income gap between the few extraordinary rich Arabs and the large number of poor people living in the same countries.
Furthermore, Chinese observers worry about a similar division between rich and poor among Middle Eastern countries due to the accident of whether they have oil or natural gas. Those regimes that are resource-blessed suffer vulnerabilities from their high dependence on energy exports due to the commodity’s price volatility. They also rely heavily on large numbers of poorly paid and often exploited foreign workers without whom their economies could not function. In Chinese views, those countries lacking oil and gas don’t receive adequate assistance from the more wealthy Arab regimes, but they share the same inability to develop the non-resource sectors of their economies.
Chinese specialists on the Middle East also fault the region’s authoritarian political systems, which under both monarchical and secular regimes suppress political participation. In their view, these governments don’t allow civil society—both at the elite and mass levels—adequate opportunities for political involvement or even social and cultural expression. They note that, even when multi-party systems exist in some countries, ruling parties dominate political institutions and governance decisions. They fault the efforts of most leaders, whether formal monarchies or nominal republics, for their willingness to transfer power only to their sons, and then only after they die in office. Chinese experts attribute the recent popular unrest in many Arab countries to the pervasive lack of social justice resulting from these practices.
China’s Middle East experts recognize important differences among Arab countries, which influence their political evolution. For instance, they note that the strong tribal forces in Libya and Sudan increase the prospects of civil wars in those countries. In their view, a key variable in explaining political outcomes is the role of the military, which broke with Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, has wavered in its loyalties in Yemen, but has remained loyal to President Bashir Assad in Syria.
In addition to these largely internal factors, Chinese scholars and officials also identify external variables as contributing to the recent Middle Eastern disorders. For example, under the rubric of ‘globalization,’ they attribute destabilizing tendencies to rising world food prices, the current international financial crisis and economic slowdown, and the spread of modern communication technologies such as the Arab satellite news channels like Al-Jazeera as well as mobile phones and online social networks. China’s Middle East experts believe that these communication media increased popular dissatisfaction by raising mass consciousness regarding their region’s lagging political and economic progress. At the same time, they facilitated the mobilization of opposition groups that lacked access to state-controlled broadcast and print media.
Chinese experts also blame Arab leaders for conducting excessively pro-American foreign policies rather than more vigorously pursuing their distinct national interests. Manifestations of this devotion to US preferences include neglecting the interests of the Palestinian people, aggressively confronting Iran, and embracing the US military presence in their region.
Chinese officials and analysts regularly criticize US policy in the Middle East for promoting these ‘master-servant’ relationships with Arab countries in Washington’s efforts to sustain the United States’ role as the dominant great power in the region. In their view, Washington’s excessive support for Israel impedes resolution of its conflict with the Palestinians and many Arab countries. Similarly, they castigate what they see as the overly militarized US approach to the greater Middle East. Along with the Israeli bias in US foreign policy, they see the wars in Iraq, Libya, and the drone strikes elsewhere as fuelling anti-Americanism in the region and denying the United States the leverage it needs to serve as a genuine peacemaker. They claim that, unlike China, the United States has a problem adhering to the principle of ‘yanxing yizhi’ (i.e. deeds matching the words), leading many Arabs to discount US policies as hypocritical and self-serving.
Still, differences among Chinese experts are noticeable in their criticism of US policies toward the Middle East. Whereas some blame the United States for embracing the regime’s authoritarian dictatorships, others believe the US drive for freedom and democracy in the Middle East has undermined their legitimacy, to the detriment of regional stability. Chinese officials and analysts generally opposed NATO’s extensive use of force in Libya, but they differ over whether this was primarily a European (British-French) project, or whether Washington was really orchestrating events behind the scenes.
Chinese observers also disagree over the Barack Obama administration. Some praise Obama for pursuing a new approach to the Middle East and elsewhere, whereas others consider him a great orator whose operational as opposed to declaratory policies closely resemble those of his predecessors, leading to a words-deeds gap. Some Chinese specialists believe that the Obama administration is open to cooperating with other great powers, including China, in managing international challenges like the Arab Spring. But many attribute this new course to America’s fiscal exhaustion, the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan, and a desire to have other actors share global burdens, but by pursuing policies favoured by Washington.
So what might happen in the future? Like their foreign colleagues, Chinese analysts of international affairs often speak in terms of winners and losers. For example, they expect that Islamist political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood will increase their influence throughout the Middle East, putting secular forces on the defensive. Although they expect short-term movements in some countries toward political democracy and openness, Chinese specialists don’t anticipate that these trends will endure. Even if they did, they doubt that greater popular influence on their government’s foreign policies would benefit the Western democracies since mass sentiment appears to be strongly nationalistic and hostile toward their governments’ general alignment with Western governments’ foreign policies. Chinese experts also assess that the Arab monarchies, which generally align their foreign policies with Western governments, will become more vulnerable to popular upheavals in the future.
In terms of individual countries, Chinese specialists consider Egypt a clear winner since its new military-dominated government has moderated the Mubarak regime’s pro-US and pro-Israel policies. They cite such evidence as the Egyptian decision to allow Iranian warships to traverse the Suez Canal, the new Egyptian government’s success in securing a reconciliation agreement between feuding Fatah and Hamas, the re-opening of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Hamas-ruled Gaza, and the various statements of Egyptian leaders regarding their desire to reconcile with Iran and other anti-Western groups in the Middle East.
As a result of Cairo’s moving toward the Arab mainstream, Chinese experts believe that Egypt will resume its traditional status as one of the Arab world’s most influential countries. They also calculate that Tehran has benefited from the overthrow of Mubarak, who pursued strongly anti-Iranian policies that have been abandoned by Egypt’s new leaders. Should the regimes in Bahrain or Yemen fall, they might be followed by governments less hostile toward Tehran. Chinese specialists maintain that the removal of Assad wouldn’t necessarily result in his successors distancing themselves from Tehran, Syria’s strongest ally in recent years. More generally, the political upheavals in the Arab world during the last few months have diverted attention from Iran’s controversial nuclear policies, which had earlier been the focus of international concern.
In the view of Chinese analysts, Turkey’s stock is also on the rise. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has pursued a more independent foreign policy than its predecessors that has seen Turkey distance itself from the United States and especially Israel. More recently, the AKP has deftly developed good ties with the governments of Libya and Syria and then abandon them when these regimes have fallen into trouble. Chinese scholars consider Turkey an increasingly important country for China due to its growing economy, increasingly independent and influential diplomacy, and pivotal location between Europe, Eurasia, and the Middle East.
Conversely, Chinese experts see Israel and the United States as big losers from the Arab Spring. The successor regimes in Egypt and other Arab countries are distancing themselves from both countries. The new Egyptian government is also reaching out to Hamas, Iran, and other anti-Western elements in the Middle East. As for Russia, Moscow has lost influence in Libya and potentially will do likewise in a post-Assad Syria, which Chinese experts consider Moscow’s most important regional ally. That said, my Chinese interlocutors seemed as uncertain as everyone else when speculating about what a post-Assad government might look like, and what policies it might pursue.
Where does all this leave China? The main Chinese fear is that religious and other ties could serve as a transmission belt for importing Middle Eastern chaos into the Muslim-majority nations of Central Asia and potentially Xinjiang, with its large Muslim Uighur minority. Central Asian countries are also energy suppliers, but are more important to China due to their proximity and the growing Chinese investment in Central Asia, whose governments are more inviting to Chinese businesses than those of the Middle East, where Chinese companies most often engage in projects under contract. In fact, the Chinese worry that the new Arab regimes won’t respect China’s commercial interests due to their collusion with Western governments to constrain Chinese business opportunities in these countries. Another concern is that the Middle Eastern disorders, which Chinese experts believe will last for months if not years, will help keep world oil and other commodity prices unnaturally elevated.
In terms of their policy recommendations, China’s Middle East specialists encourage their government to try to work with the Arab successor regimes regardless of their political system or other domestic characteristics. They don’t believe that democratic or Islamist regimes would pursue inherently anti-Chinese polices despite Beijing’s lukewarm attitude toward their struggles for political power. For example, they note that Chinese companies will be well-positioned to contribute to these countries’ economic development thanks to their low-cost and infrastructure-building skills.
For all their criticisms of US policies in the region, some Chinese scholars therefore believe that one way that Beijing can more effectively affect Middle Eastern developments is by trying to shape US policies toward the region. Chinese experts believe their government lacks strong levers to influence Middle Eastern events directly. They note, for instance, that China isn’t a member of the Middle East Quartet, which seeks to enhance coordination of the Middle East peace efforts of the United Nations, the European Union, Russia, and the United States. They consider the United States still to be the most influential player in the Middle East due to its large regional military presence, its economic and diplomatic levers of influence, and the widespread soft power of the US lifestyle that makes even Arab youth admire American culture and values, even while rejecting what they along with the Chinese see as Washington’s selfish and misguided regional policies.