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Can China’s ‘New Idea’ Work in the Middle East?

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China Power | Diplomacy

Can China’s ‘New Idea’ Work in the Middle East?

China’s approach toward the region was on display at a recent security forum in Beijing.

Can China’s ‘New Idea’ Work in the Middle East?

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping after speaking during the opening session of the 8th Ministerial Meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in Beijing, July 10, 2018.

Credit: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

The Middle East Security Forum, held in Beijing on November 27 and 28, saw more than 200 representatives from both the Middle East and China  come to share their views on the region’s political circumstances, major challenges and risks, as well as China’s ties with the Middle East. A majority of the attendees criticized the U.S. unilateral and and hegemonic policy in the Middle East, and argued that it is highly necessary to end the unjust regional order that has resulted from U.S. intervention and pressure. China maintains that it has put forward a “new idea” for the Middle East to preserve stability in the region and set up trust between different states in the future: that is, to uphold the philosophy of “development” rather than “divisions and confrontations.”

Four points of common understanding were shared among the attendees, including goals to set up a new security concept that is collective, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable; to realize the final peace between Palestine and Israel (among other regional issues) in a just and equal manner; to highlight and implement the role of “development” in the Middle East management; and to encourage and facilitate mutual dialogue and understanding between different civilizations over counterterrorism and counterextremism, and thereby eliminate double standards in international and regional affairs.

China has always highlighted and valued its friendship with Middle Eastern states. On the one hand, China perceives itself as the biggest developing state in the world, and believes its economic development experience could be shared and borrowed by Middle Eastern states, especially some Arab states. Beijing has been involved politically as well. Since 2002, when China created the post of Middle East envoy for the Chinese government, China’s five Middle East envoys — Wang Shijie (2002-2006), Sun Bigan (2006-2009), Wu Sike (2009-2014), Gong Xiaosheng (2014-2019), and Zhai Jun (appointed in 2019) — have made more than 70 trips to the Middle East to mediate regional crises and facilitate dialogues. Meanwhile, more than 1,800 Chinese soldiers have been stationed in Middle East as part of UN peacekeeping forces. China has also sent more than 2 billion RMB, or more than $300 million, to Palestinians and Syrians. Still, China’s role in Middle East is relatively new.

Politically, China does not seek intervention in Middle East, and hopes to develop equal bilateral and multilateral ties with regional states. China does not want to establish a sphere of influence and does not seek to fill the power vacuum. China’s balanced position and just regional policies have earned the support of Middle Eastern governments.

Economically, China does not impose sanctions or pressure against any state in the Middle East, and hopes to develop mutually beneficial ties with all Middle Eastern states under the Belt and Road Initiative through the principles of achieving shared growth through discussion and collaboration.

Culturally, China hopes to facilitate and encourage cultural understandings and dialogues with the civilizations in the Middle East. China maintains that all civilizations have contributed to the development of human beings and should be equal. Therefore it is necessary to break through bias and arrogance and treat different civilizations equally. Civilizations do not “clash,” but rather mutually influence and promote each other.

China believes that the Middle Eastern states might listen to and borrow these ideas. China believes that it is necessary to insist on the political settlement of crises and divisions, to safeguard the principle of equality, to highlight the role of UN, and to encourage and enhance the consensus of regional and international states. In short, a consensus among Middle East states on setting up peace and maintaining stability is highly needed in the future.

China’s new idea for resolving crises and tensions in Middle East is to highlight the role of “development” while laying aside divisions and disagreements. Divisions and disagreements only facilitate competitions and rivalries, and thereby intensify the regional crisis, while inflamed regional and domestic circumstances only create obstacles for social and economic development in the region. At the same time, a lack of development opportunities and circumstances would further encourage hatred and instability in the Middle East. The turmoil and divisions could be utilized and taken advantage of by other powers harboring ulterior motives and finally lead to yet more intensified turmoil and unrest, which become further obstacles to social and economic development in the region — a vicious cycle.

To overcome the traditional hatred and rivalries, according to China, it is necessary for Middle East to join the Belt and Road Initiative, which upholds the principle of achieving shared growth through discussion and collaboration. To realize the aim of a win-win future, rather than a zero-sum deadlock competition motivated by hatred and arrogant attitudes, China highly stresses the need for common efforts and mutual trust between regional states to find a way of social and economic development.

Although China hopes to develop deeper and closer ties with the Middle East to melt down suspicions and distrust, encourage cooperation, and facilitate mutual understanding through dialogues and communication, China’s “new idea” is still too idealized to be implemented in the region. Even during the Middle East Security Forum in Beijing, the hostility against Iran was salient, while some Arab participants labeled Israel as an “occupier” in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. It is impossible to end all the rivalries and hostilities between different parties in the region by simply upholding the principle of “development.”

Meanwhile, although the U.S. presence was widely criticized by both Chinese and Arab participants at the Security Forum, the United States will continue to be the most important external power in the Middle East, and China needs to both cooperate and compete with the U.S.  in the region. In addition, China’s knowledge of the Middle East is still very limited, and the complexities within the sensitive issues of the region — such as the Syria conflict, Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry, Israel-Palestine peace process, etc. — are too difficult for China to meditate or become directly involved with. China should continue to play a constructive role while maintaining a low profile in the Middle East.

Dr. Wang Jin is an associate professor from the Institute of Middle East Studies, Northwest University of China, and a research fellow of Syria Research Center of Northwest University of China.