China’s Long Game In The Middle East – Analysis


By Manoj Joshi

Beijing is struggling hard to cope with the fallout of the latest crisis in West Asia. It has adopted a seemingly neutral stance, refusing to name Hamas in its condemnation of the violence there and reiterating its known positions on the need for a two-state solution on the Palestine issue. Its aim is to ensure that it maintains its traction with the Arab states of the region, who are once again focused on the Palestinian issue. It has called for a ceasefire and resumption of negotiations between the two sides and dispatched a special envoy to the region. Its strategy seems aimed at working steadily to translate its economic clout in the region into geopolitical clout in the medium term.

On 9 October, two days after the horrific Hamas attack, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, Mao Ning, said China had been “deeply saddened” by the civilian casualties and opposes and condemns acts that harm civilians. She did not refer to Hamas by name and went on to add that it was “essential to restart the peace talks, implement the two-state solution and settle the Palestine question fully and properly through political means.”

In recent years, China has emerged as a growing force in West Asia as the United States’ (US) interests have shifted to the Indo-Pacific. The region is the source of much of the oil that China needs, and it is the main trading partner to most of the countries in the region, even though the US remains the leading military and diplomatic power there. Beijing has good relations with all the principal states—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Israel, and Iran—and it views the region both as a key economic partner and an important geopolitical objective. A hallmark of its growing influence was the stir caused earlier this year when it brokered a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

China has good trade and technology ties with Israel, but it knows that the Jewish state, once called the 51st state of the US, has a deep and unwavering relationship with the US. It was not surprising that the US rushed two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region to deter third-party intervention in the current Gaza war.

China learnt its lesson in the early 2000s, when the US put an end to the flourishing Israel-China defence technology relationship. One of the beneficiaries of this was India, which got the Phalcon airborne early warning system that the Israelis had developed for China. Thereafter, this relationship has played out in civilian technology areas and has considerable depth even now.

From the 1950s and 60s, China supported the notion of a Palestinian state as being part of a liberation movement. But after China recognised Israel in 1992, it cultivated good ties with both Israel and Palestine. In June, Xi Jinping had welcomed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Beijing for a state visit and offered to mediate on the Israel-Palestine issue. In the joint statement after the visit, Xi “stressed that the Palestinian question has remain unresolved for over half a century, causing great sufferings to the Palestinian people, and that justice must be done to Palestine as soon as possible.” He called for the convening of a “large scale, more authoritative and more influential international peace conference” to achieve this.

Thereafter, Xi had also invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit China and the Israeli PM had indicated that he would do so. But, so far, the visit has not materialised. The Gaza war had probably upended the plans, but they do indicate a Chinese thrust towards a larger, if not decisive, role in resolving the Israel-Palestine issue.

Therefore China is trying to portray itself as neutral power and as a peacemaker in the region. China’s Special Envoy on Middle East Affairs, Zhai Zhun, said in a statement last week that China would like to coordinate with Egypt to work out a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. He added that, “the fundamental solution lies in implementing the two-state solution.” This week, Zhai Zhun is expected to visit the region and take forward the Chinese plans.

But the growing conflict has compelled China to take a more forward stand in support of the Arabs. Last Saturday, Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, told his Saudi counterpart, Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, in a phone call that “Israel’s actions [the siege of Gaza] have gone beyond self defence and it should heed the call of the international community and the Secretary General of the United Nations to stop its collective punishment of the people of Gaza.”

Then, on Monday, in a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow, Wang called for a ceasefire. He said that the UN Security Council needed to act urgently and that major powers should play a major role. “It is imperative that a ceasefire be put in place; that the two sides be brought back to the negotiating table” to prevent a further humanitarian disaster.

China’s stepping in in the current war indicates its longer-term strategy for the region. Besides the Saudi-Iran détente, Beijing played a key role in bringing Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Iran into the BRICS grouping earlier this yearAn analysis by the International Institute of Strategic Studies noted that this followed the entry of several Middle Eastern states into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and is part of an effort by China “to translate its economic clout into regional political support for its global ambitions.”

There is little doubt that Beijing has accumulated considerable geopolitical clout in the region through its economic ties and its various projects that come under the collective rubric of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Note that three of its West Asian partners—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—are also military partners of the US. Each of them have their own reasons for building ties with China, something that Washington is watching warily.

As in the case of the Indo-Pacific, India plays a major role in the US counter-strategy. This has involved giving rise to a new geopolitical grouping, the I2U2, comprising India, Israel, the US and UAE; and a geoeconomic project, the India-Europe-Middle East Economic Corridor  (IMEEC)—both are helmed by the US.

In the present crisis, Beijing is unlikely to be able to play any significant role immediately. But its goal seems to be to go through the motions, and play for the longer term. Given the complex West Asian situation, that is understandable. Even the US is finding the going difficult. China does have one advantage, which the US has noted—that it is the only player there that had the ability to influence Iran, which is a supporter of Hamas as well as the Hezbollah in Lebanon. This was also underscored by a call from the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi last week where he reiterated the US support for Israel’s right of self-defence and called for China to help maintain stability in the region and discourage “other parties[read Iran] from entering the conflict”. In turn, Wang told Blinken that “without reconciliation between the Arab nation and the Israeli nation, there would be no peace in the Middle East.”

The Gaza war has upended the plate tectonics of West Asia. It is now threatening to do so for the world. The US and Europe are straining to maintain some control over the unfolding events, even as they grapple with a war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the developments provide an element of relief for Russia and an opportunity for China. Whether Beijing can exploit it to its benefit remains to be seen.

About the author: Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation

Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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