China’s active diplomatic engagement with the Middle East is part of the country’s newly coined “major country diplomacy”. According to Beijing’s narrative, China maintains common security, upholds international law, continues to promote multilateralism and advocates common ground as basis of cooperation, while setting differences aside.
China actively promotes political dialogue with the Middle East from similar premises as other relevant actors in the area: by conducting diplomatic mediation and conflict resolution and providing humanitarian assistance. Furthermore, China leads massive investment projects in the region.
Unlike other actors, however, China claims to have no political strings attached. In other words, the nature of the incumbent political regimes (i.e. democratic or not) bears no relevance over China’s cooperation framework with the respective countries. Whether this practice conflicts with the conflict resolution and peace building efforts conducted by China in the area is a topic for another discussion.
In fact, China’s engagement with the Middle East predates the “major country diplomacy” narrative and could be divided into four stages:
a) 1949-1979 – China supported Middle East’s national liberation struggle as well as Palestine’s efforts toward statehood in the name of a common ideological struggle against imperialism;
b) 1979-2012 – China acts according to Deng Xiaoping’s “taoguang yanhgui” (keeping a low profile) policy. While offering its good offices on matters as Iran-Iraq War, Gulf crisis or Palestinian-Israeli issue, China’s interests rarely conflict with any other actors involved.
c) 2012- 2019 – The new stage was commenced at the 18th National People’s Congress of November 8, 2012. The Congress marked the election of China’s new Politburo Standing Committee (in which Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang became part of), which shifted China’s vision into a more proactive and assertive participation in the international arena.
d) 2019 - present – China started to become more assertive in the Middle East, re-calibrating its diplomatic efforts to become an active participant in the Middle East, along with other major players. China’s “mask diplomacy” in the region was not a new beginning, but an impetus to an already established course.
Theoretically, China acknowledges that countries in the Middle East have different positions and interpretations with regard to security matters. However, bridging their individual – rather than regional – security interests with those of China seems to be the priority; hence, identifying synergies and setting the differences apart has become the norm. In Xi speech, this translates as: “All parties must always work together, do more additions and multiplications for win-win results, and bring together development efforts, complement each other's strengths, and share prosperity.” Hence, while various parties often have antagonistic views, ceasefire, cessation of war, and counter-terrorism are common needs in the Middle East as pathway for peace-building and conflict resolution. Whether sharing the anti-epidemic experience will follow the constructivist tenet to result in catalyzing cooperation is yet to be seen.
While upholding the Middle Eastern countries should bridge their differences, reserve their minor differences and stressing the importance of breakthroughs on issues where small differences exist, China is yet to work out a position with regard to the greater rifts in the Middle East. Sooner or later, the Chinese diplomacy will have to face the larger cleavages of the region and position itself more clearly, assuming the bold stance of any “major power”. China significantly contributed to the cooling of the Yemeni crisis in 2018. Beijing facilitated talks between the Houthi armed forces in Yemen and the United Nations special envoy in Yemen, having such a unique added value to the withdrawal of the Houthi armed forces from Hudaydah as well as to the safe arrival of United Nations relief supplies. It is a good beginning for a bolder role and positioning in the Middle East.
Practically, China came with several diplomatic measures in the Middle East that redefined her role in the region.
Firstly, China appointed its first special envoy to the Middle East, Zhai Jun, to address the pending issues in the region, with a particular focus on the Palestine-Israeli peace process as well as the China-Pakistan-Israel tripartite dialogue. A seasoned diplomat, with previous postings in France, Monaco and Libya, he has met the Secretary-General Gate of the League of Arab States, visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran and attended the Tehran Dialogue Forum to carry out diplomatic mediation and provide his good offices.
Secondly, on the Syrian (diplomatic) front, Xie Xiaoyan, China’s special envoy for Syria, paid regular visits to the United States, Europe and Russia, participated in the establishment of the coordination mechanism of the BRICS special envoys on Syria, took part in the United Nations Conference on Syria in Geneva, in the "Astana Process" and the "Sochi Process". At EU level, Xie attended the Brussels International Conference on "Supporting Syria and the Future of the Region". A frequent visitor to Moscow, Xie aroused reactions when he indirectly supported the Russian claim that the US is smuggling oil out of Syria. All these diplomatic endeavors strengthened China’s legitimacy to speak as an active part in the Syrian peace process.
Thirdly, while also establishing a special representative for African affairs and a special envoy for Afghanistan, China showcased that this model has become a new practice of Beijing’s diplomacy. How this mechanism will mature remains to be seen. So far, it yield excellent results in turning China into an active voice in the Middle East.
Likely, provided the balance of power in the area, the new diplomatic efforts will bring Beijing’s actions closer to Moscow. Some steps in this regard have already been made. In May 2019, for instance, Wang Di, the Director of the Department of Asian and African Affairs of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), met his Russian counterpart, the Director of the Middle East and North Africa Bureau at the Russian MoFA. While in Moscow, Wang Di also held consultations with the Working Group on Middle East Affairs of the Russian MoFA.
In terms of Security Council voting, China mostly acted as a neutral party, by abstaining in most cases where dissent occurred. While votes are usually split between the United States, Britain and France, on one hand, and the Russia & friends camp, on the other, China so far seemed to act according to the merits of each individual case, at least most of the times. Perhaps the most illustrative example in this case is China’s attitude toward Resolution 1973/ 2011 on the situation in Libya. China abstained, but only after extensive consultation with the League of Arab States. Another less debated stance is how Middle East’s relations with China might affect the voting behavior of the states in the region. A study authored by Cornell University’s Prof. Flores-Macias established that the trade relations between African and Latin American states with China led their foreign policy preferences to converge with Beijing, at the Washington’s expense. Whether the same output is to occur in the Middle East is yet to be observed.
Generally, one may assume that the geopolitical competition in the Middle East has gained momentum in the past years, while some already existing major rifts further accentuated to a point of difficult return. Considering the effects of the on-going pandemic, the health crisis can only further accentuate the status quo in the region.
Assuming responsibility is a natural act of a “major power” and, so far, China seems to be ready to undertake this new role. The costs and benefits of such a step forward for the Middle East will mark China’s new stage of engagement with the region. But assuming responsibility also means acting boldly and positioning clearly with regard to the major rifts in the region. This, in fact, is the real challenge to China’s new approach to the Middle East...
* The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the official policy, position or view of the Romanian Institute for Europe-Asia Studies - IRSEA or any of its partners.