China's pragmatic Middle Eastern surprise

China shocked many when it reached out to get involved in Middle Eastern politics, but its strategic interests in the region are too big for it to keep a low profile any longer.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping had the rare opportunity to receive both Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu within days of each other last week. In a move that astounded international diplomats, President Xi issued a ‘four point peace plan’ to Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, while the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a press release days later offering to host an Israeli-Palestinian peace summit in the future.

To be sure, Beijing’s peace plan is unoriginal and based on terms that have already been settled as a precondition to end the decades-old conflict, such as an enduring two-state solution. Neither has the offer to host a peace summit been taken up by either side, with the Palestinian Authority ignoring the offer and Israel subsequently characterising its visit to China as one only focusing on trade rather than politics.

But the likely lack of tangible outcomes from Xi’s peace missive is not the point. China has long stayed out of the politics of third-party conflicts outside its immediate region, preferring to follow Deng Xiaoping’s advice to 'avoid controversy' in non-core issues and ‘keep a low profile’. Its United Nations Security Council behaviour and record, where it allows Russia to take the lead when it comes to rebuffing American and European (British and French) sponsored resolutions, will attest to this. One could not imagine predecessor Hu Jintao seeking a more prominent role in what is probably the world’s most intractable dispute, given that British and then American efforts have attracted at least as much criticism as applause from other governments and commentators. Still, Xi’s unexpected outreach is early evidence that China is recognising keeping a low profile has risks as well as advantages. And as its power and interests grow, it can less afford to allow Western powers to set the agenda for issues away from Asia.

In one sense, China is well-placed to play some role in the peace process. It has little contemporary baggage as potential negotiator. Beijing has frequently voted to give Palestine more rights in the United Nations since the 1990s and has regularly criticised Israeli moves such as the construction of the West Bank barrier (or ‘the Wall’) and settlement policies in occupied territories.

On the other hand, China has no history of anti-Semitism that could hinder future Sino-Israeli relations. Strangely enough, the People’s Liberation Army has an excellent relationship with the Israeli Defence Forces, even though Israel is an American ally and maintains an export ban on high-technology defence equipment to China. Like Beijing, Tel Aviv feels strategically isolated and surrounded, and takes a purely pragmatic approach to any foreign regime when it will serve its interests.  

What is motivating China in this case?

Beijing’s desire for stability and peace (in that order) in the Middle East is genuine. It currently imports over half of its oil, and most if it comes from the Middle East. By 2020, it is estimated that about four-fifths of its oil needs will come from the Middle East; almost all shipped through American patrolled waters. Even though the PLA’s strategists fear ‘strangulation’ by the American Seventh Fleet, it has become apparent to Beijing that its greatest energy security threat is instability in a major oil producing country that could jeopardize reliable and affordable supply. This is something that American or Chinese aircraft carriers will have limited role in shaping or preventing. 

It has also dawned on Beijing that for a region of such immense importance to its future, China has relatively little role or standing in the Middle East which would offer it some chance of shaping events into the future, or at least helping to stabilise the region. As recent events demonstrate, the cosy formula of signing exclusive resource contracts with authoritarian governments can fail when those regimes fall – as occurred in Libya, likely Syria, and perhaps one day in Iran. Besides, the large oil supplier governments like Saudi Arabia will never enter into large-scale exclusive supply agreements with China as African governments in places like Angola and Sudan have done.      

Although the Israeli-Palestinian issue has no direct impact on its energy supply calculations, Beijing has been searching for non-military avenues to extend its influence and standing in the broader Middle East – and role of peacemaker in the region’s most high-profile dispute is potentially one. It must be said that in these early days, China has no clear strategy for what it wants to achieve, with whom, or how. Presenting a peace plan or offering to hold an Israeli-Palestinian peace summit are hastily conceived stabs in the dark. But it knows it needs new friends outside Iran and Syria, and more relevance and ‘skin’ in a region that holds the key to its energy security future.

There is also another motivation. Beijing’s need to improve its standing amongst the Muslim states of the Middle East speaks to one of its great vulnerabilities. We generally focus on Chinese activities in the maritime domains of the Indo-Pacific. But Beijing views its geo-strategic future not just vertically but horizontally, as evinced by its relatively recent articulated ‘Go West’ strategy. This involves not just holding on to the traditionally Muslim dominated Xinjiang Autonomous Region but winning friends and acquiring influence in countries such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The future geo-strategic ‘great game’ is not just American and Chinese rivalry in the Indo-Pacific but American-Sino-Russian rivalry in the Eurasian continental heartland. 

As its continual troubles in Xinjiang demonstrate, Beijing needs to engineer an enduring Sino-Islamic Entente of sorts to achieve this. To be sure, the Muslim world is culturally alien and bewildering to the Han Chinese, and far from homogenous. Any constructive role in an Israeli-Palestinian peace process is unlikely to earn Beijing meaningful brownie points amongst Muslims in Central Asia, or even throughout the Middle East.

But as China grows in global prominence, it would be domestic disaster were Beijing viewed as an ‘enemy’ of Islam as Muslim elements in Xinjiang could attract sympathisers and supporters. Such a reputation would also mean an increase resistance to its influence as its interests expand westwards across Central Asia. It is no coincidence that Beijing has consistently emphasised its support for an independent Palestinian state when meeting with leaders of Islamic republics. To counter its record of cultural and religious intolerance in Xinjiang, Beijing is desperate that it be seen as a partner of Islamic actors rather than a suppressor of them.

Under the previous generation of leaders, China’s strategy of win friends and influence governments in far-off places has been largely defined by an attempt to buy them over – through massive economic aid and other ‘no strings’ attached payments, while joining with Russia to offer many regimes protection in the UN Security Council. This will continue, but it will not be sufficient. Great powers have to play a more clever and constructive bilateral and multilateral game.

China will not be the circuit breaker that will bring peace to the Middle East. But it cannot simply ‘hide brightness and cherish obscurity’, and watch passively as events unfold in regions of the world that greatly affect its interests. It neighbours such as Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and India will remain wary. But playing the role of constructive peacemaker is how it would like to rebrand itself to the world.  

Dr John Lee is the Michael Hintze Fellow and adjunct associate professor at the Centre for International Security Studies, Sydney University. He is also a non-resident senior scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC and a director of the Kokoda Foundation in Canberra.