China’s Mideast Foreign Policy Hangs in the Balance

Almost 10 years after Jiang Zemin’s historic visit to Israel in 2000, China is working overtime to balance its Mideast policy among several competing, often conflicting, demands.  With the April 2000 Jiang visit to Israel, Beijing acknowledged that its ideological opposition to Israel (and by extension the U.S.) was no longer in its interest.  Yet at the same time, it could not alienate its decades long support of Yasser Arafat and its dedicated support of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.  Don’t forget that China was among the countries that opposed the 1948 partition that led to the creation of the Israeli state and only established diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv in 1992.  Therefore, when evaluating China’s current Mideast policy, it is absolutely essential to bear in mind that it’s been less than 20 years since Beijing even recognized the Jewish state.  So it must have been a steep learning curve for Chinese officials to adjust their policy rooted in revolutionary ideology to one grounded in realpolitik. Today, the central objective of China’s Mideast policy can be summarized with a single word: balance.

First, let’s examine China’s relationship with Israel. Soon after Jiang’s state visit in 2000, the young China-Israel relationship faced its first challenge when the United States learned that Israel was selling sophisticated airborne aircraft radar to the Chinese.  Fearing that this technology could one day be used against the Americans themselves in a future conflict with China, Washington was predictably furious with the Israelis for this blatant breach of their so-called “special relationship.”  Since then, overt military trade between Beijing and Tel Aviv was discontinued but China recognized there was a lot more non-military related technology the Israelis had that could be of considerable value.  While skeptics may contend that the Chinese value Israeli technology for dual-use (military/civilian) purposes, many analysts believe that Beijing looks to Israel in very much the same way it regards Silicon Valley.  China’s desire for technological advancement runs so deep that limiting the scope to purely military terms could be shortsighted.  On a geopolitical level, China also regards its warming ties with Israel as an opportunity to potentially dilute U.S. influence in the region.  It is likely that Israel, too, enjoys the idea of expressing its own autonomy from Washington by demonstrating foreign policy independence of its own.  Obviously neither country wants to strain their valuable ties to Washington, but it doesn’t hurt to freelance on their own as a means of gaining even a little leverage.  Finally, there is an important cultural connection between Israel and China that’s worth noting.  China and Israel represent the two oldest continuous civilizations on the planet.  These are among the only two countries that count their history not in centuries, but millennia.  Anyone who is familiar with both cultures can speak of the remarkable similarities like the emphasis on education, commerce, family and a profound sense of history.

China’s steadily improving relations with Israel must be dealt with extreme caution as it could further complicate Beijing’s increasingly complex ties across the Arab and Gulf regions.  For decades it offered unbridled support for various insurgent Palestinian and Arab militias that are now entirely incompatible with its more pragmatic foreign policy needs.  While Beijing was warming its relations with Israel and the United States, it was cooling its ties with the various regional extremist groups it once supported.  However, Beijing’s interests in pulling away from Arab extremists wasn’t done purely for the sake of improved ties with Israel. It also needed to solidify relations with Arab governments who themselves were confronting many of the same Arab insurgent groups that hold Israel in such low regard.

Furthermore, with Chinese diplomatic and corporate interests now deployed across the region, China is similarly vulnerable to extremist violence.  The five Chinese oil workers that were kidnapped and later killed in October 2008 by Sudanese Islamic rebels highlight China’s new vulnerability and why it is so important for Beijing to distance itself from other Muslim radical organizations that it once supported.

The focal point of Chinese-Arab relations centers on oil.  As the world’s fourth largest oil importer, China is now dependent on external oil supplies to keep its manufacturing economy moving.  That dependency has prompted the Chinese to yet again retreat from the ideologically driven policies of the past to a considerably more pragmatic strategy.  We can see that pragmatism now on display in places like Iraq where China recently signed a pioneering three billion dollar oil agreement .  Now this is where it gets really interesting. The deeper China invests itself in Iraq, Iran and Sudan, among other Islamic countries, the more problematic it is for Sino-U.S. relations.  China’s drive for oil and other raw materials is coming against the U.S.’s own resource extraction agenda as well as Washington’s broader geo-political ambitions in the region.  In the cases of both Sudan and Iran, China’s support of the national governments there continues to be a point of tension with Washington that seeks to isolate those two governments.  So when evaluating the need for balance, China must weigh the interests of both the United States and Israel as it deepens its economic and political ties to the region.  The BBC analysis I referred to earlier summarizes the issue quite succintly:

以色列很想對世界各地發出一個很重要的信息,就是它和中國的關係不比中國和巴勒斯坦等其它中東國家的關係弱,因為中國和中東地區的貿易發展非常迅速,特別在能源方面。所以和以色列的關係可能受到平衡方面的制約。 本台中文部記者高毅曾經在以色列工作,他分析,中國在巴以問題上以前是比較親巴勒斯坦,這也符合中國當時的歷史地位。因為巴勒斯坦也是民族解放運動的一部分,而中國也是支持包括非洲、拉丁美洲這些民族解放運動。高毅解釋,以色列可以說是美國一手扶植起來的,有強大的美國背景,那麼也是跟中國以前的冷戰思維延續下來的。

儘管如此, 911事

Finally, China’s relations with Islamic countries across the Middle East and the Persian Gulf extends back to the home front.  Beijing needs to strike a delicate balance with how it interacts with Islamic populations abroad and at home as both are increasingly interconnected with one another through the internet.  In the aftermath of the 7.7.09 unrest in Xinjiang, Chinese officials were extremely cautious in how they described the events and the so-called “black hands” who allegedly masterminded the conflict.  Officials dismissed the idea that this had anything to do with religion (read Islam), focusing their attention instead on “unruly separatists.”  Nonetheless, if the troubles in Xinjiang are perceived by the outside Muslim world as to be “anti-Islamic” then China may face new problems in those oil generating countries it now depends on.  Conversely, Beijing no doubt is aware that its behavior in Arab, Gulf and other Islamic countries is being closely monitored by its own Muslim minority population.    Missteps domestically can impact its external relations and vice versa.  Once again, Beijing must artfully balance these competing pressures as it extends itself farther into the Islamic and Mideast realms.

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