Sino-Middle East relations, a troubled debutante

It's hard to discern how significant the visits to Beijing by Netanyahu and Abbas will be judged by history. Indications show that China wants it to be perceived as an important step forward toward a position of responsibility-carrying power in the international arena. Hua Liming (former Chinese ambassador to Iran) is reported as saying, "The Palestinian issue is a diplomatic conundrum for the whole international community, and China's move also shows it is now ready to assume more international responsibilities." But just because Beijing wants to join the craziness known as Middle East politics doesn't mean it will be granted access.

China has a long history of relations with Middle Eastern countries, but the length of history should not be equated with an equal buildup of political capital. While the United States and the Soviet Union vied for the allegiances of Middle East regimes, Beijing stood on the sidelines offering revolutionary, anti-imperialistic, non-alignment rhetoric. And as we all know, talk is cheap. Actions speak louder than words, and that's exactly what the Americans and Soviets did--they drowned out China's appeal.

Chinese Premier Li Keqign, right, shows the way to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas prior to a meeting at the Zhongnanhai compound in Beijing Monday, May 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Jason Lee, Pool)

Chinese Premier Li Keqign, right, shows the way to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas prior to a meeting at the Zhongnanhai compound in Beijing Monday, May 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Jason Lee, Pool)

But what about today? That's the Cold War, but we're in a new order with a rising China. Surely all we've heard about China's soft power and no-strings-attached financial incentives hold up the dragon as a worthy substitute for the eagle or the bear? 

The answer, despite what policymakers with a penchant for black-and-white sound-bytes might want, is mixed at best. Although Beijing now has the symbols and tools of greatness that it lacked during the Cold War--membership in international organizations, diplomatic recognition by almost all countries, Security Council veto powers, etc.--the real worth of an alliance with China will be judged by the teeth such a partnership brings.

In an essay by Yitzhak Shichor, to be published in a forthcoming collection (Asian Thought on China's Changing International Relations, 2014), this well-known scholar of Chinese foreign policy toward the Middle East hashes out the obstacles blocking Beijing's entrance. While Middle East states have high expectations of the potential Chinese role in their neighborhood, Beijing has failed to meet these expectations as hoped and in the meantime stepped on many toes.

Saudi Arabia wants China to put more restraint on Iran, assuming Beijing wields significant influence. Yet Iran itself is wary of Beijing acquiescing to American pressure (evidenced in Chinese complicit approval of sanctions). Sino-American relations bear more weight in Zhongnanhai than Sino-Iranian relations and hence cannot be trusted.

Transient

On a broader scope, Beijing's policies toward Uyghurs and the Urumqi riots in 2009 continue to be the proverbial pebble in the shoe. Islamic leaders such as Ayatollah Jafar Sobhani and Turksih Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have publicly decried ethnic policies in Xinjiang.

More recently, as liberal Arab thought leaders view it, Chinese wariness of the Arab Uprisings and obstruction of UN Security Council moves on Syria place the mantle of "coddling dictators" squarely on Beijing.

Schichor concludes that "No soft power will make China a substitute to the United States (or to Russia); the China Model, which is apparently appreciated by non-democratic governments, and by some intellectuals, is not enough to gain China hard dividends...China may be respected in the Middle East, but still suspect." China is a ready counterweight, but no substitute.

A final thought, and that's about China's policy of non-intervention. Beijing is quite strict on this point, having a high view of state sovereignty birthed from both its own long history of Western violations of China's territorial integrity and its core interest of keeping all its land possessions to the chagrin of nationalist independence movements. But as the Arab Uprisings have shown, there is still a populist desire for international intervention to support mass democratic movements, or at least support for the R2P doctrine. This will place China at a disadvantage, since the logical policy implications of its commitment to non-intervention is upholding the status quo.

In the near future, non-intervention will likely be subject of vigorous foreign policy debate among China's elites. China's domestic problems weigh heavily on foreign policy considerations and will continue to do so as long as China's borderlands remain restive. Yet for China to shoulder responsibility (as it claims to desire to do) of global proportions, Beijing will need to have a more nuanced posture in regards to intervention.