China's policy toward the Middle East is always discussed on different occasions. Though China has contributed many efforts to the resolution of major regional conflicts, it seems that China's role has never been sufficiently recognized. While American scholars would like to describe China as a free rider, analysts in the region would regard China as a business seeker. The reasons are actually very complicated.
The last 15 years have witnessed China playing a new constructive role in the Middle East within the new regional context. In September 2002, China appointed Ambassador Wang Shijie, a senior diplomat, as its first special envoy of Middle Eastern affairs. Since then, China has regularized its appointments of special envoys in the region. Until now, China has appointed four Middle East special envoys. The other three are Ambassador Sun Bigan, Ambassador Wu Sike and Ambassador Gong Xiaosheng.
In addition to envoys of Middle Eastern affairs in general, China also appointed special envoys for specific Middle Eastern issues. For instance, in 2007, 2014 and 2016, China appointed Ambassador Liu Guijin (& Ambassador Zhong Jianhua), Ambassador Sun Yuxi and Ambassador Xie Xiaoyan as special envoys respectively for the Darfur issue, Afghanistan issue and Syrian issue.
The above-mentioned appointments themselves indicate that China does attach great importance to regional issues, and does play significant roles in various regional issues though the effects might be different in different cases. In the Palestine-Israel conflict, China's role might be modest, but it does represent strong political support for the peace process. And China's mediating efforts in the Darfur issue paved the way for the soft landing of the crisis. China's special envoy on the Afghanistan issue also played a significant role in promoting relevant dialogue and reconciliation processes.
What's more, China also contributed to the Middle East economically as China has become a major economic partner of the region. China also provided military and security resources for the region in the form of UN missions.
So, why were China's efforts not sufficiently recognized? Or to put it another way, why is China's role not visible enough? The first reason should be the Western media's selective coverage of China's role in the region. Western media, particularly those of the United States, play leading roles in shaping global public opinion and even have strong influence in academic circles. Though they might be working for peace and stability in the region, their coverage remains biased.
They would like to cover more about the actions and behaviors of Western countries rather than those of non-Western countries, although it is not necessarily all positive. They have strong interest in covering the military actions of the West in the region while having little interest in reporting China's soft presence in the region despite the fact that China's economic contribution and mediating efforts do contribute to regional stability. What is even worse is that Western governments unfairly blame China for its reluctance to participate in military actions.
China's low level of visibility in the region can also be attributed to its unintentional and intentional low profile policies. Low profile policies have always been part of China's political culture. And the most famous motto in this regard should be the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's warning in the early 1990s that China should be modest and prudent, keep a low profile and never seek hegemony.
It has already been a quarter century since Deng issued this warning, but it is still one of the major principles guiding China's overall policies, and China's policy toward the Middle East should be no exception. Though some scholars argue that China should take a more proactive policy as a result of its power increase, very few argue that China should give up its low profile policy in the Middle East.
To keep a low profile might also be China's policy option under the framework of the new type of relations among major countries. The new type of relations among major countries proposed by President Xi Jinping stands for non-confrontation among major countries at a strategic level, particularly between China and the United States.
China could be very easily regarded as an assertive or aggressive player by the United States in the Middle East if it keeps a high profile, despite the fact that the U.S. would always like to label China as a free rider. By the way, it is always difficult to please a leading power. It can easily find trouble with you whether you keep a low profile or high profile. A high profile can be regarded as a challenge while a low profile can be blamed for lacking initiative.
Though China will have to face up with blame and accusations no matter what it is doing in the region, Beijing might reasonably regard it as a cheap price to pay to keep a low profile. A higher price will always be waiting if someone is regarded as a potential challenge.
All in all, China's low visibility in the region is actually because of various complicated reasons. However, despite its low visibility, its contributions should not be neglected for any reason.
Dr. Jin Liangxiang is a columnist with China.org.cn.