By James M. Dorsey
RSIS Commentary - No. 18 3 – 1 6 September 2014
As the United States becomes embroiled in yet another military intervention in the Middle East, China is embarking on a long-term approach to the region that would secure its access to resources and trade, and enable cooperation with the US on Chinese terms. The approach takes as its starting point that with US influence in the region in decline, political and economic indicators suggest that it’s just a matter of time before the pendulum swings in China’s favour.
CHINA HAS embarked on a Middle East strategy that is shaped as much by contemporary US predicaments in the Middle East as it is by a set of foreign policy principles that contrast starkly with those of the United States, with a determination not to repeat what China views as US mistakes. While there appears to be broad consensus on these points, China’s policy community seems to be divided on a host of questions related to integrating them into a comprehensive policy towards the region. These questions range from the role of democratization to the degree to which China should assert its influence in the region.
The extent of the policy debate was evident during a recent government-endorsed two-day symposium between Chinese policy analysts and former ambassadors to the Middle East and several of their scholarly Western and Arab colleagues. A glimpse of those differences goes some way to explain the focus of the Chinese policy debate. The debate is framed by an emphasis on external rather than domestic drivers of crisis in the Middle East and the importance attached to the formal aspects of political processes such as Chinese official statements and outcomes of elections in the region irrespective of whether they were free and fair, for example Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s re-election in June, rather than political reality on the ground. Ironically, framing that alongside the principle of non-intervention in a country’s domestic affairs effectively amounts to support for autocratic regimes in the Middle East, a policy for which the United States has paid dearly.
The end of US hegemony
The contours of Chinese policy in the Middle East and the assumptions on which they are based have begun to emerge even as US credibility is undermined as a result of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, US support for political change in the region is perceived to be misled; US reluctance to become further embroiled in the region’s conflicts foremost among which is Syria, and its inability to nudge Israelis and Palestinians towards a resolution of their dispute. “US backing off on the Syrian chemical weapons issue signalled the end of US hegemony,” said An Huihou of Shanghai International Studies University’s (SIIS) Middle East Institute who served as Chinese ambassador in five Arab countries. An was referring to the Russian initiated negotiated resolution of the issue after US President Barack Obama last year shied away from acting militarily on what he had earlier described as a red line.