Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi is currently visiting the Middle East, a trip that includes three Arab countries, including Syria, Egypt and Algeria. This is another important Middle East diplomatic step after Wang Yi’s visit to six Gulf countries in March this year. With these two intensive visits, China’s high-level diplomacy has actually attained full coverage of major Middle East countries this year. Such intensive Middle East diplomatic activities are unprecedented in the history of Chinese diplomacy, which fully demonstrates that China’s relations with Middle Eastern countries have reached a new historical height, and also marks a significant rise in the ranking of the Middle East in Chinese diplomacy, especially since it comes under the epidemic.
In terms of itinerary and results, the visit had three distinctive features. First, China is highly concerned about security issues in the Middle East. The Middle East is the region with the most serious security deficit in the world and is the hardest hit by armed conflicts and humanitarian crises. The civil war in Syria, the first stop of Wang’s three-nation Middle East tour, has lasted for a decade. Two months ago, a new round of Palestinian-Israeli conflict broke out, causing a large number of casualties. Many conflicts in the Middle East have been going on for years and have become the cause of death of the Middle East and shame in the world. If the Middle East conflict is not resolved, the world will not be peaceful. The resolution of the Middle East conflict is an important indicator to test the effectiveness of international governance.
However, the volatile Middle East has long been in a state of “zero mechanism, zero platform, zero dialogue” on security, the “three noes”. Wang Yi’s first stop was in Syria, and then he visited Egypt. There he proposed three ideas for implementing the “two-state solution”, once again emphasizing the fundamental status of the “two-state solution”. All these reflect China’s expectation for the Middle East to move from chaos to governance. China has actively urged for peace and talks and promoted the resolution of conflicts and the construction of security mechanisms in the Middle East, demonstrating its role as a responsible power.
Second, China is highly concerned about development in the Middle East. Unlike Western military intervention and ideological shaping of the Middle East, China believes that the root cause of all problems in the Middle East lies in poor development, and that the way out of the Middle East problem lies in development. China’s Middle East program is people-oriented and focuses on people’s livelihood. By building the “Belt and Road” with Middle Eastern countries, improving the infrastructure of Arab countries, raising the level of industrialization and helping war-torn countries to rebuild, it is the fundamental solution to the high unemployment rate, high inflation rate, backward manufacturing industry and sluggish exports, which restrict the development of Middle Eastern countries. The economic and trade cooperation agreements and projects reached during the trip clearly reflect China’s Middle East governance concept of promoting peace through development.
Third, bilateral and multilateral cooperation are both important. During the visit, China signed a number of bilateral cooperation agreements with the three countries, and Wang Yi also met with the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States. The two sides issued a joint statement and agreed to build a Sino-Arab community of shared destiny and hold a Sino-Arab summit, marking a new level of collective Sino-Arab dialogue and cooperation with the Sino-Arab Cooperation Forum as the platform. This is completely different from the Western practice of pulling mountains and factions in the Arab world to create divisions.
The visit sparked a lot of attention and speculation in the international media, and one of the prevailing claims is that China is trying to take advantage of the U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East to “fill the power vacuum left by the U.S.”, a claim that clearly does not hold water.
First of all, the logic of “filling the power vacuum” is that China wants to engage in a sphere of influence in the Middle East, which has been the basic tactic of the major powers in the Middle East game throughout history. For example, the U.S. involvement in the Middle East is mainly by military means, building a system of allies, recruiting proxies, and imposing economic sanctions plus armed intervention on rivals or enemies set up to achieve regime change and other purposes. As it turns out, these practices have only exacerbated social unrest, economic hardship and livelihood difficulties in the Middle East. China has no intention of following the same path that other powers have followed in the Middle East, namely, getting involved in regional conflicts through military means. Therefore, whether the other powers leave or stay, it will not affect China’s security and development concept in the Middle East, which is to persuade peace and promote negotiation, and to promote peace through development.
Second, China does not interfere in the internal affairs of Middle Eastern countries and insists that the people of the Middle East should take care of their own affairs. The fundamental factor promoting the approach of China and the Middle East countries is the pursuit and maintenance of sovereignty, security and development interests of both sides. China has had similar painful experiences of colonization and interference with Middle Eastern countries, and shares the suffering of the Middle Eastern peoples, and is able to empathize with them. Therefore, China does not want to be part of the Middle East problem, but rather part of the solution. China is willing to help the Middle Eastern countries to realize the road to independence, prosperity and strength. This is incomprehensible to Western countries that have colonized and interfered in the Middle East with their fists and spheres of influence, using so-called democracy, freedom and human rights as a pretext to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. For this reason, China’s Middle East policy has been recognized by Middle Eastern countries, and Middle Eastern people generally expect China to play a greater role in the Middle East.
Once again, China is pursuing mutual benefits and win-win situations in the Middle East. It goes without saying that the Middle East is growing in importance for China, regardless of the changing importance of the Middle East to other countries. The Middle East is a major source of China’s oil imports, with about 40 percent or even half of China’s crude oil imports coming from there, and this is not likely to change in the near future. The Middle East is also an important market for Chinese industrial goods and high-tech products. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have signed Huawei’s 5G construction agreement, and other countries in the Middle East are major target markets and service recipients for satellite launches and BeiDou navigation systems.
However, the basic principle of China’s economic and trade cooperation with Middle Eastern countries is mutual benefit and win-win, and China attaches importance to the development concerns of Middle Eastern countries and is committed to dovetailing the “Belt and Road” with the development strategies of Middle Eastern countries, placing the enhancement of the Middle East’s economic development and improvement of people’s well-being on an equal footing with China’s economic gains, rather than engaging in the old Western colonialist approach. This explains why the Belt and Road Initiative has been welcomed by Middle Eastern countries.
Some have expressed concern about China’s recent Middle East diplomacy, arguing that the Middle East is a “graveyard of empires” and fearing that China will get too close to the Middle East and get caught in the quagmire of Middle East conflicts. Indeed, the geopolitical risks in the Middle East remain prominent at present and in the coming period. This requires China, especially Chinese enterprises, to have adequate risk assessment and risk-averse awareness when cooperating with Middle Eastern countries. However, there is no need to worry about China falling into the “Middle East quagmire”, as China will not get involved in the Middle East conflict and will not engage in spheres of influence. The government’s policy on the Middle East is to promote development, and its basic approach is to persuade peace and promote negotiation, which determines that China’s diplomacy in the Middle East is constructive and beneficial to both itself and others.
(The author is a Professor at the Institute of Middle East Studies, Shanghai International Studies University)