China’s Middle Eastern Meddling
by Austin Williams
(This article first appeared in Spectator Coffee House)
Only last week, China was pushing itself forward to be the regional eminence grise in the Middle East, the powerbroker driving renewed Palestine-Israeli peace talks. In March this year, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi said that Chinese-mediated detente was driving a “wave of reconciliation” in the Middle East. China’s inflated sense of its influence in the region came to a juddering halt in the light of the horrific attacks on Israel by Hamas militants on the weekend.
As a self-declared mediator in the region, China refused to condemn the Isis-style barbarity of Hamas; instead, choosing to chide Israel for refusing to enter talks. It called for both sides to “to remain calm (and) exercise restraint.” This, in the face of graphic evidence of the brutal slaughter of Israeli civilians is a timid response for an aspiring world leader, but China is merely demonstrating that it has rote-learned the concept of diplomatic impartiality. It is going through the motions to maintain the most sacred of Chinese values: stability.
Many years ago, China was one of the first countries to recognise Palestine – unlike America, Germany, France, Italy, UK and others who still refuse to accept its statehood. Today, a fragmented EU pontificates about sending aid to Palestine in the current conflict, while China and Palestine have just signed a Memorandum of Understanding to improve “connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and people-to-people connections.” Potentially of concern, latest trade figures published by China Briefing indicate that among the $158 million of Chinese imports into Palestine, $37 million was designated as “Nuclear reactors, boilers, machinery, and mechanical appliances.” For all the past errors and horrors of Western interventions in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere; China may turn out to be an even more dangerous novice. Unaware of its own lack of judgement, the concept of Chinese pragmatism, which is deeply embedded in its ruling Party psyche – feeling its way towards a solution – is not the way to resolve real hot war conflicts.
How did China get into this messy situation? From the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese state nurtured political relations with African liberation movements offering money, support and an alternative socialist vision. In more recent times, as the political necessity of Cold War political allegiances have waned, liberation struggles have faded away, and China has lost its socialist mojo, business and economic pragmatism have taken their place. Nowadays, Africa has many counties that China simply wants to do business with.
In recent times, China’s trading relations has necessitated it cosying up to pariah states – from Sudan to Zimbabwe, from Syria to Eritrea –trading with unsavoury regimes that no-one else would touch with a bargepole. Admittedly, supping with the devil brings rewards to both sides. It clearly offers economic benefits, but it also serves to feed an animosity towards the West, turning heads towards the Chinese Communist Party’s single-minded way of working.
Where the West has removed itself from the underdeveloped world, admitting that it has nothing to offer these places, China has stepped in to offer money, development, a Chinese education – intellectually and ideologically – and a subterfuge for anti-Western rhetoric. Unbeknownst to China, it is playing a dangerous game.
Underdeveloped countries, want to model themselves on sure-footed leadership that can shore-up and legitimate their rule. By default, China’s no-questions-asked, one-party-state approach to investment, regardless of their investee’s ethical status has an appeal. Its seemingly bottomless bank balance: its transactional approach, and its policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of small, destabilised countries seems to be an attractive proposition for despots and outcast nations. By putting all their eggs in China’s authoritarian basket – their material living standards will improve – but the prospect of democracy emerging in many of these undeveloped parts of the world are much diminished.
China’s careless foreign policy
China’s isolation from the real world for much of the 20th century’s post-war period has meant that, in reality, it is rather unworldly. It has not yet become fully socialised into the intricacy of world affairs and is rather ill-prepared for its role on the global stage. It knows this. But the retreat of West, in terms of the factionalism between Western nations as well as the uncertainty surrounding Western values, has given it a greater stage than it has earned or expected. For a country that has long focused on self-reliance, China seems to have had global expectations thrust upon it.
Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party is still a novice capitalist state having converted to the market just 50 years ago. As such, it is prone to schoolboy errors of judgement, exacerbated by a cultural defensiveness and the ruling Party’s refusal to listen to criticism. China’s social and political organisation tends to isolationism – to learn by mistakes, while borrowing liberally from others. Its political response to events is derived from the echo chamber of Party discipline rather than in open concert with others. This means that the Chinese leadership is not as well-practiced in international affairs as it likes to think it is. Its handling of the Uyghur situation is a case in point. Seizing on America’s post-9/11 war on terror against Islamist extremism, China assumed, carte blanche, that it was legitimate to use similar tactics on its own ethnic minority peoples.
China’s engagement with ethnically-diverse regimes in the developing world has not been plain sailing. It may trade with poor and perilous countries, often filling the coffers of unsavoury regimes and getting rich resources in return, but it comes at a cost. This year alone, nine Chinese workers have been killed in the Central African Republic, and last year Islamist bombs killed 12 Chinese workers in Pakistan. Nine Chinese workers were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2021, and three abducted in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many of these attacks were carried out by criminal elements extorting a ransom from the state-owned company bosses.
But the growing Chinese industrial machine needs feeding with ever more natural resources from those same unglamorous, underdeveloped African and Middle Eastern states. China’s domestic reserves are inadequate to the task and in the last 20 years, internationally sourced imports of oil from Africa have risen from one-third to one-quarter of its stockpiles. Its coal imports, primarily from Indonesia (and favourable deals with Russia) have hit an all-time high. It is now looking for a steady supply from the Middle East. According to the Japan Times, half of China’s massive oil imports comes from the Persian Gulf. Last month, it bought nearly 90% of Iran’s total oil exports.
As it grows, so it has to play a role in the changing world-order. It is clearly trying to morph from simply being a trade partner of troubled natural resource-rich states and being more of a global leader. While professing not to want to become a hegemonic power in the Indo-Pacific region, all eyes are on its potential conflict with Taiwan, its regional influence through the ASEAN bank, or its military manoeuvres in the South China Sea. But by concentrating on China’s menacing actions over there, we might find that we have been looking the wrong way. China is making more explicit inroads in mainstream global affairs and if it is going to meddle in the Middle East, and stoke animosity to Western values, we had better look more forensically at the mess it might be leaving behind.
Over the last few months, China claims to have brokered a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran; a peace plan that the US and EU have failed to win after many months of trying. It demonstrated China’s assumed role as mediator in the Middle East in contrast to the US’s historic dominance in the region. The Chinese state news agency, Xinhua reported that Iran’s foreign minister “expressed sincere gratitude to China for the constructive role it played in promoting the normalisation of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.” It was all going so well until recent events have thrown China’s influence off course. What Iranian-backed Hezbollah Shiite terrorist (allied to Gaza’s governing terrorist group Hamas) think about the deal with Israel is currently unknown.
China’s attempt to appear statesmanlike in the Middle East: to act like a world power and position itself at the centre of global governance couldn’t have come at less opportune time. The massacre in Gaza and Israel’s retaliatory strikes have pushed trade deals and peace agreements off the table. Even though the West has not covered itself in glory over the years, nor during this massacre in Israel, China’s poor judgement in the face of hard geopolitical realities has been exposed. Back to the drawing board. Symbolically, it demonstrates that China is not up to the task. Yet.
Austin Williams is director of the Future Cities Project, and author of “China’s Urban Revolution”
This article first appeared in the Spectator Coffee House