Written by Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat.
In recent years, China has shown greater interest in exerting influence in the Middle East. In mid 2013, for example, Beijing invited both Palestinian and Israeli leaders for separate meetings to discuss the resumption of the Arab-Israeli peace process. In this meeting, Chinese leader Xi Jinping revealed his four-point peace proposal for the settlement of Palestinian issue. Even though China has played an important role in the Israeli-Palestinian affairs since the early days of the conflict, this offer to be the middle party in a peace negotiation signifies China’s willingness to play a more active role in Middle Eastern issues, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What actually drives China to the Middle East? And what is the likely implication of China’s role in the conflict on the United States?
Considering China’s status as the world’s fastest growing energy consumer, it is difficult to ignore energy as the fundamental driving force behind China’s growing involvement in Middle Eastern affairs. Over the past decade, China has become increasingly reliant on external energy sources, particularly from the Middle East. It is reported that Beijing’s petroleum imports will grow fourfold in the coming years with oil from Middle East accounting for much of that increase. Hence, energy security has and will continue to be vital to the Chinese and a central underpinning of their foreign policy. China’s need to have a secure energy supply will likely require that it continues to seek to exert influence in the Middle East. Even though the issue of Palestine has no direct impact on its energy supply calculations, China has been seeking to use non-military access to expand its standing and significance in the wider Arab world – and a role of peacemaker in the region’s most long-standing problem is one way to realise this.
In addition, Beijing is keen to gain access to untapped consumer markets in the Middle East for its exports and lucrative investment opportunities. During the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum last year, China made clear the commitment to increase its trade volume with the Arab states in the coming years. In the past years, Sino-Arab trade volume has increased exponentially, making China the second largest trading partner for the Arab world. On the other hand, as Beijing’s economic relations with Israel have expanded, it has started to reconsider its foreign policy position on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. China has taken a moderate approach by maintaining its support for the Palestinian cause, while at the same time strengthening its ties with Israel, including several agreements signed with Israel recently concerning security and counterterrorism, cultural exchanges, and technology transfers, expanding the scope of China-Israel relations.
Beside economics, China’s increasing aspirations in the Middle East should be considered within the geopolitical context. As an emerging political and military power in the international arena, Beijing is committed to projecting power outside its East Asian sphere of influence. To boost its great power ambitions and its stance in the Arab world, China’s foreign policy is forging deeper involvement in the region’s main issues, including becoming an effective mediator in the Arab-Israeli dispute.
In order for bilateral trade and projection of power to continue, from China’s point of view, regional stability in the Arab world is crucial. To that end, China is likely to take further steps in the Israeli-Palestinian issue while continuing to pursue a moderate policy line that enables good relations with both Arab and Israeli sides.
China’s further involvement in Arab-Israeli affairs has several implications for the dominant position of the US in the Middle East. Despite the fact that at this stage Washington continues to be a significant partner and ally for most countries in the region, the growing involvement of the Chinese in the Middle East will likely curb the United States’ chances of maintaining its position of absolute dominance. This was indicated by a number of testimonies and speeches by senior members of the Chinese government implying that the United States cannot retain its sole dominance in the peace process between the Arabs and the Israelis.
Nevertheless, despite many actors and analysts hoping that Beijing might present itself as an alternative to American supremacy at the Arab-Israeli negotiation table, this is unlikely to take place anytime soon. It is important to note that the Chinese aim to maintain their relationship with the United States. In that respect, Beijing tends to pay particular attention to the reaction of the Americans and is exerting efforts to stress how close the Chinese and the Americans are on several matters concerning the settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the two countries’ shared interests in eradicating Islamic radicalism and terrorism.
Taking these facts into consideration, China therefore will likely to prefer working “in parallel” and not interfering with the US’ aspirations. This was indicated by the Chinese Middle East envoy Wu Sike in his 2013 piece in which he declared that the Americans will retain their vital say in the Middle East peace process, but the international community will benefit more if countries, such as China, add balance to the sometimes-biased U.S. stance. There is a prospect for joint action between Beijing and Washington to support stability in the Middle East as a whole.
Muhammad Zulfikar is a grad student in International Politics at the University of Manchester. Image credit: CC by carimachet/Flickr.