Written by Robert R. Bianchi.
As China acquires growing influence in the Middle East, it is inevitably drawn toward involvement in the region’s many conflicts, including long-festering disputes between Israelis and Palestinians. If and when China becomes more engaged in Middle East diplomacy, it probably stands to benefit whether Israeli-Palestinian relations improve or deteriorate, so having a regular voice in the deliberations would enhance Beijing’s prestige and leverage. Continued flare ups in Gaza and the West Bank would be far more damaging for the U.S. and the E.U., which are heavily invested in both Israel and Palestine, than for China, which bears little responsibility for the current stalemate.
In fact, many in Beijing would welcome protracted turmoil in a range of Middle Eastern hotspots because they cripple President Obama’s project to refocus U.S. military resources on the Western Pacific. Beyond the Middle East, new firestorms in Europe are also diverting Washington’s attention from Asia. War in the Ukraine, the Greek and Spanish revolts against Eurozone austerity, and the chilling resurgence of terrorism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia—all of these are shaking the foundations of the European and Trans-Atlantic alliances that strategists in Brussels and Washington took for granted when they trumpeted their intentions to help shape “the Asian century.”
Today, NATO’s leaders are quarrelling over whether to muster resources against Russia or the Middle East. China seems to have slipped far down on their list of urgent crises and Beijing security planners are thinking less about the threats of encirclement and more about building New Silk Roads across Eurasia and Africa[i].
How have Chinese observers responded to the spectacle of Western and Middle Eastern societies colliding with one another and fracturing within? So far, with a slight show of empathy and a strong dose of condescension.
In the wake of the Paris killings, many Chinese writers commiserated with European trauma, but quickly noted that Western governments had failed to reciprocate when Beijing hit back against similar attacks in Xinjiang and elsewhere. They urged Europe to take China seriously when it sounded alarms about transnational terrorism and to stop denouncing Beijing’s limits on speech and public assembly. In this view, Europeans had ignored what China tried to teach them about battling terrorism and now they were paying the price.
Other Chinese writers blamed Europe itself for the violence, claiming that its history of colonialism and racial discrimination was coming home to roost as formerly subject peoples resettled in the old metropoles. From this perspective, Europeans were still blinded by Orientalist prejudices that prevented them from distinguishing between terrorism and Islam. Hence, Westerners were constantly overreacting to extremist provocations and alienating a billion Muslims while trying to hunt down a few thousand scattered murderers. Once again, Europe was advised to learn from China’s supposedly tactful approach to building broad alliances with Muslims everywhere in order to isolate and smother the pockets of jihadi fugitives.
Perhaps the most irritating opinions in China’s media admonished both Europeans and Middle Easterners for being too emotional as though they were refighting the Crusades on a global scale and at humanity’s expense. With a sense of self-satisfaction that bordered on smugness, this message told Westerners and Muslims to “restrain themselves”—indeed, to follow the example of “good-tempered” Chinese people who shrug off religious insults and focus on pragmatic interests.
The common thread running through all of these Chinese commentaries was that the West and the Middle East were tearing themselves apart and that they both needed China’s help to stop the bleeding. Although such views received scant attention among their targeted audiences, they meshed well with official comments from Israel.
Prime Minister Netanyahu interpreted Europe’s turmoil as another sign that the continent was being “Islamized”. He claimed that the E.U. countries were increasingly unsafe for Jews, that their governments were overeager to recognize Palestinian statehood, and that they were buckling under to Obama’s alleged pressures to cut a deeply flawed deal with Iran. According to Netanyahu, Israel intended to reduce its dependence on Europe’s sagging economies and to increase trade with Asian markets, particularly with China where Israeli technology was highly valued. This warming of Sino-Israeli relations came just as Netanyahu was preparing his controversial address to the U.S. Congress targeting America’s supposed errors in Middle East policy.
Israel’s leaders see several opportunities in promoting greater Chinese involvement in Middle Eastern affairs. With China at the table, any negotiations over Palestine would be more complicated and, therefore, less likely to disturb the status quo. Because Netanyahu senses shifts in American and European policies that jeopardize Israel’s interests, he probably views China as a rising great power that can counterbalance the older—and, from his perspective, less reliable—powers of the North Atlantic. Reasoning that China’s global influence is increasingly evident in Middle East diplomacy, Israelis would prefer to put out the welcome mat for another guest instead of antagonizing it by resisting an entrance that seems unstoppable. After all, an Israel with a sympathetic China at its side is even more valuable to wavering friends that might be tempted to pursue their own interests at her expense.
Robert R. Bianchi a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. He is a political scientist and an international lawyer with special interests in China and the Islamic World. Image credit: CC by michael loadenthal/Flickr.
[i] Bianchi, Robert R. (2014). “Silk Roads and Great Games: Prelude to Global Governance or Great Power Conflict?”, International Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies (In Asia), December.