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Advisable, China reset relations with Mideast

14:38, March 30, 2011

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By Li Hongmei

The Western country have formed a popular perception that the Islam states of the currently unrest Middle East play an indescribable but indispensable role in deciding the rise or fall of any world power. Further, in the current context that the international system is in the phase of transformation, the significance of the Middle East "plate" looms large, geopolitically, economically and militarily. In addition, the region not only boasts abundant oil and gas reserves but has a strong and unique appeal in terms of culture and civilization. The Middle East, hence, could somewhat contain and block the extension of a power's comprehensive strength.

In what way a power, or a rising power like China, should do to deal with the strategically critical "plate"----flexing muscles for invasion or intervention, or treating each other at equal footing, seeking mutual respect and win-win----will undoubtedly determine life or death of any power's Mideast strategies.

Over the bygone half of the century, China has maintained the fine tradition of equally treating and, paying due understanding and respect to, the Middle East countries, although the bilateral relationships are at times bumpy in history.

Generally, China's Middle East policies have covered four eras since the founding of People's Republic of China in 1949.

1949-1955. The first era was marked by an ambition to keep pace with the Soviet Union and to maintain an ideologically consistent set of policies. For this reason the Chinese leadership then generally had a critical attitude towards rulers of independent nations in Middle East. Except for Israel, none of the 11 independent Mideast countries recognized the People's Republic of China. In response, the Chinese media then routinely referred to Middle Eastern leaders as "the anti-revolutionary rulers" and "feudal dictators." While criticizing the rulers, China supported their anti-colonial efforts, only morally, of course.

Regarding most Middle Eastern leaders as pro-Western, Beijing saw conflicts between Middle East states as mere proxies for the Western powers and adopted a neutral stance toward these.

1956-1966. In the second era, the Chinese leadership came to see the anti-Western Arab states and movements as anti-imperialist. Beijing responded favorably, seeking to strengthen relations with them.

In the summer of 1958, the Chinese government strongly denounced the American intervention in Lebanon and the British intervention in Jordan, then established diplomatic ties with the newborn republic of Iraq. The following two years saw newly-independent Morocco, Sudan, and Somalia establishing diplomatic ties with China. China also became one of the first to recognize the anti-French provisional government in Algeria.

At this stage too, Chinese support became practical and tangible, including shipments for military and civilian use plus the training of personnel.

1966-1976. The Cultural Revolution paralyzed China's relations with the outside world, including the Middle East, for a whole decade. Once diplomacy resumed in the early 1970s, and until the end of the Mao Zedong's day, China's Middle East policies featured an anti-Soviet premise. The Soviet military force posed the biggest threat to China. In response, the then Beijing proposed the uniting of all forces to fight Soviet hegemony, a policy that also influenced their outlook on the Middle East.

1977 and on. With Deng Xiaoping at the helm, China started to adopt a less ideological but more practical diplomacy, with the aim of creating a favorable international environment for China's modernization drive. This approach activated China's relations with all the Middle East countries and led to a substantial rise in Chinese influence as a result. Beijing ceased to use ideological criterion to distinguish between enemy and friend. Instead, national benefits became the basis of making decisions.

Between 1977 and 1990, China set up diplomatic relations with most of the Middle East states: supporting the moderate forces (such as Egypt and the Gulf states) at the same time maintaining normal relations with the hard-liners of the Arab world. In addition, China moved fast ahead in a wide variety of fields, building economic, trade, cultural, scientific, technological, and military ties. By 1990, China's exports to the Middle East countries reached $1.5 billion, and more than 50,000 Chinese workers were employed in the region.

Currently, China has no serious issues with the Arab world, making steady Sino-Arab relations likely. As a permanent member of the Security Council, China is becoming more involved in unfolded Middle East issues.

In actuality, China is beginning to establish its foothold in the highly strategic, energy-rich region of the Middle East by forging strong ties with regional powers and gradually challenging the US regional dominance. Thanks to decades of double-digit economic growth and accelerating military modernization, China now has both the need for and the capability of engaging the Middle East.

This century has witnessed China's emergence as the main challenger to the superpower status of the United States. Some even wonder whether the region would become a battleground in the 21st century conflict between a rising China and a stagnant United States, much the way Middle East was a staging area for Cold War conflicts between the United States and the Soviet Union.

China's growing diplomatic sophistication is also seen in the way how it has endorsed alternative narratives, norms, and visions to challenge highly unpopular US policies in the Middle East. In direct contrast to the unwelcome American approach, China later developed the Beijing Consensus, which emphasized state-led development, non-interference in the affairs of other countries, and trade without political preconditions. As anti-US sentiment grew in the Middle East, China found it easier to expand ties with all relevant regional powers, including America's Arab allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. China's strategic maneuverings have been a savvy fusion of its pragmatically-inclined foreign policy and security-oriented diplomacy.

Every month, China send representatives to the oil-rich Saudi Arabia to ensure the bilateral relations are on track and energy supplies are secure. Since the establishment of ties between the two countries in 1990, trade has grown from an initial amount of $290 million to about $41.8 billion in 2008.

In the meantime, China is thought by the US and its allies to be a rivaling power blocking the Western attempts to isolate Iran, one of the American arch-foes in the region besides the presently embattled Libya, and hence undermining US predominance in the region.

The United States remains the preponderant military power in the world, as well as in the Mideast. But with a troubled domestic economy, the United States watches as China is positioning itself at the center of regional politics and swiftly expanding its investments, trade, and military relations with powerful regional players.

Armed with cash and clout, Beijing is changing the regional balance of power even as a relative newcomer to the Middle East. Washington, meanwhile, is too distracted by its wars to do much more than observe the tectonic shifts.

On this basis, the formerly set Sino-Middle East relations as that of "China's peripheral extension and broader peripheral strategy" seems already far from enough to describe the substantial connotation reflecting the currently China-Middle East relations. Today, China is embracing its global interests with the growing international influence, and therefore, China's Middle East policy should be recalibrated and focal point altered to view the Mideast region as China's part and parcel of the significant strategic resources and one of its vital strategic pillars, just to fit in with the needs of both reality and future development.

The articles in this column represent the author's views only. They do not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.

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About this column

Li Hongmei, editor and columnist of PD Online.


Li HongLi Hong

After 19 years working for China Daily and its website, Li Hong moved to english.people.com.cn in March 2009.

Li has been a reporter and column writer, mainly on China's economy and politics.

He was graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University, and once studied in University of Hawaii and the Poynter Institute in Florida.

Dai MinJohn
Dai Min

John Milligan-Whyte and Dai Min, the executive producers and co-hosts of the Collaboration of Civilizations television series adapted by the eight books they wrote in the America-China Partnership Book Series published in English and Mandarin in 2009-2010 that created the "New School of America-China Relations." They founded the America-China Partnership Foundation and Forum in 2008 and the Center for American-China Partnership in 2005, which was recognized in 2009 as "the first American think tank to combine and integrate American and Chinese perspectives providing a complete answer for America and China's success in the 21st century."