The earliest communication between China and the Middle East can be traced back to the Han Dynasty more than 2,000 years ago. Since its founding in 1949, the People's Republic of China has been eager to develop friendly relations with the countries in the Middle East. The end of the Cold War and the second Gulf War radically altered the political forces in the Middle East and opened new opportunities for the changes in international relations. The issue I will discuss in this article is how China, with its rapidly developing economy, should deal with the countries in the Middle East as our unstable world marches to the twenty-first century.
The Middle East has been a hot spot in international politics since the end of World War II. In addition to regional contradictions and conflicts, the confrontation and contention between the two superpowers cast a pall over the whole area. For new China, the Middle East was a distant and unfamiliar place. The Chinese government and academia did not know or care about Middle Eastern affairs - the Arab-Israeli wars, the oil embargo, etc. Naturally, the impact of China on the Middle East was limited. What China could do was to stress that it, like most Middle East countries, had suffered colonialist and imperialist aggression and rule and, like them, had to defend the integrity of its territory and sovereignty after independence. In addition, China firmly supported the Palestinians and Arabs in their struggle for liberation, which actually was the core of Chinese Middle Eastern policy in those years. As a positive response to this policy, in May 1956 Egypt became the first Middle East country to establish diplomatic relations with China. However, the monarchies that feared Arab nationalism refused to recognize new China for a long time. China also had to give up the chance to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.
It was not by chance that this embarrassing situation came into being. Immediately after the founding of the People's Republic of China, the West, headed by the United States, adopted a policy of isolation and containment toward China. The United States, to support the Kuomintang regime that had fled to Taiwan, threatened Northeast China by invading Korea, established military bases in several countries of Southeast Asia, and formed an anti-Communist alliance (the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, SEATO). New China, seeking to rebuild its economy destroyed by years of war and facing urgent threats, was unlikely to formulate an adequate Middle East policy. In addition, the United States and Britain cobbled together another military alliance (the Central Nations Treaty Organization, CENTO) to contain the Soviet Union and combat communism. Many Middle East countries took part, thus blocking communication between China and the Middle East.
The 1960s witnessed the steady deterioration of relations between China and the Soviet Union, as well as China's preoccupation with its Cultural Revolution. In foreign relations, China tried to find allies in the Third World to whom its revolutionary ideology might appeal. Meanwhile, at home, ultra Leftism ran rampant, which heavily influenced China's foreign policy. For example, China's refusal to adopt a market economy and its undue emphasis on self reliance hindered the development of foreign trade and economic relations.
The year 1978 is one of the turning points in modem Chinese history. Since then, China has begun to reach out to the world in a practical and open spirit, deemphasizing ideology and promoting trade and economic exchanges. But the Middle East has been an extremely politicized region that both the United States and the Soviet Union tried to dominate. Under circumstances, a third political or economic force would not have been welcome. Nonetheless, during this period China made efforts to establish diplomatic relations with the countries in the region and obtained some economic opportunities, such as the export of laborers and arms sales. But the Middle East was still on the margins of the Chinese foreign-policy agenda. On most issues, China simply expressed its position, but hardly affected the process of change in that region. Even the trade and economic exchanges that China actively pushed made very limited progress. Until 1985, the total volume of trade between China and the Middle East countries was only $1.7 billion.
Normalization of Relations with Israel
On January 9, 1950, the foreign minister of Israel sent Premier Zhou Enlai a telegram in which Israel announced its intention to recognize the government of the People's Republic of China as the sole legal government of China. Israel was the first country in the region to recognize new China. However, China rejected establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, simply because Israel, with U.S. support, occupied Arab territories. China regarded support to the Palestinian liberation cause as its unshirkable duty. China's diplomatic aims were to win the trust and friendship of the Arab nations and the Third World, to cast off the isolation imposed on it by the West and East blocs, and to set up an internationally united front against imperialism and hegemonism. Unfortunately, until the early 1970s, nine Arab countries still refused to recognize the PRC.
With the reform and opening of China and the end of the Cold War, the ideological confrontation in international relations gradually weakened. In addition, both the Arab states and Israel generally recognized the necessity of facing reality after more than 40 years of conflict. As a result, it was logical for China to establish diplomatic relations with Israel on January 24, 1992. The normalization of relations between China and Israel not only laid a solid foundation for further development of relations between the two countries, but also made it possible for China to participate in and influence Middle Eastern affairs.
Trade and Economic Relations
Since 1978, sympathy with and support to Arab causes has been (and will be) the main thrust of the Middle East policy of China, but policy makers increasingly recognized the importance of promoting trade and economic cooperation with the whole region. The Middle East, as a major oil supplier, obviously influences the world economy. In addition, the Middle East and the GCC countries, as the owners of oil dollars, play a role in the financial markets of the world. Therefore, expanding trade and economic linkages with the region gradually became an important objective of Chinese foreign policy. However, it was not easy to enter into the Middle East market, partly because China had no diplomatic relations with some countries, and partly because the products from America, Europe and Japan had monopolized the market. The positive changes in Sino-Middle East relations at the turn of the 1980s indicated that bilateral economic cooperation was moving toward a new stage. By January 1992, China had established diplomatic relations with all countries in the Middle East, which laid a solid political foundation for mutual economic cooperation. Second, the progress of the Arab-Israeli peace process relaxed regional tensions by and large, and economic cooperation was placed on the regional agenda. In the opinion of China, participating in economic reconstruction and seeking commercial opportunity in the Middle East would be helpful to the economic growth of both sides and promote social stability in the region.
Third, in 1993, China became a net importing country of petrochemical products. With China's economic growth, its need for imported oil will increase significantly, which means more economic linkages between China and the Gulf.
Fourth, while the high proportion of foreign trade in GNP displays the open level of the Chinese economy, it also indicates that this economic growth relies heavily on the world market. Obviously, it will be significant for China to develop such potential markets as the Middle East.
These new changes forcefully pushed bilateral trade forward. In 1993, the trade volume between China and the Middle East (excluding Iran, Turkey and Cyprus) rose to $3.11 billion, an increase of 40 percent over the previous year, when exports totaled $1.89 billion, and imports $12.20 billion.
More Active Participation
After the Gulf War in 1991, the United States, as the sole superpower, dominated the Middle East. The Americans were particularly satisfied with the advances made in strengthening Gulf security and promoting a just and lasting peace between the Arabs and Israelis.1 However, the U.S. position is far from stable and uncontested. Besides regional challenges such as radical Islamism, terrorism and various complex disputes, some Western countries have expressed disagreement with the United States on some issues. Even the Russians, who had withdrawn from the Middle East, are preparing to return to the region. Facing this complicated situation, China has begun to implement a positive policy in the Middle East. China is in favor of the peace process initiated by the United States and actively participates in the multilateral talks on regional security, water, refugees and other issues. Regional economic cooperation is of particular interest to China. From 1994 to 1997, China attended each annual economic conference of the Middle East and North Africa.
In addition, China made known its own position on arms control2 and observed three principles on weapons sales: (1) the purpose of weapons sales is to strengthen the self-defense of the importing countries; (2) weapons sales must not upset the regional balance; and (3) China will not intervene in the internal affairs of other countries by weapons sales.3 In recent years, China signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, promised to observe the Missile Technology Control Regime guidelines and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. China's participation in Middle East affairs and its sense of responsibility for global issues indicates that its self-confidence in diplomacy is steadily growing. I believe that it will contribute to the strengthening of relations between China and the Middle East as well as to the balance of power in the region.
In principle, China's persistent aim is to establish and develop friendly cooperative relations with every country on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, which is the foundation of China's foreign policy. However, in practice the situation is very complicated. In the Middle East, those countries that overthrew colonial or feudal rulers were the first to establish diplomatic relations with China. In this case, the similar experiences (suffering from the oppression of colonialism and imperialism) and common goals (maintaining independence and developing the economy) constituted the solid foundation for relations among them. The other countries in the Middle East refused to recognize China because they were following the U.S. lead or hated communism. Meanwhile, it seemed that China rejected the Israeli request to establish diplomatic relations for ideological reasons. This Cold War ideological diplomatic model is today heading for its doom. As most countries pay more attention to economic development, the choice of a foreign strategy tends to be realistic and practical. China has corrected the deviation of its Middle East policy. First, it intends to promote relations with the region in an all around way- politically, economically and culturally - and second, it hopes to develop relations with all countries, while avoiding involvement in regional disputes.
THE MIDDLE EAST IN CHINA’S FOREIGN POLICY
Improving relations with neighboring countries and strengthening economic cooperation with the developed countries in the Americas and Europe have always occupied an important position in China's foreign strategy. By contrast, the Middle East is located at the periphery. As the twenty-first century approaches and China's economy becomes unavoidably linked to the entire world's, there are reasons to reappraise the strategic significance of the Middle East for China.
Only Afghanistan among Middle Eastern countries is adjacent to China. And since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Afghanistan has lost nearly all its geographical significance. However, the rise of the Taliban indicates that a new geopolitical competition has begun. Moreover, the collapse of the Soviet Union has produced another crisis: the problematic future of the Central Asian countries, with their weak economies. Because they have many racial and religious ties with the northwest area of China, their future development will surely exert a major impact on the stability and security of that region. Now rid of Russian dominance, the Central Asian countries expect to receive selfless aid from those Middle Eastern countries with which they have historical, cultural, racial and religious linkages. Many of these countries have involved themselves in Central Asia with varying objectives, principally the rich oil and mineral resources of the area. Therefore, political and economic cooperation between China and the Central Asian countries must occur without delay. The advantages of the Middle East to China, through Central Asia, have become clear. The emergence of a greater Middle East that includes Western Asia and Central Asia seems probable. A realistic foreign policy cannot separate the two regions.
Islam exercises influence on the evolution of international relations in at least two dimensions. On the one hand, Muslims account for about one billion people, mainly living in the long arc from North Africa through the Middle East and Central Asia to South and Southeast Asia. This area covers some important hubs of communication, strategic locations, major producing and exporting countries and is the region with the most vitality in today's world. Thus, the Muslim countries constitute an important force in international affairs. On the other hand, some countries in the Muslim world are full of poverty, backwardness, war and corruption, and their future is uncertain. The prevalence of so-called Islamic fundamentalism has greatly eroded regional stability. Many Western scholars and government officials even believe that Islamic fundamentalism already constitutes the main threat to the West after communism.
China is a big country and a big Third World country. It cannot ignore the existence and influence of the Muslim states and still seek their sympathy and support in international affairs. In addition, China has ten Muslim minorities with a population of 17 million. The Islamic religious and political ideologies from the Middle East and Central Asia often influence Muslims in China. If the religious ideologies integrate with minority separatism, it will pose a great challenge to social stability and economic development in Northwest China. Therefore, in both international and internal affairs, Islam challenges Chinese policy-making. In the face of a complicated and changeable international situation, China must soberly consider and work out a strategy and policy to deal with the key area of Islam - the Middle East.
China is a major oil-producing country, but it is also a major oil consumer. With the further growth of the economy, China's demand for oil will increase significantly. But its oil output will gradually decrease. The present oil fields, such as Daqing, Shengli and Liaohe, are drying up. From a long-range perspective, the undersea oil field along the southeastern coast and newly discovered desert oil fields offer much hope, but they cannot quickly meet the oil demand due to a late start, backward technology and the need for huge funds. According to the most optimistic estimate, in 2000 the gap between oil supply and demand will amount to over 20 million tons. Therefore, for the next ten years (or longer) China will have to alleviate a serious energy crisis by depending on oil imports. In 1993, China for the first time became an importing country of petrochemical products, and in 1996, it became an importer of crude oil. In recent years, China has expanded international cooperation in the oil field, attempting to diversify its energy sources. However, oil from the Middle East comprises more than half of China's total oil imports, reaching 53 percent in 1996. It seems that Middle East oil has become a major resource to meet China's demand. Meanwhile, as a country with a population of 1.2 billion, China must consider its state and national interests. How to acquire cheap energy on the international market and protect domestic supplies are challenges we must face. Considering that China's oil resources will dry up around 2025, and in view of present and long-term development, a strategy for developing oil and gas resources in the Middle East and Central Asia should be a top priority.
Economic and Political Security
The "openness" of China means mainly opening up to the West. The availability of funds, technology and market and management experience from the Western countries will heavily influence the success or failure of China's modernization. In economic exchange with China, some Western countries expect that political change will naturally follow. In addition, they often use economic or non-economic means to directly interfere with China's development process. Although China's relations with the Western countries are interdependent, China is often in a passive and unfavorable position due to its technological backwardness and lack of investment funds. The Western countries still control most international agencies, especially those dealing with economics, trade and finance. They work out the rules of the game and decide the agenda. They even impose their own wishes on other countries and frequently threaten them with economic sanctions and trade blockades. These actions of some Western countries have constituted a threat to China's economic and political security.
With the economy quickly expanding in recent years, the concept of a "Chinese threat" has spread. The United States and other Western countries seem to encourage hostility toward China to contain its development. In their exchange of visits, the presidents of China and the United States reached extensive consensus on Sino-U.S. relations oriented toward the twenty-first century. However, major differences between them still exist, and anti-China sentiment on Capitol Hill and within the United States is strong.
Therefore, it is predictable that Sino-U.S. relations will improve at times and meet with setbacks at other times. In the face of this situation, China needs to reappraise the international environment and reconsider its foreign policy, including its strategy toward the Middle East. Considering the position of the Middle East in the U.S. global strategy and the great potential of the Middle East for cooperation with China in the energy, trade, financial and investment fields, a more active and progressive Chinese policy on the Middle East will surely expand cooperation between China and the United States and effectively improve the economic and political security of China.
The progress of the Arab-Israeli peace process has brought hope for economic development and cooperation in the Middle East, and regional economic cooperation has already been put on the agenda. In current international affairs, the Middle East is inherently a region in which it is easy to arouse controversy. When economic cooperation in the Middle East was merely a possibility, disputes in the international community had already appeared. The United States dominates the Middle East peace process and it certainly attempts to dominate regional economic cooperation. Europe considered that it could not invest in the region and not reap benefits. As a result, soon after the first economic summit conference of the Middle East and North Africa, held in Casablanca, Europe put forward a proposal on economic cooperation around the Mediterranean area. The dispute between Europe and the United States shows that the key strategic position of the Middle East has not decreased with the end of the Cold War. On the contrary, the Middle East seems to be more important than ever because of the realignment of political forces and the appearance of potential economic opportunity.
The countries in the Middle East are conducting economic reform to different degrees. The reorganization of their national economies, readjustment of industrial structure and gradual opening of commodity markets provides a rare opportunity for Chinese enterprises. It opens a broad prospect for China and the Middle East to cooperate in the fields of energy, desert agriculture, oil and petrochemicals. Meanwhile, it provides a new channel for China to strengthen economic ties with the European countries, because the Middle East market is near to Europe, and some countries of the South Mediterranean have signed free trade agreements with the European Union.
All signs indicate that Middle East economies, societies and international relations as well as the Middle East policies of the big powers have entered into a period of readjustment. The intellectuals and government of China must take the opportunity and work out a Middle East strategy for the twenty-first century. In my opinion, China should adopt a more progressive attitude and play a constructive role on the following issues.
The Peace Process
Appearances indicate that the Middle East peace process is in a deadlock simply because of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's stubborn stand and the U.S. partiality toward Israel. In fact, there are some very real reasons for the deadlock. First, the Oslo accord was made under duress. At that time, Israel was strong and the Arab countries were weak. Palestine sacrificed the national rights it should have according to the relevant U.N. resolutions. One party was arrogant and attempted to gain what it wanted, and the other party swallowed an insult and is unable to retreat. Under such circumstances, the peace is doomed to be un certain and meet with setbacks. Second, the Oslo peace was based on the following hypothesis: the limited progress made in secondary issues would create a good working atmosphere, lead to mutual recognition and lay down the foundation for the final negotiations. It is clear that from the beginning, both sides - Arab and Israeli - have quarreled over the implementation details of the Oslo accord. Each argument has poisoned the atmosphere.
However, the basic purpose of the Oslo accord was realized: Palestine and Israel recognized each other, and nobody wants to shut down the door of negotiation. In other words, the Oslo approach has reached its limit and resolved all the issues that it can. Meanwhile, its inherent deficiency is revealed. It is time for the Arab-Israeli peace process to seek new inspiration. China maintains good relations with the Arab countries and Israel and does not challenge the U.S. position of monopoly in the Middle East peace process. Although China's interests are not affected by whether or not the peace process continues, China should be more constructively involved in the Middle East peace process. Such involvement will demonstrate the ability of China, as a permanent member of U.N. Security Council, to undertake its responsibility for international affairs. It is not realistic for China to play a decisive role in the peace process, but effective participation will be beneficial to all concerned.
Islamism and Terrorism
Islamism is an important force both in the domestic politics of Middle Eastern countries and in their regional and international affairs. Generally speaking, Islamism is the response of Islam to Western aggression and suppression, the reaction to the secularism and modernization that most Muslim states blindly seek, and the call for a return to the traditional values and identity that Muslims lost in rapid social change. Obviously, there is no essential difference between this cultural or religious revival and value reconfirmations that have been under other human and social circumstances. However, because many terrorist organizations in the Middle East hold up the banner of Islam, Islam ism and terrorism have actually become two faces of the same coin in the media, in the eyes of the masses, and especially in the minds of some Western policy makers.
In its foreign policy, particularly with regard to the Middle East, China should clearly differentiate between Islamism and terrorism and take a more active attitude toward opposing terrorism, including that which claims to defend state interests and security. China must participate in antiterrorist cooperation within the international community. The benefits are obvious. First, this would help remove misunderstandings of some countries toward China's promotion of cooperation with Islamic states. Second, it would prevent some countries from adopting state terrorism under the pretext of defending national security. Third, it would help to expand cooperation with the international community and open a new channel of dialogue with relevant countries. Fourth, and most important, the international struggle against terrorism intersects with the desire of governments to contain religious and ethnic hostility, for terrorist actions often invite retaliation aimed at maintaining public order. Governments are more aware of their vulnerability with each passing day.
Gulf Security and Stability
To ensure security and stability in the Gulf area after the second Gulf War, the United States established a military alliance with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait while maintaining its military presence in the Middle East. At the same time, the United States encouraged the Arab countries in the region to engage in arms expansion. In addition, the United States drew the strongest Arab countries, Egypt and Syria, into this security structure. In the international community, the United States tried its best to preserve the alliance formed against Iraq in the Gulf War. Following the so-called policy of "dual containment," the United States has attempted to completely remove the threat to the Gulf from Iran and Iraq through an international blockade and economic sanctions. The United States has resorted to every conceivable means to contain Iran and Iraq. However, it has paid a price for the deficiency of its Middle East policy: the security structure painstakingly developed by the United States has been on the verge of dissolution since 1997. The erosion of the Middle East peace process hardly encourages Arab countries to accept the aggressive U.S. policy toward Iraq. The United States energetically promoted the military alliance between Israel and Turkey, but this also gave rise to unexpected alliances among some Middle East countries.
The greater challenge comes from Iran. Opposition from France, Russia and Germany made the D'Amato Act a laughingstock. If the new Iranian president becomes reconciled with Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the others, the containment of Iran and Iraq will collapse. It is not surprising that the U.S. security strategy in the Middle East will gradually fail. One of the important reasons is that Iran perplexes the United States. There can be no real security and stability without the participation of Iran, but accepting an Iran that will not take orders would make it difficult for the United States to realize its objective to control and monopolize Gulf affairs.
A stable Gulf undoubtedly conforms to the interests of China and all other countries. Iran is key to the Gulf’s security and stability, a major door to Central Asia, and an important oil hub for Central Asia. China must strengthen its economic and political ties with Iran. As an organic component of its policy toward Iran, China should also promote and mediate Iran's relations with its neighbors, particularly the Arab countries, helping them renounce old scores and reestablish friendships. China should even include the improvement of Iranian-U.S. relations in its foreign-policy perspective. The stability of the Gulf area will occur only if complete reconciliation comes into being and a security structure accepted by all the parties is built.
From the current perspective, the future of economic cooperation in the Middle East is obscure. The main Arab countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria, boycotted the latest economic conference on the Middle East and North Africa, held in Doha. Economic cooperation among the Arab countries has also met with many obstacles. In 1964, the Arab countries began to work for the establishment of a common market, but they have not achieved any results yet. The Gulf Cooperation Council set up in 1981 is today quarreling over the integrated tariff. However, we cannot ignore the positive changes in the economic cooperation of the region.
Economic development will unavoidably link the economies of the Middle East with the world economy. While promoting a multiple-faceted economic strategy, the Gulf oil-exporting countries are transferring investment funds for the petrochemical industry into the Asia Pacific region, which urgently needs investment and petrochemical products.
As for China, the trend of economic development in the Middle East presents a huge commercial opportunity. The exploration and exploitation of China's land and marine oil have been opened up to foreign countries. Many sectors, such as oil transportation, construction of storage facilities, and the reorganization and extension of refining facilities and petrochemical industries are listed in catalogues that guide foreign businessmen's investments. These sectors are recognized by and identical with the development strategies of the GCC states.
Cooperation in the oil and chemical industries will effectively promote a rapid increase of Sino-Arab trade and investment. In addition, strengthening economic and trade ties with Israel should be a top priority in China's economic and trade strategy toward the Middle East. Israel's highly efficient agriculture, advanced irrigation technology and desert exploitation will be of significance for China. Israel's high-tech industries and its high level of R&D also enjoy international prestige. Obviously, there must be a bright future for cooperation in science and technology between China and Israel.
The recent changes in the Middle East provide a good opportunity for China to participate in Middle Eastern affairs with a more progressive and engaged attitude. At the same time, rapid growth of the economy objectively requires China to work out a forward-looking strategy toward the Middle East. The aim of such a strategy is very clear: to strengthen political and economic cooperation between China and the Middle East, improve China's international environment and, along with the international community, help to develop stability, peace and security in the region.
1 Xinhua News Agency, May 31, 1995.
2 People's Daily, July 5, 1991.
3 People's Daily, July 7, 1991.