By Nurhidayahti Mohammad Miharja
On 6 April 2012, MEI was pleased to host a panel discussion on “China and the Middle East: Implications of a Rising Political and Economic Relationship.” Wu Bingbing, an associate professor in the Department of Arabic Language and Culture at Peking University, Dr. Bo Zhiyue, Senior Research Fellow at NUS’ East Asia Institute, together with MEI’s Visiting Research Professor Robert Bianchi, served as discussants on the Chinese perspective. The panel that followed gave the Middle Eastern perspective, and was comprised of Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, Professor of Political Science at the United Arab Emirates University, MEI Senior Research Fellow Dr. Ali Kadri, and MEI Director Professor Michael Hudson. Hosted at the Hilton Hotel, the event attracted more than 70 attendees. In his introductory note, Professor Hudson set the stage for the discussion by highlighting China as an emerging power forming new poles of influence in an international system heretofore dominated by the United States.
Panel 1: China’s perspective on relations with the Middle East
Wu Bingbing reiterated China’s interest in supporting a multipolar world with regard to its variety of strategic, political, energy, economic, and non-commercial security interests. At the same time, he listed the basic principles of China’s foreign policy in the Middle East: 1) respecting the independence of Middle Eastern countries; 2) establishing common development in the region, such as helping Egypt develop its agriculture sector; and 3) strengthening China’s capability in terms of decision-making, both in the Middle East and globally.
While China and the United States share common interests in the Middle East, competition and disagreements are inevitable. Professor Wu gave the example of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear program. Though sanctions are far from a substitute for war, increasing U.S.-led sanctions could create conditions for conflict. China’s position on non-proliferation includes promoting peaceful use of nuclear power, and in Iran’s case, he averred that no evidence indicating weaponization has been found thus far. He questioned whether the non-proliferation agenda’s aim is simply to contain Iran. Regardless of whether U.S. foreign policy represents the pursuit of American hegemony in the region, Professor Wu concluded that the mutual distrust between Iran and the United States is clearly not productive.
Bo Zhiyue continued the discussion of China’s Middle East policy by characterizing it as balanced. China-Middle East connections have yielded manifold results, characterized by political visits and strengthened economic and trade relations. He cited the Middle Eastern countries as not only some of China’s top trading partners but also China’s top oil suppliers between 1994 and 2010.
With these burgeoning ties, Dr. Bo detailed the important mechanisms in China’s Middle East policy establishment. He identified the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group (FALSG) and the Politburo as the decision makers, whereas the information providers primarily include the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the International Department of the Central Committee of the CCP. He also observed that party leaders are more involved in the region than state leaders. Despite having no role in foreign affairs, these leaders have visited the greatest number of Middle Eastern countries, with Turkey as the most frequently visited. Dr. Bo argued that this careful diplomatic tactic reflects China’s attempt to avoid conflict and maintain friendly relations with the United States and others in the region—including those countries in conflict with one another. Such a balanced policy, he concluded, is guided less by strategic concerns than by economic interests.
Robert Bianchi rounded out the panel by highlighting China’s potential as a destabilizing factor regionally and globally. He first pointed out the increasingly intimate connections between history, power, wealth, and geography. These “have never been as important as they are today,”he argued. The increased effort to rediscover the Middle East has highlighted the relative weakness of area studies, with its traditional approach of addressing nation, state, and world in a disparate fashion. According to Professor Bianchi, area studies needs a wider perspective in terms of the international order, with the most important relationship being that between the United States and China.
Also, a global reconfiguration of the balance of power is afoot. Current discussions have shifted from ownership to access or shared access, which is manifested in global negotiations for resources such as oil. Polarization thus emerges from “price makers,” “price takers,” “rule makers,” and “rule takers.” Identifying these elements proves a difficult task in a context in which the United States seeks to protect the disappearing status quo while China strives to make new rules in an emerging world order. Nevertheless, Professor Bianchi maintains that China has a huge interest in preserving the status quo or making only minor changes. The question for China, he said, is “how much to change and how fast to change.”
Panel 2: China’s perspective on relations with the Middle East
Abdulkhaleq Abdulla focused on shifting Middle Eastern perceptions of China. China was historically seen in the Middle East as a welcome future political, economic, and strategic superpower. However, in 2011, due to China’s activities and attitudes regarding the Arab uprisings, this opinion changed. The present consensus is that China is acting irresponsibly and in its own interests due to its inability to comprehend the GCC’s strategic issues. For instance, despite the GCC’s concern that Iran is trying to impose political dominance in the Gulf, China refuses to support international efforts to destabilize Iran.
According to Professor Abdulla, the Arab world was especially disappointed when China did not support the uprisings and when it vetoed (with Russia) the United Nations Security Council resolution that called for Syrian president Bashar al-Asad to step down. He gave examples of “first times” that depict Arab disapproval of China, including the burning of the Chinese flag in Arab cities; the emergence of new slogans that describe China and Russia as enemies of the Arab world; the public rebuke by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in response to the veto, calling China “unethical”; and calls to boycott Chinese products and stop Chinese investments. Though the economic relationship between China and the Middle East is still going strong—and will likely continue in this vein—Professor Abdulla warned that if China continues to make political blunders, there could be a price to pay in the Middle East, both strategically and economically.
Ali Kadri responded that the UN double veto is also symbolically significant as China wants to show that it will not be outplayed in the new world order, especially when it comes to oil. China is a major consumer of oil, and its demand for and dependence on it is unlikely to abate. The particular dilemma for China is managing a delicate balance between reducing U.S. control in oil areas to prevent being squeezed in terms of supply and at the same time not weakening the U.S. dollar too much.
The Chinese economy is currently dependent on cheap exports to the United States that are based on allegedly undervalued currency. Typically, the rising trade surplus and inflow of funds would be self-correcting by increasing the value of the yuan. However, the Chinese government prevents currency appreciation, as it does not want to upset the oil dollar standard in order to safeguard its dollar-denominated assets. Dr. Kadri thus maintained that devaluation of the U.S. dollar will or will not occur depending on U.S. imperial stature.
Concluding the discussion, Michael Hudson spoke specifically on how the Middle East perceives the United States. Before 1948 and the creation of Israel, the United States had enjoyed substantial popularity across the Arab world due to its missionary and trade activity. Post-1948, the less beneficent view of the United States took root and continued until it was ultimately exacerbated by President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 “global war on terror.” As a result, Professor Hudson noted that heads are turning to China as “the new hegemon of choice.” Nevertheless, unlike the United States, China lacks the historical relationship and largely positive cultural exchanges (between Western NGO workers and citizens, for instance) that have occurred between the United States and the Middle East.
The political and strategic question for the Middle East to ask, Professor Hudson noted, is: What can China do for us? While China has a huge market for oil, it has not achieved sufficient military power to project itself as the “policemen of the Gulf.” As a result, China is playing a “shrewd role as a free rider in Middle Eastern affairs” and is leaving the “heavyweight issues to the United States.” Professor Hudson cautioned that one can only go so far as a free rider. Therefore, the effectiveness of China’s policy of non-interference in the affairs of other states, which ostensibly helps China maintain friendly ties with many countries, will have to be reanalyzed due to the increasing complexities of the region.