By Bo Zhiyue
Since the early 1990s, China has attempted a balanced policy in the Middle East through which it can enjoy good relations with all countries in the region. This goal manifested itself, for example, in the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. Today, China and Israel are both strategic and economic partners, though China also continues to support Palestinian rights within the framework of international consensus. Such a balance in an historically volatile region takes careful foreign policy administration. In this Insight, I explore the workings of this administration and examine the reasons—principally economic—behind China’s desire for political balance.
Mechanisms of Making China’s Middle East Policy
The decision-making body on foreign affairs in China is the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group (FALSG). Doubling as the National Security Leading Small Group (NSLSG), the FALSG is responsible for making decisions on major issues in the areas of foreign policy and national security. President Hu Jintao is the head, and Vice President Xi Jinping is the deputy head. There are 14 members in addition to Hu and Xi who represent the Party, the military, and different ministries.
The General Office of the FALSG, also known as the State Council General Office of Foreign Affairs, is the executive office of the FALSG. Its responsibilities include: 1) investigating major issues in international affairs and China’s foreign policy as well as managing China’s foreign relations and making policy recommendations; 2) preparing for the assembly meetings of the FALSG and meetings of the General Office, facilitating the agenda for decisions at these meetings, and coordinating foreign affairs work; 3) producing national regulations on foreign affairs on behalf of the CCP Central Committee and reviewing major regulations on foreign affairs produced by the Party and the state central institutions and provincial-level institutions; and 4) processing requests and reports submitted to the FALSG by the Party and the state central institutions and provincial-level institutions.
In China’s political hierarchy, the Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party sits at the top as the ultimate decision maker, above the FALSG. Evidently, all nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee have been involved in China’s Middle East policy. However, Party leaders in one of China’s two ministries of foreign affairs, which serves more as an information provider than a decision maker, are more visible in the Middle East than are state leaders. China’s two ministries of foreign affairs are the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the State Council (i.e., State Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and the International Department of the Central Committee of the CCP (i.e., Party Ministry of Foreign Affairs). The Party Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the one that has played a more important role in the Middle East. Established in January 1951, the International Department of the CCP was originally responsible for liasing with communist parties, especially in countries of the East. Over the years, the International Department has evolved into a Ministry of Foreign Affairs dealing with all political parties (including both ruling parties and opposition parties) in all countries of the world. It manages foreign visits by Politburo Standing Committee members who are not affiliated with any state institutions and sends CCP delegations abroad.
Although nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee have all visited the region since October 2007, Party leaders have made more frequent visits than state leaders. Despite having no substantive role in foreign affairs, these leaders have visited the greatest number of Middle Eastern countries. Moreover, top leaders (both Party and state) who have visited the region seem to have avoided “sensitive” countries. No Politburo Standing Committee members have visited Israel in recent years, for instance, and only two Party leaders have visited Iran, in 2010 and 2011. Neither President Hu Jintao nor Premier Wen Jiabao has visited Iran or Syria since October 2007. On the other hand, President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, and Vice President Xi Jinping have all visited Saudi Arabia, a strong ally of the United States—thus giving face to the American superpower, at least in this instance.
Such an unobtrusive and avoidance-based visiting plan demonstrates China’s desire to keep out of disputes and foster a balanced approach to strategic affairs in the Middle East. Because China’s policy in the region is motivated more by economic interests, this foreign policy tactic serves an important goal. Essentially, China wants to do business with everyone in the region, regardless of individual countries’ relations with each other.
Motivations for China’s Middle East Policy
Since the early 1990s, China’s trade with the region has increased rapidly. The bilateral trade between China and Israel grew from $249 million in 1994 to $3.9 billion in 2006 to $7.6 billion in 2010. China’s trade with Iran expanded from $447 million in 1994 to $14.5 billion in 2006 to $29.4 billion in 2010. China’s trade with Saudi Arabia expanded even more rapidly, from $874 million in 1994 to $20.1 billion in 2006 to $43.2 billion in 2010.
The significance of these economic ties has increased as well. In 1994, the total trade between China and the region was only 2.2 percent of China’s overall trade. By 2010, the proportion of China’s Middle East trade had increased to 6.8 percent. China’s exports to the region grew from 2.8 percent in 1994 to 5.8 percent in 2010, and China’s imports from the region expanded from 1.6 percent in 1994 to 7.3 percent in 2010. If the Middle East region were to be taken as a single country, it would now rank as China’s fourth or fifth largest trading partner.
In terms of oil imports, China has three major suppliers: Saudi Arabia, Angola, and Iran. In 2004, Saudi Arabia provided China with 17.2 million tons of oil, Angola 16.2 million tons, and Iran 13.2 million tons. Angola’s price was the highest, at US$291 per ton, followed by Saudi Arabia’s at US$269 per ton. Iran’s oil was the cheapest, at US$267 per ton. The same pattern held in 2010: Saudi Arabia supplied 44.6 million tons of oil at US$572 per ton, Angola provided 39.4 million tons at US$578 per ton, and Iran furnished 21.3 million tons at US$566 per ton. Obviously, China works with both Saudi Arabia and Iran—two sworn enemies—for oil. And, as noted above, China also trades extensively with Israel—the enemy of both Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In sum, China has adopted a balanced approach toward the Middle East since the 1990s, and the resulting policy in the region has mainly been driven by economic rather than strategic interests. This stance seems evident from the fact that China’s Party leaders, who have no real role in foreign affairs, are more visible in the Middle East than their decision-making state counterparts and that Chinese leaders as a whole generally try to stay away from “sensitive” areas in their diplomatic visits, thus attempting to avoid involvement in political rows in the often unstable region. In this way, China aims to protect its economic pursuits.
Bo Zhiyue is Senior Research Fellow at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore. He is the author of a trilogy on China’s elite politics, including Chinese Provincial Leaders: Economic Performance and Political Mobility since 1949 (M. E. Sharpe, 2002), China’s Elite Politics: Political Transition and Power Balancing (World Scientific, 2007), and China’s Elite Politics: Governance and Democratization (World Scientific, 2010).
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