China’s rise as a global power has long-term geopolitical, economic, and military repercussions for the wider Middle East. China is drawn into the Middle East by four factors. First, China needs to import the bulk of its oil from the Middle East; second, China has a perceived need to support countervailing forces against the United States; third, China has a desire to develop cooperation with the wider Muslim world; and, finally, China has a wish to assert its impact more globally as a rising great power. China remembers that it dominated much of Asia and played a major role in international trade until the mid-18th century.
Since the 1990s, China has increased its political, economic, and, sometimes, military stake in every country in the wider Middle East, irrespective of whether the country had oil, and irrespective of whether it was America’s friend or foe. China drew Pakistan, India’s hostile counterweight, into a virtual military alliance, invested in all of the oil states — Iran, Iraq, the Gulf countries, Sudan, Algeria, and Libya — and made political and economic efforts to befriend Turkey, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen, among other states. Despite its strong links with the Arab world, China was eager to develop a strategic and technological partnership with Israel until 2000 when the United States broke the bond between the two countries. The United States forced Israel to cancel a legally binding contract to sell China the “Falcon” spy planes, though they contained no American components.
Since 2011, the Arab and Middle Eastern turmoil has accelerated a global geopolitical realignment that could have enormous consequences for the Middle East and the global community. Middle Eastern, Asian, and many other countries perceive the apparent decline of American willpower, leadership, credibility, and prestige as the most important global change since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Whether the United States will try to reassert itself in the coming years is unclear. At this moment, a power void seems to have opened up in the Middle East; Turkey tried to step in quickly but stumbled, and now Russia is stepping in.
China is watching and trying to make sense of the situation. The country has just experienced a major leadership change. While the new leaders and their advisers are still feeling their way, long-term trends in China’s global and Middle Eastern policies are important to watch.
The oil factor: All parties understand that dependency is reciprocal. At least 70 percent of Middle Eastern oil exports head toward Asia. No other continent could replace this market. China may depend on Middle Eastern oil, but the oil producers depend even more on China’s large, stable, long-term market. They need the massive economic and investment links that accompany the oil flow, and they want China’s political protection. Saudi Arabia supplies more than 20 percent of China’s oil needs, followed by Angola and then Iran, which provides only 12 percent. It is mistaken to think that oil controls China’s Middle Eastern, particularly Iranian, policies.
The fear of the United States: More than oil, a fear of the United States determines China’s Middle Eastern policies. The current United States administration’s “pivot to Asia” policy, perceived as “containing” China, encourages China’s countervailing measures. Not wanting to confront the U.S. directly in the Far East, China has chosen the Middle East as an indirect battlefield. Supporting Iran and, to a lesser degree, Syria, keeps China’s hand on America’s “Achilles heel” and reaffirms China’s opposition to American interference. With regard to Iran, China bears Israel no ill will, but does not believe that Iran’s nuclear projects cast a real existential danger for Israel; the country has unwittingly become “collateral damage” of the rivalry between China and the United States. Ongoing Israeli and Jewish badgering about Iran have irritated the Chinese, and this did not help Israeli diplomacy. Years ago, China believed that the American Jewish community was so powerful that it could influence American policies toward China. Today, the Chinese have no such illusions.
Engaging with the wider Muslim world: One fifth of the world’s population is Muslim, and China intends to engage with them. China fears Muslim terrorism; the country shares a common border of thousands of miles with Muslim countries, including Afghanistan. The “Arab Spring” — the overthrow of governments in such tightly controlled societies — deeply rattled China. And, after the evacuation of 30,000 stranded Chinese workers from Libya, Chinese bloggers called upon the government to set up military bases in the wider Middle East to protect the 2 million Chinese workers there. During this period, Israel became an anchor of stability and a source of valuable information for the Chinese. China’s public rhetoric toward Israel and the Jewish people appeared more positive, and China increased its flow of policy experts and advisers to Israel. But when it comes to concrete matters, the relationship remains difficult. Though significant visits in 2012 of top-level military commanders in both directions testified to the high regard China accords the Israel Defense Forces, the trend has not been consistent.
Economic relations, while growing, are still limited. Approximately 6 billion U.S. dollars of Chinese exports head to Israel and 2 billion U.S. dollars of Israeli exports arrive in China — half of which are provided by only two companies, Intel Israel and Israel Chemicals Ltd. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official visit to China in May 2013, a first such visit by an Israeli prime minister in six years, may indicate a change in Chinese policies. Chinese officials indicate a growing interest in Israeli technologies, and as China’s economic policies are increasingly aimed at providing higher-quality goods and services for the domestic market, new opportunities are opening up for Israel. Israel already has important “soft power” assets in China, such as the Chinese respect for Jewish culture and history and for Israel’s manifold achievements. Unfortunately, Israel had no coherent high-level China policy; its diplomacy in China is understaffed, its business leaders seek short-term gains rather than long-term links based on solid market research, and policy makers and opinion leaders have not yet formulated a vision of the future where Asia and particularly China might become dominant.
Like other big powers, China has a problem with conflicting foreign policy objectives. Though it continues to compete with and oppose the United States, it also hopes that American policies will bring more stability to the region and protect the oil fields. As to Russia, China knows that time is not on Russia’s side. Russia has a tenth of China’s population and a stagnant economy dependent on energy exports. It has little to offer the Middle East except controversial political and military support. Just as China’s economic juggernaut is now steadily replacing Russia’s former influence in Muslim Central Asia, China could one day replace Russia in the Middle East as well.
China’s old philosophy of history emphasizes that every power must decline and fall and another one rise. China’s time to rise has not yet come. But, privately, the Chinese sometimes reveal their true thoughts. A senior Chinese visitor predicted not long ago to his Israeli counterpart that in 50 years — not much time in the context of China’s long history — Israel will stand on China’s side.