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A Clearer Role in the Middle East
China lays out its vision for increased cooperation in the region
By Hichem Karoui | NO. 5-6 FEBRUARY 4, 2016


On January 13, China published its first Arab policy paper, reaffirming the strategic significance that it attaches to the region. The release of this important document and the recent state visits of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran coincided with the 60th anniversary of Sino-Arab diplomatic relations and present the role that China seeks to play in the Middle East.

As mentioned in China's Arab Policy Paper, Xi had already pointed out areas and trends of priority for cooperation for the relevant parties in his speech opening the Sixth Ministerial Meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in Beijing in June 2014. Now the agenda for dialogue with Arab and Iranian leaders includes economic cooperation, anti-terrorism, the Syrian crisis, and the acceleration of free trade agreement negotiations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Mediation: a role for China? 

China has long remained distant from Middle East conflicts, trying to maintain a neutral stance. Meanwhile, the United States is unlikely to have a big chance of success in mediating a political settlement of the current diplomatic tussle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, due to their deep distrust of America's interests in the region. Nor has the United States succeeded in its over half a century of mediation efforts between Arabs and Israelis. The series of imbroglios into which the United States has been drawn demonstrate that playing referee in the Middle East while trying to protect American interests is no easy task.

In Syria, Washington's role is perceived negatively by all parties. In Yemen, the U.S. Government first supported the GCC initiative that brought to power the government of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and opposed the coup attempt of the Houthi (supported by Iran), before turning to criticize Saudi Arabia's endless war in that country. In Iraq, the Americans have also lost their bets, being criticized by all those involved. Actually, the problem is not that the Americans have been passive, but have been over-actively involved militarily in those conflicts, either by arming, pushing or fighting.

Moscow would also not have succeeded where Washington has failed, at least because of two recent events (ignoring past failures from an older period): the rift with Turkey, today a major player in the Middle East; and a bias too pronounced in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, still rejected by the majority of opposition forces, as well as other Arab leaders, Saudi Arabia included. This makes Russia a powerful ally of Saudi Arabia's arch-nemesis, Iran, which has the same stance concerning Syria.

What becomes crystal clear from reading China's Arab Policy Paper is the fact that while presenting a roadmap for future Sino-Arab relations as seen from Beijing, we can understand the Chinese worldview, with emphasis on concepts such as "pragmatic cooperation," "dialogue between civilizations," "exchanges between different religions" and "harmony and tolerance," as well as the new initiative of building the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road (Belt and Road Initiative).

Chinese President Xi Jinping (center, front row) meets with chief delegates of Arab nations who were attending the Sixth Ministerial Meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in Beijing on June 5, 2014 (XINHUA)

In fact, we may already be witnessing China's role evolving into that of a positive mediating force. When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif Khonsari of Iran in New York City on December 17, 2015, he made some remarks about the Third Foreign Ministers' Meeting of the International Syria Support Group to be held the next day. In his view, although some progress had been made in previous meetings, missions such as the integration of oppositions and screening of terrorist organizations remained uncompleted. Thinking of the big picture, the Chinese side decided to participate in the meetings and was willing to--with an objective and an impartial stance--make constructive contributions to advancing political settlement of the Syrian issue.

On December 24, 2015, while receiving Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem in Beijing, Wang made the case for the first time of the Chinese position of a three-point adherence: First, to stick to the direction of politically resolving the Syrian issue; second, to insist that the future and destiny of Syria should be decided by its own people; and third, to adhere to the UN's role as a main mediator. Wang said that the three-point adherence constitutes an important part of the UN Security Council Resolution 2254 adopted on December 18 last year, which won approval of all its members and serves the interests of Syria and its people.

The Royal Jordanian Armed Forces Band performs during the Second China-Arab States Expo in Yinchuan, northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, on September 10, 2015 (XINHUA)

Relationship roadmap 

In 1955, the First Asian-African Conference (Bandung Conference) in Indonesia was an opportunity for Chinese leaders to get in touch with the Arab world and the Middle East. From that time, China's relations with African and Arab countries have improved. Diplomatic ties with Egypt, Syria and Yemen were established in 1956. A few others followed, such as Iraq, Morocco, and the Sudan, while other Arab countries would join later on. Today, China has established diplomatic ties with all Arab countries, and 50 of the 53 African countries.

It is important to note that Arabs have welcomed a benevolent Chinese role, for peace, stability, and sustainable development in their region; and China has finally responded favorably to such solicitations.

In the foreword of China's Arab Policy Paper, readers are reminded of China's clear support to the Arab national causes of independence and development--including Palestine--starting from the 1950s. In return, the Arabs have given China strong support in restoring its lawful seat at the UN and on issues like the Taiwan question.

In 2004, the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum was established, which was a major step toward the later establishment of the strategic cooperative relations of comprehensive cooperation and common development between China and Arab countries. China's Arab Policy Paper, as it explains, celebrates 60 years of friendly cooperation with Arab countries and helps one to understand China's policy and objectives in the Arab world.

Xi's state visits to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran have served to emphasize these choices, which inaugurated a new age of close cooperation with the Arab world. China's policy in the Middle East has already gained ground with the Belt and Road Initiative, and Arab and Iranian leaders are getting a taste of Chinese inclinations. This is the occasion for China to link the development in the Middle East to its initiative. Conjugated with the new blueprint on China's Arab policy, Xi's meetings with leaders of host nations would also have an important impact on the prevailing situation in the region, alongside the ever-important agenda of advancing economic cooperation and trade.

The author is an expert on international affairs and author of several books on the Middle East/North Africa region 

Copyedited by Mara Lee Durrell

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