by Chas W. Freeman
The Middle East is where Africa, Asia, and Europe come together and where the trade routes between China, India, and Europe converge. It has two-thirds of the world’s energy reserves. It is also the epicenter of this planet’s increasing religious strife. Relationships between this strategically crucial region and the rest of the world are now undergoing a sea change. I have been asked to speak to you about China’s likely reactions and role in the region as this occurs.
By the Middle East, China means the mainly Arab and Persian-inhabited areas of West Asia and North Africa. The collapse of the post-colonial order there has coincided with China’s return to wealth and power. We in the West often include Central Asia in the Middle East. China does not. The Chinese see the post-Soviet state of affairs in Central Asia—in the mainly Turkic-speaking Muslim nations between China, Russia, and Europe—as developing satisfactorily within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). They are nowhere near as sanguine about their ability to manage trends and events in the Middle East.
Most historians date the modern Middle East to the 1st of July 1798. That was when Napoleon landed in Alexandria, proclaimed Egypt to have been liberated, and launched the first foreign efort to impose Western-style government on an Arab people. His well-intentioned but culturally insensitive actions—including the repurposing of some mosques as cafés—soon provoked a revolt by the devoutly Muslim citizens of Cairo. The French army put down that revolt and defeated the Ottoman forces arrayed against them. The ease with which French troops did this provided the world’s Muslims with an impressive demonstration of the increasing superiority of Western military technology and organization.
Napoleon’s year in Egypt and Palestine set off a two-century-long Western rampage through the Middle East that subjugated its peoples and systematically subverted their traditional values, imposed unwanted states and borders on them, developed and extracted enormous profit from their energy resources, deposed and appointed their governments, sold avalanches of military hardware to their armed forces, and killed and displaced millions of them. The Middle East had been a region that produced a lot of human history. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it was a passive and impotent object of contention between imperial powers and causes largely foreign to it.
The Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran and the Arab uprisings of 2011 mark the end of this epoch of passivity and victimization on the part of the core nations of the Muslim umma. The Dar al Islam’s humiliated peoples are now retaking control of their destiny. They are doing so amidst a widespread view that incumbent regimes are unjust, lack legitimacy, and remain in power only because they enjoy the protection of foreign, mainly Western—that is, American—patrons.
This simultaneously anti-establishment and barely concealed anti-Western sentiment could be heard on the streets of Cairo in 2011, when protesters chanted : “the people want the downfall of the regime.” The same mentality is visible today in majorities in parts of the Arab region who condemn the meticulously provocative atrocities of the so-called “Islamic State” or Daesh but take quiet pleasure in the Western outrage they evoke. Many in the region had earlier seen the assault on New York and Washington by a small gang of aggrieved fanatics on “9/11? 2001 as not just blowback but payback—the beginning of iterative reprisal for past Western interventions and injuries. Subsequent events have reinforced rather than reduced the sympathy of many Muslims for what they view as a justifiable counterattacks and counter-humiliations of the West that prove that Islam is no longer impotent.
The states established by European invaders were originally configured and their borders drawn to facilitate colonial policies of divide and rule. Colonial regimes were succeeded by autocracies that continued to govern on this basis. The recent overthrow of these autocracies has created a state of nature in which religious and ethnic communities, families, and individuals have been able to feel secure only when they are armed and have the drop on each other. Where foreign-supported regime change has occurred, violent politics, partition, and ethno-religious cleansing have almost everywhere succeeded unjust but tranquil order.
The anarchy brought to the Levant by the American removal of the Sunni-dominated secular regime in Baghdad in 2003 and the attempted removal of a similarly Shi`a-managed secular government in Damascus since 2011 have kindled an ever-widening religious conflagration in the Islamic heartlands. Borders established in the colonial era no longer confine sectarian conflict. The region’s rage has begun to spill far beyond it. Allegiances formed in the Cold War between states in the region and foreign patrons are meanwhile attenuating.
What happens in the Middle East is now decided in the Middle East. External forces can no longer intervene with impunity there. Developments in the Middle East no longer stay there. They affect nations and regions far beyond the region. China is no exception.
China’s relations with the Middle East are ancient but more distant and less obsessively linked to religion than those of the West. In 138 B.C., China’s Han dynasty dispatched emissaries to establish economic and political relations with it. This Chinese initiative inaugurated the so-called “Silk Road,” which for more than a millennium linked China by land to Persia, even as a parallel maritime route connected it to the Arabs.
Islam had already reached China by 651 A.D., when the newly established Tang Dynasty (??) received the ambassador of Caliph `Uthman ibn `Affan (?? ???? ??????). Today there are at least 3,500 Koranic schools, nine Islamic universities, and about 45,000 mosques in China. Official statistics count about 25 million active Muslims in China but much evidence suggests that the number of Chinese who consider themselves Muslim is well over 100 million. Most are not members of ethnic minorities, though ten of China’s 55 officially recognized ethnic groups are predominantly Muslim.
In the early fifteenth century, the Ming Dynasty Admiral Zheng He (??) reaffirmed China’s ties to the Middle East as well as his own. (Admiral Zheng was a nominal Muslim and the great-great-great-grandson of the Persian governor of Yunnan under the multinational Yuan Dynasty (??) established by the Mongols.) But China soon abandoned this outreach, and the arrival of seaborne European imperialists then severed communication between it and West Asia. This communication and links between Chinese and Arab Muslims are now being restored.
China’s recent proposals for a new Silk Road backed by a $40 billion infrastructure investment fund evoke memories of its ancient trade and cultural connections to the Middle East and regions farther west. After the European Union (EU), China is the region’s biggest trading partner. There is no question about the centrality of the Middle East to China’s energy-related geopolitical calculations. The region already supplies half of China’s oil imports, or about 30 percent of its domestic oil consumption. China is the largest foreign investor in Iraq’s oil production. Qatar is China’s biggest source of imported gas. (Turkmenistan is second.) Iran is a large potential source of gas as well as oil. China’s energy imports from the region could well double over the coming decade and a half.
All three Chinese oil majors gained significant access to oil in Iraq after the American WMD snipe hunt and failed hit-and-run democratization attempt there. Still, China remains cautious about the Middle East even as an energy source. West Asia and North Africa have received much less Chinese investment than their energy resources would justify. The relatively low level of Chinese commitment is, in part, a reflection of the fact that national oil companies like Saudi Aramco (from which China buys a fifth of all the oil it imports) have no need of foreign partners and offer them no significant openings to invest except in refineries dedicated to importing their oil. Africa and South America have proven both more hospitable and easier for Chinese companies to understand. But China’s attention deficit when it comes to the Middle East also reflects misgivings about the region.
Chinese society has traditionally inclined toward religious skepticism, that is agnosticism tempered by the cheerful tolerance of popular superstition. There is something inherently alarming to Chinese about a region where politics center on contests of religion and degrees of religiosity. Then, too, today’s Middle East is not just politically volatile, it is a zone of frequent war. Israel periodically bombs and strafes its neighbors. The United States conducts vast, politically inconclusive interventions. Arabs and Persians engage in rivalry that mixes religious zealotry with geopolitics. Bearded men with guns kidnap and murder each other for perplexing reasons. Some people want the downfall of some regimes. Like the Balkans in the run-up to World War I, the states of the region manipulate and seek to enlist the support of outside powers against each other.
There is, of course, much more to the Middle East than this caricature, but what most Chinese know about it is more off-putting than enticing. They view the region with the same blurry myopia that Americans apply to Latin America – imagining it as an undifferentiated mass rather than the tapestry of distinctive societies it is. Unlike many Western expatriates there, Chinese are for the most part new and still personally uncommitted to careers in the Middle East. And China seems for the most part to be following generic rather than region-specific policies there.
The Chinese cabinet—the State Council—has issued White Papers on many foreign policy issues and regions. It has offered no such guidance on relations with the Middle East. Beijing has belatedly begun a strategic dialogue and is discussing a free trade agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) but it has not established a “strategic partnership” with any country or grouping of countries in the Middle East, as it has in every other region of the globe. Aside from access to energy and the sale of goods and engineering services, China has yet to define its strategic interests or intentions in the Middle East. There are, no doubt, many reasons for this.
Shortly after the establishment of the People’s Republic, China proclaimed its adherence to “five principles of peaceful coexistence” that it crafted with India. The new doctrine stipulated that relations between states should be conducted on the basis of “mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and cooperation for mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence.” The five principles were an effective repudiation of the hegemonic tributary system by which China had traditionally conducted its foreign relations and a detailed affirmation and embrace of the Westphalian order that is the foundation of the United Nations Charter.
The People’s Republic has since become one of the world’s most committed advocates of the sovereign equality of states, their immunity from foreign dictation or intervention in their domestic affairs, and their right to their own ideology, regardless of what foreigners may think of it. China is now often criticized by Western bureaucrats and politicians for its insistence that business is business, and politics is politics, and the two should not be mixed. By marked contrast, those doing business with China seem to find its apolitical approach to trade and investment both reassuring and refreshingly undomineering.
In the Middle East, it has suited both the Chinese temperament and China’s national interests to stand on isolationist principles rather than develop a strategy. This has enabled China to avoid involvement in the region’s uniquely turbulent and toxic politics. China has also avoided challenges to established powers—like the United States—that make periodic efforts to influence politico-military interactions there. For China, no rivalry means no spillover of differences about trends and events in the Middle East to relations with America or other great powers.
China’s wary neutrality in the region’s complex nationalist, religious, and geopolitical quarrels has frustrated the participants in these struggles. Beijing is happy to sell regional actors weapons or, in the case of Israel, buy military and internal security technology from them, but it has been completely unresponsive to efforts to enlist it as any party’s patron. In recent years, the United States has developed an agenda in the Middle East independent of its traditional security partners there. Without exception, these partners now seek to dilute what they have come to regard as overdependence and overreliance on America. But China has not been willing to extend even implicit security guarantees to them, to offset their military dependence on the United States, Russia, or other great powers, or otherwise to compete for their allegiance.
Beijing has carefully dissociated itself from America’s misadventures in Iraq, Libya, and Syria but has not exercised its veto to block Washington in the UN Security Council or otherwise tried to prevent what it has seen as U.S. miscalculations and misdeeds. China’s aloof stance endears it to no one in the Middle East, still less Washington, but its caution has so far enabled it to avoid Islamist reprisal for offensive conduct abroad. It has yet to suffer externally directed terrorist acts of the sort that now ever more frequently disturb domestic tranquility in the West.
In both Africa and Central Asia, by contrast, China has policies of active engagement, clear strategies, and frameworks for implementing in them. In Africa, China is developing natural resources and markets for its goods and services. In doing so, it is acting much as the United States did in the post-World War II Middle East. In Central Asia, the SCO is not just a means of deconflicting China’s and Russia’s roles but also a guarantee and enforcement mechanism to counter Islamist politics and ethnic separatism in adjacent areas of China. The Uyghurs now fighting with Daesh in Iraq and Syria—whatever their number—have leapfrogged the SCO’s barriers to the internationalization of their anti-Chinese insurgency in Xinjiang and linked it directly to the revolutionary theocracies of the Middle East. Religious affinities connect Chinese Muslims to the region. These bonds are becoming an avenue of religious and political contagion from the intensifying strife in the Arab world.
Daesh’s acquisition of a Uyghur component and constituency has led it to endorse armed jihad in China. For its part, China has pledged to aid the Iraqi government’s fight against Daesh “from the air.” (Most likely this means arming Baghdad and Erbil with drones, a dual-use technology in which China is now a world leader.) This is a small but significant step toward military involvement in the politico-military affairs of a region far from the Chinese homeland.
Meanwhile, despite preemptive withdrawals, there are still many thousands of Chinese oil and construction company employees in Iraq to attract the malevolent interest of Daesh. Both Chinese citizens working in current and potential conflict zones in the Middle East like Iraq, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen and their relatives back home expect Beijing to look after them. Just so, a few years ago, Chinese shipping companies and their crewmen sought and eventually obtained action from the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to protect them from piracy in the Gulf of Aden.
Clearly, there is mounting pressure from Chinese enterprises and individuals for China to take a more active role in the security of its companies’ investments and the safety of their personnel in the Middle East. In the end, much as Beijing may wish to stick to economics, other elements of China’s national power cannot remain totally unengaged. There are striking parallels with the way an infant United States was driven to develop power projection capabilities in order to protect American citizens and shipping in the Barbary states of North Africa.
Still, there are clear limits to the potential for Chinese involvement in the Middle East outside the realm of commerce. China’s interests in the region remain far narrower than our own. It has no allies anywhere whose economic or other interests it must defend on the battlefield or in international fora. It has no protectorates or client states in the region and pursues no ideological agenda there.
By contrast, the United States has unilaterally assumed responsibility for ensuring untrammeled access to Middle Eastern energy supplies to sustain the health of the global market economy. As a corollary, the U.S. Navy has undertaken to police the global commons to assure that merchant vessels of all nations can navigate to and from the region freely. This hegemonic role entails moral hazard. To the extent the United States is prepared to act to protect the interests of all the world’s consumers of energy, other countries—like China—feel no need to develop the capability to do so or do anything at all to protect even their own interests.
Only when U.S. and other countries’ efforts to protect Chinese interests prove inadequate—as happened with Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden – does China move to project its own power to protect those interests. When it does this, the Somali precedent suggests, China will be prepared to recognize the parallel interests of others and coordinate its actions with them. But it will not put its forces under foreign command. Nor will it join a coalition outside the context of the United Nations (in whose peacekeeping operations the People’s Liberation Army has become a major participant).
As a country without entangling alliances, China has felt free to stand on principle in the United Nations Security Council. Beijing has cast a total of nine vetoes, all in support of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states. The four most recent such vetoes saw China join Russia in blocking calls for the reorganization of Syrian politics to facilitate the ouster of its government, to whose survival Russia, but not China, is bilaterally committed. By contrast, the United States has cast 79 vetoes, 44 of which were to prevent criticism of Israel or international interference in the Israel-Palestine problem.
So far China has managed to straddle the Israel-Palestine issue. It has supported both self-determination for the Palestinians and U.S.-led efforts to achieve acceptance for Israel as a legitimate part of the Middle East, but it has kept its own distance from these controversies. There is no reason to expect it will alter this stance anytime soon. As the international action on issues in the Holy Land migrates away from the United States to the international courts and Western consumer and investor boycotts, China will remain a bystander. It will try, as in the past, to maintain productive, if low-key ties to Israel while remaining on untroubled terms with the Palestinians and their supporters. To the disappointment of both, it will not take sides.
How China will deal with the rising tide of Islamist terrorism is, however, an open question. Western counter-terrorist operations have not just failed to contain Islamism and the extremist violence with which it is associated, they have helped it spread to many areas beyond the Middle East – in the Sahel, South Asia, Europe, Russia, and now China. A major unintended consequence of the “global war on terrorism” launched after 9/11 has been to institute or strengthen garrison states and to reverse earlier advances in both Muslim and Western societies toward expanded civil liberties and the rule of law. The spread of Islamist terrorism to China is now having the same illiberal consequences there.
Beijing has responded to terrorist attacks in Xinjiang by repressing Muslim religious practices. This Islamophobic overreaction increases the probability of escalating armed resistance by Uyghur and other Muslim minorities. It also risks a backlash against China from the 57 member countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and undercuts Beijing’s efforts to cultivate good relations with them. The consequences of a bad image for China among Muslims extend well beyond the Middle East. Three-fifths of the world’s Muslims live in China’s own Indo-Pacific region. China’s reputation among them has been much better than that of the United States. It is now worsening.
To sum up, China is not going to fix the mess in the Holy Land. Nor will it mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It will not be a bridge between the Turks and Arabs. It will not conciliate Sunnis with Shi`i. It will neither help to impale America on its own mistakes in the Middle East or to take us off the hook there.
China is the champion and vindicator only of its own interests. It is determined to guard its independence while demonstrating respect for that of the states of the Middle East. It is neither a potential ally nor an enemy of any country there. It will not ally with one Middle Eastern country against another. In the Middle East, China’s interests are limited to access to energy and markets, the safety of Chinese citizens who labor or do business there, and the avoidance of contagion from the region’s religious wars. Barring direct challenges to these interests, Beijing is neither a potential rival or partner to Washington in the region. In the Middle East, China is a friend to all that epitomizes the dispiriting insight of the late King `Abdullah ibn `Abdulaziz Al-Sa`ud, who said: “a friend who does not help you is no better than an enemy who does you no harm.”
Ambassador Chas Freeman chairs Projects International, Inc. He is a retired U.S. defense official, diplomat, and interpreter, the recipient of numerous high honors and awards, a popular public speaker, and the author of five books. The essay above is drawn from remarks prepared for a conference of the United States Institute of Peace and Georgetown University, February 17, 2015.