In the autumn of 2011, as the international outcry against Bashar al-Asad intensified, it was impossible for the government of China to avoid being drawn into the conflict in Syria. After China joined Russia in October of that year in vetoing a UN Security Council resolution condemning the brutality of the Asad regime, a series of demonstrations erupted throughout the Middle East. Many protesters reserved their strongest feelings for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who had become the most visible opponent of international intervention in Syria. Yet China, which up to that point had rarely inflamed such passions in the Arab world, was also a target of the demonstrators. One man burned a Chinese flag in front of the Arab League office in Cairo, while a throng of Asad supporters paraded Chinese and Syrian flags through the streets of Damascus.

The increasing attention given to China’s presence in the Middle East reflects its rising profile in international affairs. It is difficult to predict, however, how much authority the Chinese government intends to assert in the region. In April and May 2013, newly installed Chinese President Xi Jinping caused considerable consternation in the West by announcing unexpectedly that he would take the lead in negotiating a definitive settlement between Israel and Palestine, in accordance with a four-point plan his ministers had devised. [1] Xi then scored a public relations victory by bringing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud ‘Abbas to China at the same time for “negotiations.” But Netanyahu and ‘Abbas never actually came together in China; while Abbas met with officials in Beijing, Netanyahu remained in Shanghai. There seems to be little chance that China will soon displace the United States from its lead role in facilitating the peace process.

In the past several years, China’s leaders have tended to prevaricate regarding the future of their country’s engagement in the Middle East. As China’s economic ties to the region have strengthened, its political relationships have not kept pace. At times, Chinese policymakers have been adamant that they will take on a much more significant role in the politics of the Middle East, but until now those pronouncements have not led to any sustained effort to exert influence or bolster China’s power. For the moment, the prospect of an increased Chinese presence in the Middle East remains the subject of much speculation.

The future impact of China’s relations with the countries of the Middle East is difficult to predict because the reality of China’s aloofness belies the tantalizing potential that China seems to promise to its Arab partners. China is quite popular among Arab leaders, who envision Beijing as both a source of economic support and a useful counterbalance to the US. Yet the Arab diplomats stationed in China, who are tasked with promoting such a relationship, generally find the Chinese government more frustrating than accommodating. In exasperation, the chargé d’affaires of one Arab embassy in Beijing even proposed during a private discussion that, in his estimation, “China does not have a strategy in the Middle East.” Such a pronouncement is a damning judgment of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, which has long placed a premium on consistency and clarity.

Making Sense of China’s Middle East Policy

In part because China has historically had to contend with foreign meddling in Taiwan and Tibet — both of which are domestic issues in Beijing’s eyes — it has reacted by defining a non-interventionist foreign policy that has contrasted with those of the US and, previously, the Soviet Union. During the 1960s, for example, the Chinese government proclaimed that all foreign aid it gave to its fellow developing nations was free of any conditions or obligations, unlike American or Soviet support, which came with strings attached. Since the 1950s, perhaps the most enduring aspect of China’s Middle East policy has been Beijing’s steadfast insistence that it does not interfere in the affairs of other sovereign countries. Today, the Chinese government continues to trumpet these same principles, declaring that China’s policy toward the Middle East is determined primarily by its long-standing respect for the territorial integrity of all countries.

In December 2013, Wu Sike, China’s special envoy to the Middle East, was asked to give a formal speech introducing China’s approach to the Middle East to a group of university students. The 40-year veteran diplomat’s main focus was China’s historical aversion to any kind of intervention. Rather than offering a new vision for Chinese engagement with Arab countries, this perspective continues to define Chinese policy in contrast to that of the US. Wu garnered his biggest applause from his audience of over 700 students when he defended China’s UN Security Council veto on the Syria crisis as a bid to be taken seriously in the West: “When we abstained […], we were crouching while others were standing; now, by casting a veto, we are standing up and talking equally with the Western countries.” One day after his speech, addressing a group of Chinese academics in a more intimate setting, Wu continued along the same tack, pointing out that the conflict in Syria was beneficial because it opened up possibilities for more equal dialogue between China and the US. Wu gave voice to a deep-seated desire among many Chinese to achieve superpower status in international affairs. What remains to be seen is whether it will be possible to reconcile this drive for influence with the detachment that has characterized China’s Middle East policy for so many decades.

Whatever long-term ambitions China’s leaders may have, it seems unlikely that they would seek to increase their country’s presence in the Middle East substantially while the region’s current conflicts remain unresolved. From Beijing’s perspective, China may simply stand to gain too little from becoming embroiled in the ongoing crises in Syria, Egypt and other Arab countries. Wu apparently admitted as much in December 2013 during his private meetings with representatives of the Arab League in Cairo. There, according to several Arab diplomats, he indicated that China does not desire a leadership role in international efforts to resolve the civil war in Syria, but rather is content to let other countries set the agenda. Xiong Liang, one of the officials who facilitates cultural engagement between Chinese and Arab organizations through the government-sponsored Chinese-Arab Friendship Association, also predicts that there will not “be any big change in the relations between China and the Middle East” until the situation in the region becomes clearer.

Nevertheless, some intellectuals in China openly campaign for their country to take on bold new commitments in the Middle East. The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s understanding of the region is informed to a significant degree by the advocacy of think tanks and research centers attached to a small number of elite Chinese universities in Beijing and Shanghai. This arrangement gives outspoken scholars at those institutions the opportunity to attempt to influence the government to be more active in the Middle East. One vocal proponent of Chinese activism is Chen Yiyi of the Center for Middle East Peace Studies at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. As one of the first graduates of Peking University to study Hebrew, Chen has focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, insisting that China should take it upon itself to negotiate a lasting settlement. [2] Chen’s direct influence on Chinese foreign policy is minimal, but he epitomizes the aspirations of those Chinese citizens who believe their country is finally strong enough to achieve greater prominence in world affairs.

It is evident that the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s hands-off approach to the political conflicts of the Middle East has the potential to frustrate champions of such an activist role. In the meantime, however, the most potent challenge to this strategy is likely not to come from domestic pressure, but from Arab officials, who are already beginning to demand a level of engagement from China that the Chinese government has been unwilling to meet.

Expectations and Obligations

In the abstract, Arab diplomats in Beijing almost universally support the idea that China should become more overtly involved in Middle East politics. Most, however, doubt that China is up to the task. In the words of one prominent Arab journalist stationed in Beijing, the Chinese government is willing to invest in the Middle East, but not to play the “moral role” required of any superpower.

Without question, the Arab country that stands to gain the most from a more active Chinese presence in the Middle East is Palestine, whose cause the Chinese government has consistently championed since 1949. In Beijing, the Palestinian ambassador to China, Ahmed Ramadan, reiterated that the Palestinian government “demand[s] that China should have a bigger and a more direct role” in the peace process. Speaking one day after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with ‘Abbas in Ramallah, Ramadan expressed his disappointment that China has not backed up its verbal support with concrete action. China’s leaders “must begin to take practical steps,” Ramadan insisted, adding that China’s growing economic power requires it to take on “new obligations” within the international community. [3]

Within the Arab diplomatic community in Beijing, no one is a more adamant proponent of Chinese involvement in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations than Algerian Ambassador Hassane Rabehi. Although Algeria has not historically taken as great an interest in the peace process as Israel’s neighbors in the Levant, Rabehi’s insistence on Chinese leadership is instructive. Rabehi hopes that Chinese-led negotiations could bring “security and stability” to the entire Arab world. With colonialism eradicated and the modern state system firmly in place, according to Rabehi, it is time for China to act as a guarantor of security for all. It is easy to see why the ambassador of a military regime that has weathered the wave of protests since 2011 would be keen to cite China as an ally in preserving order. Whereas China once symbolized to Algerian nationalists the promise of revolution, today it is attractive because it represents to their heirs the promise of stability.

Despite this emphasis on stability, in the one conflict in which China has done the most to preserve the status quo, Beijing’s reluctance to countenance radical change has won it few friends in the Arab diplomatic community. Because so much of Arab diplomacy in Beijing is organized under the auspices of the Arab League and spearheaded by wealthy Gulf monarchies that fiercely condemn the Asad regime, the conflict in Syria has become paramount. This issue places China in an impossible position. Having built its reputation in the Middle East over the course of the past 60 years by pledging to respect the sovereignty of all existing governments, China is unable to condemn the actions of the Asad regime. At the same time, however, China’s refusal to become embroiled in the Syrian conflict opens it up to charges of failing to meet its obligations in the Middle East.

Most Arab diplomats in Beijing understand that the Chinese government cannot back the Syrian insurgency, but many of them vehemently criticize China for its lack of support for humanitarian causes. While it is difficult to find reliable statistics on international donations to refugee relief organizations, it is evident that China’s donations to displaced Syrians have been minimal at best. Inevitably, China’s giving is measured against that of other East Asian countries, especially Japan and South Korea. At a time when South Korea in particular is aggressively courting the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, [4] it is easy for Arab diplomats to regard China as tight-fisted in comparison.

Perhaps China’s greatest weakness in the Middle East is the widespread perception that Beijing does not take the region seriously. Several Arab diplomats expressed frustration at the lack of effort that the Chinese Foreign Ministry has put into building the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum into a relevant institution. In particular, some diplomats are alarmed at the disparity between that organization and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, which they believe to be more active. One Arab diplomat even admitted that he believes the diplomats assigned by the Chinese Foreign Ministry to work in the Middle East are “not effective” in comparison to those assigned to Africa. Whether or not such opinions have merit, Chinese officials face a daunting challenge to make amends for these perceived slights.

Regardless of the frustrations of Arab diplomats in Beijing, however, China’s policies toward the Middle East have not yet provoked widespread anger with China on a popular level. Only on a few occasions have Arab demonstrators denounced China for its political stances. One exception to this trend was a September 2013 protest at the Chinese embassy in Tripoli after the unexplained disappearance of a Han Chinese convert to Islam who had fought with rebel forces in Libya. [5] That rally in Libya, another country where China was slow to cut off support to an embattled authoritarian government, may portend greater animosity toward China if Beijing cannot reassure its increasingly vociferous critics.

Although China’s prestige in much of the Arab world has suffered because of its reluctance to back the insurgencies in Libya and Syria, few Arab observers would have any interest in unilateral Chinese intervention in any country. Rather, Arab diplomats in Beijing insist that China should operate in sync with the rest of the international community. In order to embrace this role, the Chinese government would first have to resolve that its international responsibilities trump a 60-year policy of detachment. Such a decision seems unlikely in the immediate future.

Moving Beyond Symbolism

Since 1955, when Communist China first sought to win allies in the Middle East, the primary significance of Sino-Arab relations has been symbolic. Although China was generally unable to influence the course of events in the Arab world directly, it was often able to manipulate its foreign relations to reinforce the image of Chinese nationalism that it wished to promote. For example, in the mid-1950s, China sought endorsements from Gamal Abdel Nasser and other Arab leaders of its treatment of its own Muslim minority. When Egyptian officials praised the Chinese Communist Party for supporting the global Islamic community, the Chinese government could then present itself to its own citizens as the champions of an inclusive and progressive society. [6]

Although China’s economic and political clout has increased dramatically in the past several decades, Beijing still derives perhaps the most important benefits of its ties to the Middle East from the domestic legitimacy those relations confer. Wary of its restive Uighur population, the Chinese government is eager to induce Islamic countries to reaffirm its sovereignty. This arrangement has been remarkably successful, as was evident in 2009, when, at the height of the Uighur rioting in Xinjiang, an adviser to the Saudi foreign minister proclaimed, “A good Muslim should be a good citizen, whether in China or any other country.” [7] In exchange for the silence of Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab countries regarding the treatment of Muslims in China, the Chinese government must continue to avoid any attempt to impose its will on the Middle East. For China’s leaders, such a bargain is a powerful incentive to regard the region with caution.

Nevertheless, the Chinese government’s desire to use its foreign policy primarily to enhance its own image has at times infuriated its Arab partners. One Arab ambassador in Beijing, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was enraged in 2013 when the Chinese government made a show of donating some solar panels to his country without first consulting him. In an elaborate and well-publicized ceremony, the local Chinese embassy dedicated the panels. According to the ambassador, however, the panels were not put in the correct place, and, after the news cameras had stopped filming, the Chinese officials had no interest in helping to maintain them. “[When] the press is gone,” sighed the ambassador, “nothing is done.”

The ability of the Chinese government to engage with the Arab world on a cultural level is also hindered by its insistence that cultural organizations must serve a public relations purpose. In a provocative April 2013 article, Joseph Nye castigated China’s leaders for “thinking that government is the main instrument of soft power.” By relying on state-sponsored organizations and institutions to promote Chinese culture abroad, Nye asserted, those leaders ensured that China remained unattractive throughout the developing world. [8] While Nye is wise to be skeptical that government-funded cultural centers such as Confucius Institutes are effective in disseminating China’s message, they do provide Chinese embassies in the Middle East with steady fodder for press releases back home. Beijing’s insistence on channeling its cultural initiatives through state-affiliated organizations limits the impact of those campaigns, but it does help control their message.

Ultimately, China will only be able to take on a substantial role in the affairs of the Middle East if its government becomes willing to divorce its foreign policy from its conception of national pride. If Beijing is not prepared to stake its legitimacy on any particular cause, then China can only stand on the sidelines in the Middle East. The Chinese government’s reluctance to press for genuine negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians is a case in point — to wade into such an intractable conflict is to risk being unsuccessful, and history suggests that the Chinese regime will not set itself up for such public failure.

Although China has the opportunity to expand its influence in the Middle East, and although many Arab policymakers and diplomats would welcome such an initiative, Beijing lacks the political will to undertake such an effort effectively. It is important, however, to be on the lookout for signs of change. First, a substantial increase in Chinese humanitarian aid to the victims of Middle Eastern conflicts (especially in Syria) would indicate that China is ready to take on new obligations in the region. Second, China could signal its readiness to enhance its position in the Middle East by convincing its Arab partners that it places as much importance on the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum as on the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. The most reliable indication that China has begun to exert greater authority in the Middle East, however, would be a surge in pro- and anti-Chinese protests. Such an ability to inflame popular sentiments would demonstrate that, after 60 years of studied caution, China has at last aspired to leadership in the region.


[1] Xinhua, May 10, 2013.
[2] Chen Yiyi, “China as Peace Broker,” Sh’ma Journal: A Journal of Jewish Ideas, December 1, 2013, and “Chinese Dream Can Help Bring Peace and Order to Middle East,” Global Times, November 4, 2013.
[3] The complete transcript of my interview with Ahmed Ramadan is available on the website of the Center for Middle East Peace Studies of Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
[4] Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, “The Middle and the East,” The Majalla, February 20, 2014.
[5] Libya Herald, September 2, 2013.
[6] Kyle Haddad-Fonda, “Revolutionary Allies: Sino-Egyptian and Sino-Algerian Relations in the Bandung Decade” (D.Phil. thesis, University of Oxford, 2013), ch. 1.
[7] Alain Gresh, “China’s Hajj Diplomacy,” Middle East Online, December 31, 2010.
[8] Joseph S. Nye, “What China and Russia Don’t Get About Soft Power,” Foreign Policy, April 29, 2013.

How to cite this article:

Kyle Haddad-Fonda "Prospects for China’s Expanding Role in the Middle East," Middle East Report 270 (Spring 2014).

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