A China card for the Middle East
31 Jul 2017|

The list of crises plaguing the Middle East is growing. In Yemen, a civil war rages amid an uncontrollable cholera epidemic. In Jerusalem, religious violence is intensifying, while in parts of Iraq and Syria, sectarian warfare shows no signs of abating. Most ominously, a new level of antagonism between Saudi Arabia and Iran suggests that a direct confrontation between the leading powers of Sunni and Shia Islam is no longer out of the question.

Just when the region needs the steady hand of international leadership most, none of the usual actors is strong enough, or committed enough, to engage effectively. What the region requires is a new framework for diplomacy—one with the strong backing of a new mediator: China.

By exporting terrorism and religiously inspired extremism, the Middle East has become ‘global’ in the most negative sense. But while much attention has been focused on addressing what France’s former finance minister, Michel Sapin, once called the ‘unhappy’ side of globalisation—such as unemployment and income inequality—too little has been done to contain the spread of extremist violence or address its causes. Many diplomatic formulas have been tried, but progress remains elusive.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europe endured horrific religious wars, but Christendom was mostly united when it began to confront the threat posed by an expanding Ottoman Empire. In the nineteenth century, the delicate balance of power between European powers and the crumbling Ottoman fringe gave rise to the ‘Eastern Question’. Ultimately, the Ottoman Empire’s demise fueled conflict in the Balkans and sowed rivalries that led to World War I.

Today, too, mainly European, or Western, approaches to ensuring stability in the Middle East no longer work. As a top European diplomat told me recently, the Middle East crisis is in desperate need of fresh thinking and new leadership. One idea he offered was a ‘Helsinki’-inspired solution, drawing on a diverse collection of countries to address a common, if regionally focused, problem.

My interlocutor’s suggestion was original, and potentially game-changing. In 1975, in Helsinki, Finland, a mechanism was created to reduce tensions and enable dialogue between the United States and the Soviet Union, the two Cold War superpowers. The resulting Helsinki Accords, which placed an emphasis on sovereignty and territorial integrity, represented a significant step towards strategic de-escalation. For some analysts, the accords, which received broad European and Western support, initiated the end of the Cold War (which the Soviet Union, of course, survived with neither its sovereignty nor its territorial integrity).

The geopolitical map has changed significantly since 1975, but the underlying premise of the Helsinki process—mutual respect built on global consensus—is no less relevant today. Unfortunately, neither the US nor Europe appears to be in a position to implement such an approach for the Middle East. That, in my view, leaves an opening for China, the world’s most important rising power, to engage in a formal and meaningful way.

China’s engagement would be a significant departure from its past policy. During much of China’s reform period, the country’s leadership emphasised domestic priorities and kept a low profile internationally. But in recent years, China has been more willing to play a larger global role, reflected in its leadership on climate change and its efforts to mediate between Sudan and South Sudan. In 2015, when France launched an ultimately unsuccessful bid to restart the Israeli–Palestinian peace process, China was among the initiative’s most enthusiastic supporters.

Involving China in Middle East diplomacy makes sense politically, but it could also make sense culturally and historically. China faces fewer security vulnerabilities from the Middle East (except on matters of energy) than Europe does, and it has no imperial legacy in the region—and thus none of the emotional baggage of the colonial past. Moreover, the Chinese have not sided with Saudi Arabia, like the United States has under President Donald Trump, or with the Iranians, like Russia has under President Vladimir Putin. And China has none of the guilt that Europeans have over their historic mistreatment of both Arabs and Jews.

Of course, China may resist exposing itself to the pitfalls of Middle East diplomacy. China remains committed, at least rhetorically, to a policy of non-interference, and its citizens may be unenthusiastic. In Beijing last year, I was told by a Chinese foreign-policy expert that the country’s reluctance to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs partly reflects the legacy of the one-child policy that was enforced for more than three decades. Why would Chinese parents risk the life of their only child for the sake of faraway countries that pose no threat to China?

Yet, within the context of more broad-based international engagement, akin to the Helsinki process, China might actually be in the best position to help bring about long-term stability the Middle East. Given the collective failures of the usual actors, a new cast could surely do no worse.