Religious conflict, border disputes, and ethnic divisions have resulted in decades of upheaval throughout the Middle East. In the past, concerns about energy security—as well as longstanding commitments to allies and friends—have prompted U.S. engagement and intervention in that area. Since 2011, the turmoil in the Middle East has also raised the specter of renewed U.S. involvement in the troubled region. East Asian countries, such as China, have also felt the impact of civil unrest in the Middle East, as political instability threatens to disrupt energy supply channels. Going forward, a critical question for the international community—and particularly for those states that rely on oil from the Middle East—is what kind of intervention, if any, is required to promote stability in the region and which states should shoulder the financial and military responsibilities associated with doing so.

The Carnegie-Tsinghua Center and the Foreign Correspondents Club of China co-hosted a discussion with David Schenker, director of the Arab politics program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Schenker discussed the evolving landscape of Middle Eastern politics and China’s role in the future of the region. 

China’s Role in the Middle East  

China’s diplomatic principle of non-intervention guided its decision to veto the UN Security Council resolution on Syria, Schenker said. As the United States continues to distance and disentangle itself from the Middle East, China may find it necessary to step in to play a more robust role to ensure regional security and to protect its own energy interests.

  • Chinese Versus U.S. Interests: Schenker explained that the United States had several interests in the Gulf including, but not limited to, oil and gas. However, he added, China was even more dependent on the Middle Eastern energy than the United States. As a result, Schenker stated that China should be more invested in the region’s stability. China can no longer avoid responsibility—especially the financial burden—of helping to promote regional stability, he stated.
  • Limits of Chinese Diplomacy: Schenker explained that Chinese scholars have argued that China is not capable of providing security in the Gulf and would not be able to fill a potential gap in the unlikely event that the United States abandoned its commitments and withdrew in favor of a financial “pivot to Asia.”
  • China’s Investments in the Region: China, however, should be more politically invested in the region, Schenker continued. To date, Schenker stated, China has provided troops to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and has deployed a few anti-piracy ships off the coast of Somalia. This contribution has been minimal, Schenker said, China should do more. When Schenker raised the possibility of increased Chinese economic aid to the Middle East, Schenker noted that Chinese scholars told him that with 30-40 percent of the Chinese population still living on less than two dollars a day, this type of foreign assistance was not appealing. Furthermore, Schenker said, he was told there was no reason to do change Beijing’s approach so long as the United States was willing to continue footing the bill.  

China’s Interests in the Middle East

China is becoming heavily invested in the Middle East, primarily because of its energy-intensive growth model and rapid expansion in its transport sector, Schenker explained. However, China's foreign policy agenda may not be ready to handle the complicated arena of Middle Eastern politics.  

  • China’s Relationship with Islam: Jocelyn Ford from National Public Radio asked Schenker about the viability of China’s long-term relations with Islamic states in the Middle East. Antonia Cimini, a freelance journalist based in Beijing, likewise suggested that China’s foreign policy principles may be incompatible with the heavy role of religion in the Middle East and North Africa. Schenker explained that China’s foreign policy is purely pragmatic, and that Beijing could find a modus vivendi with Islamist states in the Middle East. However, he said, there have already been some problems with Turkey, which some years back accused Beijing of targeting China’s local Muslim population for a “massacre.” Regional concerns about the treatment of Muslims in secular China could pose a future problem in bilateral relations, he said. Another point of mistrust could be China’s lack of enthusiasm for aid, he added. China’s main form of aid and foreign assistance has been resource extraction, which will not be popular going forward.
  • China’s Reaction to Libya: In the wake of the Libyan conflict, Schenker described how China withdrew 35,000 Chinese nationals from the country through airlifts and sea withdrawals. China has realized, he added, that it may not be compensated for the trade disruptions and lost business. This costly evacuation procedure, Schenker stated, has forced Chinese business leaders and policymakers to start considering the political risk of doing business in other conflict-prone areas like Algeria or Nigeria, and to start thinking about how to mitigate these risks.
  • China’s Role in Arms Proliferation: Willem Van Kamenade, a freelance journalist based in Beijing, stated that China has replaced the United Kingdom as one of the top five arms exporters in the world. Lately, Schenker said, there had been glowing reports about how effective Chinese weapons have been for the Syrian rebels. These reports, and the growth in Chinese arms exports overall, has not helped China’s global image, Schenker said. In any event, said he added, Beijing’s enduring political support for Syria’s Assad regime has resulted in demonstrations in Syria involving the burning of Chinese and Russia flags after several UN Security Council resolution vetoes. Still, he cautioned, China is not the primary arms supplier for the Middle East.