China plays the Middle East card

2002-04-23Asia Times

BEIJING - In 1998 a young Chinese scholar, Zhang Xiaodong, argued in the journal Strategy and Management about the necessity for China to conduct a more aggressive policy in the Middle East. This was essential, he wrote, for three reasons.

First, China as a net importer of oil had to secure strong, stable ties with oil-exporting countries, most of which were in the Middle East. Second, China had problems in Xinjiang, where the local population is of Turkic origin and of Muslim religion, and thus had to make sure that Islamic countries of the Middle East did not become safe havens for anti-Chinese groups operating in the region. Finally, China needed an ace for its political game with the United States: as Washington was playing the Taiwan card to annoy Beijing, so in return Beijing could play the Middle East card to irritate Washington.

Four years after Zhang's piece appeared, Chinese President Jiang Zemin seems to have heeded the scholar's advice by visiting the Middle East, especially if this trip is seen against the background of the upcoming visit to the US of Vice President Hu Jintao.

The China News agency reported last Wednesday that China was displeased with the US. "Since March, the temperature has dropped rapidly after a warming of ties between China and the US," said the agency, citing US President George W Bush's visit to China in February and several pro-Taiwan measures Washington took in March. Particularly sensitive was Bush's reference to Taiwan as the Republic of China, something that despite a retraction left a scar in Beijing. However, China News emphasized that China-US ties were not at the point of no return.

Three days after that article, on Saturday, China News quoted Jiang as saying in Iran that Beijing "hoped that the problems left by the Gulf War could soon find a suitable solution on the basis of the UN resolutions". This should include the issue of sanctions against Iraq, said Jiang, although he warned Baghdad to comply strictly with the United Nations resolutions. Furthermore, the agency quoted Iran as "opposed to the military intervention of any country in Iraq".

These statements appear quite different from those made in Beijing during Bush's visit. Then, Jiang avoided any comment on possible US intervention in Iraq, saying that Iraq was very far from China. So his remarks in Iran can be seen as a small Chinese tit-for-tat against the US. As America can say that Bush's reference to Taiwan as the Republic of China was a slip of the tongue, so China can claim Jiang's utterances in Iran were polite remarks with a strategically important neighbor.

As the US is playing the Taiwan card against Beijing, so China plays the Middle Eastern card against Washington. We are very far from any major controversy - it is just a little sparring.

There are two main issues troubling Washington in its relations with Beijing: one is the war on terrorism and the other is the issue of political reforms in China. In a way, the two issues are sides of the same coin.

The threat the United States felt after the September 11 terrorist attack is unique in its history, and is bound to stay with Americans for many years. The US had overlooked a possible terrorist threat in its territory. Therefore, the US war on terrorism can't be confined to one country such as Afghanistan, or to a period of time: any possible threat can no longer be overlooked. The war and tension are bound to go on for years, like a mission with a spirit similar to that of the Crusades, to put down terrorism and hit all terrorist safe havens, which are geopolitical black holes or belong to the "axis of evil", such as North Korea, Iraq or Iran.

One of the main inspiration and recruiting grounds for terrorists is the Israeli-occupied territories if Palestine, where Shi'ite militants receive support from Iran, according to Israeli information. And in Iran, the one cause that is still very strongly felt by the growing moderate leadership is that of the Palestinians. Moreover, Iraq appeared also to have links with September 11, and its constant defiance of the UN makes the country a source of unreliability in the region.

The Saudi proposal for Arab diplomatic recognition of Israel in return for territory for the Palestinians hinges on the support of Iran and Iraq. If these two countries do not participate in the agreement, the Saudi proposal is bound to be of far less interest to Israel, which already has ties with Egypt, the strongest Arab country.

However, although Iran and Iraq have to be brought within the frame of the Saudi proposal this can be hardly done by force, which could further destabilize the situation and create a predicament far worse than the present one. The search for a political solution is certain to be long and complicated, and unquestionably will not satisfy the urge for quick results and appeasement the US feels so strongly after September 11.

This new US sense of insecurity is also fed by the lack of transparency of some political systems, including that of China, a country also striving for a very independent foreign policy. Before September 11, China was earmarked by the new US administration as a potential enemy, then after the attack the US geopolitical necessities to wage war against terrorism swept its differences with China under the carpet.

The US, with a large chip on its shoulder after September 11, now gauges its friends by their commitment to the anti-terrorist campaign, and it is very concerned about political systems that appear obscure. On these two accounts, China might be said to fare poorly in American eyes. On the war on terrorism, China is wary both of dragging out the war and of the quick solutions desired by some Americans. At the same time the Chinese political system is obscure and thus unpredictable, and thus might harbor all kinds of anti-American plots, something that can't be overlooked by the US. It is quite possible that the new US overtures to Taiwan took place with this in mind, as the poor state of the island's economy was driving it closer to Beijing.

In this situation China can but play the Middle Eastern card, to show that even Beijing has a few aces up its sleeve, as Zhang Xiaodong suggested years ago.

However, Washington's concerns about the Chinese political system are real, and while in the United States the voices in favor of wholesale democratization in China are waning, more than ever there is necessity to see change in the political scene. Hu's upcoming trip to the US responds to this necessity - the US wants to know China's next leader, even before he is in charge - and also sends a clear message before this fall's Communist Party Congress: The US wants the new leader to be really in charge. Hu's trip to the US means that for the first time both the new leader, Hu, and the old leader, Jiang, are willing to consider the US concern about Chinese domestic politics. Yet this doesn't mean that China will do what America wants - in fact it is still very unclear what will happen at the party congress. No doubt the message Hu brings back from the US will play a role, but nobody knows yet in what way.

Certainly for many years the US, worried about terrorism, will have other priorities than handling China. But the many cold geopoliticians in the US administration know that China might be a much bigger threat than some rogue state here or there. So while the war against terrorism goes on there could be more than one small tussle between China and the US over Taiwan or other issues.

Although Chinese pride would demand otherwise, Beijing knows it can't afford to get into a serious brawl with Washington. This may leave a bitter aftertaste in China as the US looks quite pushy with its continuous demands. But all this is also due to the Chinese inability to anticipate and pre-empt these American demands. In the end, for China to become more active in its policy with the US, the Chinese political system will have to become more agile and less cumbersome, enabling Beijing to play its Middle Eastern cards to better effect. (2002-04-23 Asia Times)


+MoreOther Commentary