Journal

The Development Trend of the Middle East Regional Structure and China's Middle East Diplomacy

Ye Qing Assistant President of The Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS) and Director of the Center for West Asian and African Studies of SIIS.
The Middle East situation remained complex and volatile in 2014, and has evolved with shifting dynamics. The rise of the extremist organization "Islamic State" (IS) has made the threat of extremism and terrorism more announced, and, with the dynamic of change in the Middle East yet to fully unleash, more changes are expected in the region in the years ahead and will be attended by huge uncertainties and instabilities.
 
I. Regional system in the Middle East is on the verge of collapse and the region is degenerating into greater fragmentation and disorder.
 
First, the Middle East is deeply in crisis. It is not an isolated or temporary crisis, but a mixture of multiple crises. It is not only a political, economic or social crisis, but also an identity crisis which is of more fundamental impact. Such an identity crisis is not only occuring within religious sects and ethnic groups, but also deeply seated in social psychology. In the wake of the "Arab Spring", instead of solving the various problems in the Middle East, the Western-style democracy has put the identity of the local people in jeopardy. Since identity is something closely linked to human existence, when existence is in peril, violent conflicts often become the last resort. With the Islamic identity deeply ingrained in the Middle East society, many conflicts in the region have erupted in the form of religious conflicts. This is the root cause of many problems in the Middle East and the reason why there is much more to the Middle East crises than meets the eyes.
 
Many scholars have called the current turmoil in the Middle East an "Arab rebellion" or "Arab uprising", largely because it is destructive. Uprising may be able to break the old order, but is not sufficient to build a new one, thus highly unlikely to succeed. The biggest problem now is that while regional structure can never be the same as before, the rebuilding of regional order lacks a clear direction and feasible political architecture. In the absence of a sustained force for regional rebuilding, the current chaos will continue unabated.
 
Second, regime collapse and national disunity are the fundamental cause of the current turmoil in the Middle East and pose the biggest threat to regional security and stability. The modern notion of nation state in the Middle East is borrowed from the West. Although the nation state system has been established in the region, due to its complex political and social environment and history of being a target of major powers' struggle, to strengthen government authorities has been a daunting challenge for most Middle East countries, and the simultaneous construction and deconstruction of nation states is one of the prominent features of national systems in the region. Many scholars believe that the current turmoil in the Middle East started from the Iraqi War waged by the US in 2003, for the collapse of Saddam Hussain's government was the first falling domino that triggered the series of government changes in Arab states, and the trend has picked up speed after the "Arab Spring". The biggest challenge to the Middle East now is the inability of the secular modern nation states to meet the needs of the times and people, which has led to three catastrophic consequences. First, the people have been fully mobilized, but the corresponding political system has yet to be established. Social stratification and ethnic hostility have made it more difficult to achieve national reconciliation. Second, when the country cannot protect its people, the people will strengthen bonds with religious sects, tribes or ethnic groups, thus fuelling the risk of national division, as is seen in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Third, change has its own logic and cycle. Once it begins, it will not stop easily. People no longer wait for change to come to them. Instead, they take action to seek it. But change means changing the status quo and overthrowing the current government, a process accompanied by more violence and threats.
 
Third, more non-state actors are playing a greater role in the prolonged journey of transformation in the Middle East. This has resulted in the diversification of security threats and added to the uncertainties and unpredictability of regional development. The Middle East is undergoing dynamic adjustments. The new variables emerging under the work of multiple security dynamics from various sides have generated more uncontrollable risk factors in the region. One year ago, few could predict the sudden rise of the IS or expected it to wreak such havoc on regional security. It is the result of the changed traditional strategic environment in the Middle East, and more new actors may come to the fore in the future.
 
Meanwhile, four years into the Arab turmoil, the region is experiencing a short and fragile period of equilibrium. While the existing dynamic of change has been by and large released, new dynamic is still in the making. Major countries both within and without the region are taking stock of their policies. There is a temporary balance of power between the forces for and against the status quo, hence the standoff as we have seen today.
 
II. The extremist and terrorist forces as represented by the IS pose a long-term threat to regional security, but international cooperation against this threat has been impeded by conflicting interests among different countries.
 
First, although the IS is a big menace to regional and world security, this organization and the terrorist and extremist forces it represents are not the root cause of the Middle East problems, but a symptom of the various crises in the region. Put in other words, the security threat brought by the IS is part of the problem, not the cause of it. The sudden rise of the IS has once again made counter-terrorism in the Middle East a focus of the international attention, but most Middle East countries have not taken the IS as the biggest regional security threat, for it is only part of the political, economic, social and cultural crises that sparked the "Arab Spring" and its follow-up developments. The drastic changes of the social structure and the widespread public discontent with their governments in the Middle East in the aftermath of the "Arab Spring" have made the rise of the IS possible. The IS is not the first, nor will it be the last organization of its kind. It is just one of the many. Even if it is defeated, others will come up.
 
Second, the IS is a complex mixed entity and a typical product of the changing regional situation. It does not represent Islam, nor is it a state, still less merely a terrorist organization. It is a complex entity blended with religious ideology that controls some population and territory, has fairly strong combat troops, and has received quite some support both within and without. It is an example of the non-state actors that have emerged from the interplay of globalization and regional turmoil. On the global level, it is a byproduct of globalization, which, to some extent, is similar to the anti-globalization movement and anarchism. This is one of the reasons why it has attracted so many Jihadists from around the world. On the regional level, the rise of the IS is the result of worsening situation in Iraq and Syria under foreign interference and is directly linked to the sectarian strife between the Sunnis and Shias. Some Sunni countries and people sympathize with and even support the IS, not because it has an appealing program, but because it is regarded as a means to counter the expansion of Iran and the Shias. On the domestic level, the IS has not acted purely along the line of religious ideology. To consolidate power, it has even formed a political alliance with some former Baath Party members.
 
Despite its military aggressiveness, the fundamental threat that the IS poses to the region and the world lies in its ideology. To deal with it, there needs to be a comprehensive strategy that combines military containment, intelligence sharing, political settlement, deradicalization, domestic reconciliation and economic reconstruction. This, however, cannot be achieved overnight.
 
Third, regional countries are both containing and utilizing the IS. Contradictory policies of various parties will enable the IS to stay as a long-term threat. The US has organized a counter-terrorism coalition, but different countries have different calculations on how to counter the IS and can hardly form a synergy. As some observers sharply pointed out, although the main battlefield against terrorism is in Iraq, it is in fact a proxy war. Countries are united under the banner of fighting the IS, but they have formed different coalitions of interests. The IS has become a center of regional problems and the tug-of-war in the region. In the fight against the IS, one can see both the traces of struggle among major powers and the trend of regional conflicts and developments. For one thing, it is a barometer of regional balance of power, reflecting changes in the relative strength of different countries. The US has reluctantly taken a posture of military strike against the IS under public pressue, but it does not want to be dragged into the mire of Iraq once again and has the secret intention to carry over the trouble to Syria. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran are blaming each other with their own interests in mind and vying against each other for regional supremacy under the pretext of fighting the IS. For another, the future trajectory of the IS not only bears on the evolution of the Iraqi and Syrian situation, but also will have a direct impact on both the old and new problems in the Middle East such as the Kurdish issue and the Iranian nuclear talks.
 
III. Other countries are placing higher expectations on China's Middle East diplomacy, and China needs to seize the opportunities presented by the building of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (the "Belt and Road" initiative), and strengthen the planning and implementation of its Middle East policy.
 
With the steady growth of China's national strength and the expansion of its interests in the Middle East, the international community, including the Middle East countries, are holding greater expectations on China. China, therefore, needs to take a more active part in the Middle East affairs and contribute more to peace, security and the smooth transition of the region.
 
First, the Middle East needs international support more than ever. As a rising major country, China is capable of undertaking greater international responsibility to help solve problems in the Middle East. This is a region of great geopolitical importance. Turmoil there will pose a grave threat to global security and stability, particularly given the increasingly severe counter-terrorism situation. Such turmoil has provided a breeding ground for terrorism. In the context of globalization, the expansion of terrorism and extremism in the Middle East not only poses a threat to the region, but also has a strong demonstration and spillover effect, directly threatening the security of other countries, including China.
 
The Middle East is so important that no single country can stay unaffected by it. And the situation in the Middle East is so complicated that no country alone can solve its problems. What has happened in the past has proven that neither military means nor external intervention can find a fundamental solution to those problems. The international community must work in closer cooperation and coordination. The current situation in the Middle East has presented China with a new opportunity to participate in the Middle East affairs. Both the US and European countries have come to see the importance of enhancing cooperation with China in the Middle East. And major countries in the region also expect China to get more involved in regional peace and security affairs.
 
The Middle East is experiencing a short period of calm, because there is growing consensus to uphold regional stability and equilibrium. China should leverage the window of opportunity to advance negotiations on the Iranian nuclear issue and the political settlement of the Syrian issue and help consolidate the forces for regional stability. Meanwhile, China should also consider putting forward proposals and initiatives on setting up a Middle East security mechanism to increase its visibility and political credibility in the region.
 
Second, committed to economic restoration and development as their top priority, countries in the region are looking to China for more assistance and want to attract more Chinese investment. This has provided a good opportunity for China and the Middle East to move their business cooperation beyond traditional areas. After years of turmoil, the Middle East countries have all realized the importance of development. Whether they are experiencing a painful transition or have restored order after turmoil, their governments have all made economic growth and improvement of people's livelihood their primary task and formulated ambitious economic development plans.
 
To China, the Middle East is a region with abundant natural and human resources and a vast market. Although it is still ravaged by wars, stability and development is the will of the people and the region has huge potential. As China forges ahead with economic development and upgrading, outward investment, infrastructure development and high-tech cooperation will become the new highlights of China's business cooperation with the Middle East, and more Chinese companies will go to do business in the region. China is actively advocating the construction of the Belt and Road, an initiative that will be a key area for future cooperation, as the Middle East is an important region along the Belt and Road and the two sides have much to offer each other.
 
Third, China needs to step up cultural and people-to-people exchanges with and public diplomacy in the Middle East. This is all the more important under the new circumstances. Firstly, the Middle East is undergoing not only a political and economic transition, but also a cultural one. Under the impact of globalization and Western culture, the Middle East is confronted with a cultural crisis, which is the main reason behind the spread of extremism and terrorism. China and Middle East countries should follow the guidance of the Silk Road spirit, promote inter-civilization exchanges and mutual learning and jointly foster a harmonious and tolerant religious and cultural atmosphere.
 
Secondly, all the Middle East countries are facing the daunting task of national reconstruction and badly need to get out of the current stalemate. China has similar historical experience to that of Middle East countries, and has formed a set of governance experience with Chinese features after years of reform and development. We respect the right of Arab countries to choose their own development path and stand ready to share with them our ideas especially on govenance, opening up and special economic zones.
 
Thirdly, China needs to increase non-governmental exchanges with and public diplomacy in Middle East countries, so as to enhance mutual understanding. Mutual cultural trust is the basis of bilateral relations. China should encourage more social organizations and individuals to visit the Middle East to gain an insight of the local society and make contacts with people of all social strata. China may follow the practice of some Nordic countries by setting up cultural agencies and representative offices or holding workshops and various cultural and academic activities on a regular basis, so as to increase China's cultural presence and visibility in the local society, enhance local people's awareness of the Chinese culture, and reverse their negative impression that China only focuses on economic interests, thus cementing the popular support for strengthening relations with China.

*Ye Qing is Assistant President of The Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS) and Director of the Center for West Asian and African Studies of SIIS.
 


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