Hotspots in the Middle East and China’s Middle East Diplomacy

By Gong Xiaosheng

Located at the crossroads of three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa, the Middle East enjoys a strategic position and abundant oil and gas reserves. With 742 billion barrels in proven oil reserves and 88 trillion cubic meters in proven natural gas reserves, it accounts for 61.5% and 42% of the world’s total. It has always been a place where major countries vie for influence. Since 2011, the region has seen continued  turbulence and major changes in its regional dynamics. Many experts believe that the Middle East is undergoing the most profound changes since World War I, which will reshape the regional political landscape and seriously undermine global security and stability. Regional hotspots and terrorism are the most eye-catching issues in the developments of the Middle East and hence a focus of world attention.

Over the years, several hotspots in the Middle East have interacted with ethnic, religious, sectarian, geopolitical factors and major countries outside of the region and become the most prominent issues affecting regional security and stability. Even though some hotspot issues have seen new developments, their political settlement is not an easy task. Breakthroughs have been achieved in Palestine’s internal reconciliation. The Trump administration has announced that it will vigorously push for a resumption of the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks and will announce a new “Middle East Peace Plan”. The peace process in the Middle East has attracted wide attention and raised great expectations in the international community. The Geneva peace talks and the Astana process on the Syrian issue are being pushed forward in parallel and the parties are better aware of the urgency of a political settlement. For Yemen and Libya, though there is still a deadlock, the parties generally agree that a political settlement is the only way out. While the counter-terrorism warfare in Iraq keeps making progress, there are concerns over the rising risk of new and wider conflicts in the region that might be triggered by the independence referendum of the Kurdish region. The crisis in which gulf states severed their diplomatic ties with Qatar seriously undermined the unity of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and it might take a long time to break the deadlock and solve the differences. So long as these hotspots in the Middle East remain unresolved, there will be no stability in the region and the world can hardly enjoy peace. At present, uncertainties and destabilizing factors in the Middle East are still prominent. Turbulence in the Middle East affects not only regional countries, but also the neighboring regions, and has an impact on world peace, stability and development.

Non-traditional security threats including terrorism and the refugee issue are still grave, representing another prominent factor affecting regional developments and causing wide concern among the international community. An intensive and forceful international campaign has weakened the standing of the “ Islamic State” and this “established entity” is now at the end of its rope. Nevertheless, what remains of ISIS is still putting up a desperate struggle, hoping to spread its influence to North Africa, Central Asia, South Asia and other countries and regions in the West. They are going after easier targets in order to maximize the effect of terror, threatening international security wherever they go. The threat of the spread of various aggressive and extremist religious forces still remains. The international fight against terrorism is definitely going to be a prolonged process. Long-term turbulence has reduced the Middle East to a major source of refugees for the world. It is estimated that there are nearly 12 million displaced people in the Middle East, five times that of 2005. While the regional population accounts for only 8% of the world’s total, half of the world’s refugees are from the Middle East. A huge number of refugees poured to the neighboring countries and Europe, seriously undermining their stability.

Turbulence in the Middle East has posed grave challenges to the social and economic development of regional countries. Lack of balanced development and social unrest or chaos form a vicious circle. Countries are finding it hard to explore new paths and spearhead reform and it will take long to turn disorder into order. Nevertheless, stability and sound governance have become the common aspiration of the people in the region and the regional economy is on the track of recovery. The average growth rate increased from 0.94% in 2015 to 2.58% in 2016 and 4.17% in 2017, which is higher than the global average of 3.5%. However, the regional average unemployment rate is 12.73%, the average external debt-to-GDP ratio is 49.57% and the average inflation rate stands at 9.3%. Development remains an arduous task. It is the common and urgent task of most countries in the region to strike a balance between reform, development and stability and find the paths and modes of development that suit their respective national conditions.

The Chinese government has all along maintained that security and development of China is inextricably linked with that of the world. China has established diplomatic relations and maintained friendly cooperation with each and every country in the Middle East. In 2016, the bilateral trade volume between China and countries in the region reached US$228.39 billion and China imported 190 million tons of crude oil from the Middle East, which accounted for about 50% of its total oil imports. China follows closely the situation in the Middle East, particularly developments of hotspot issues, and pays high attention to the grave security risks facing many countries in the region. China sincerely hopes that peace and stability would prevail in the Middle East. China steadfastly supports the resolution of hotspot issues in the Middle East through negotiation and dialogue. To promote political settlement of hotspot issues in the Middle East, China designated a Special Envoy on Middle East Affairs in 2002 and a Special Envoy of the Chinese Government on Syrian Issue in 2016. Their mediating efforts among relevant parties have received extensive welcome from regional countries.

In conducting diplomacy in the Middle East, China transcends the chaos and mayhem on the ground, champions justice and fairness, calls for settlement of conflicts and disputes through negotiation and dialogue, and vigorously promotes cooperation under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, thus promoting peace through development and demonstrating China’s role as a responsible major country. In January 2016, in an important speech at the Arab League headquarters, President Xi Jinping put forward, for the first time, the following three principles. First, China does not look for a proxy in the Middle East; second, it does not seek any sphere of influence; and third, it does not attempt to fill the “vacuum”. It helps project China’s image as a major country that seeks to contribute to Middle East governance through cooperation, and ushers in a new chapter of China’s Middle East diplomacy with distinctive Chinese style and characteristics.

China’s Middle East diplomacy resolutely adheres to the UN Charter and basic norms of the international law, upholds fairness and justice, and follows the principle of non-interference in others’ internal affairs. However, non-interference does not mean doing nothing. On the contrary, China actively promotes dialogue rather than confrontation and partnerships rather than alliances, and maintains that regional conflicts should be solved through political means. China has been playing an important and constructive role in encouraging political settlement through negotiations by all parties. On the issue of Palestine, China stands with the international community to support the Middle East peace process. China supports the Palestinian people in establishing an independent State with full sovereignty, based on the 1967 borders, and with East Jerusalem as its capital. In July, President Xi Jinping once again received President Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine in China, and put forward a four-point proposal on moving forward the settlement of the Palestinian issue: first, firmly advance the political settlement on the basis of the two-state solution; second, adhere to a vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security; third, further coordinate efforts of the international community to seek great synergy for peace; and fourth, adopt a holistic approach to promote peace through development. On the Syrian issue, China emphasizes that political dialogue is the fundamental way out and remains committed to upholding international norms and rule of law. China has put forward the six-point proposal, four-point initiative, five principles, as well as the four-step framework, with a view to actively promoting peace talks and bringing the Syrian crisis back to the track of political settlement. On the Iranian nuclear issue, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a P5+1 member, China has always taken an objective, fair and responsible stance, urged all parties to keep in mind the bigger picture of safeguarding the international nuclear non-proliferation regime and upholding peace and stability of the Middle East, and promoted the  political and diplomatic settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue, thus contributing significantly to the conclusion and smooth execution of the JCPOA. Since the beginning of the crisis in which some countries severed diplomatic relations with Qatar, China has received the UAE minister of state and the Qatari foreign minister, gained a deep understanding of the positions of the parties concerned, and made a three-point proposal. China has also provided humanitarian assistance to countries involved in the Palestine issue, the Syrian issue, Yemen and other hotspot issues, helping to ease the humanitarian crisis in regional countries.

China firmly supports the United Nations in playing its role in the settlement of hotspot issues in the Middle East. China is taking an active part in the peacekeeping mechanism in the Middle East, as well as UN peacekeeping operations in the Middle East. China has joined the UN capability readiness system, and set up a permanent peacekeeping force of 8,000 troops. The UN peacekeeping operations in the Middle East with China’s participation include: the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) in Jerusalem, UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), African Union-UN Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), and UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara.
China’s Middle East diplomacy comprises principles, positions, ideas and actions. In recent years, China proposed to promote peace through development and has worked together with Middle East and Arab countries to jointly build the Belt and Road, contributing China’s wisdom and solution to the development and governance of the region.In 2004, China and Arab countries established the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF), which has become an important platform in the new era for strengthening collective dialogue and cooperation between the two sides. In 2010, the two sides forgeda strategic cooperative relationship of comprehensive cooperation and common development. In 2014, President Xi Jinping delivered a keynote address at the opening ceremony of the sixth Ministerial Conference of the CASCF,in which he proposed to build the Belt and Road together with Arab countries to guide the development of China-Arab relations and the CASCF and to establish a 1+2+3 cooperation framework to chart the course of strategic and institutional development of China-Arab collective cooperation. In January 2016, at the Arab League headquarters, President Xi Jinping delivered an important speech in which he set out guiding principles for jointly building the Belt and Road with the Middle East and stressed that China should be the “builder of regional peace, promoter of development, booster of industrialization, supporter of stability and partner of people-to-people exchanges in the Middle East”. He announced four action plans to promote stability, explore new ways of cooperation, conduct production capacity cooperation and enhance friendship. He emphasized that the key to overcoming difficulties lies in accelerated development. Turmoil in the Middle East stems from the lack of development, and the ultimate solution will depend on development. 

The development-first approach which China advocates identifies the Belt and Road Initiative as the general framework for deepening cooperation between the two sides. This approach is recognized by more and more regional countries as it not only serves the aspirations and interests of Middle East countries, but also facilitates the building of a new Middle East featuring harmony and stability. In the past five years, China has signed memoranda of understanding on Belt and Road cooperation with eight regional countries and production capacity cooperation documents or agreements with five. Ten countries in the region have become founding members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). China-Arab cooperation has progressed on both the bilateral and multilateral fronts and has expanded from cooperation in traditional areas of oil and gas, trade and project contracting to comprehensive, multi-dimensional cooperation. China is also actively advancing the projects of Saudi-China Industrial Cluster (Jizan), the China-Oman Industrial Park in Duqm, the China-UAE Production Capacity Demonstration Zone and the China-Egypt Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone. By participating in the building of industrial parks and special economic zones, China hopes to provide more support to Arab countries’ strategy of diversified economic development. 

China actively advocates and vigorously promotes inter-civilization dialogue with Middle East countries to strengthen people-to-people connectivity. President Xi Jinping notes that friendship, which derives from close contact between the people, holds the key to sound state-to-state relations. Connecting the hearts of the people not only consolidates the social foundation for practical cooperation, but also pushes forward reform and improvement of the global governance system, thus creating conditions for building a community with a shared future for mankind. The two sides haveimplemented the “hundred, thousand and ten thousand” project for enhancing China-Arab friendship. Under the project, the two sides would launch a program for the translation of 100 Chinese and Arab classics into each other’s language; invite 100 experts and scholars to visit each other’s countries; provide 1,000 training opportunities for young Arab leaders and invite 1,500 leaders of Arab political parties to visit China; provide 10,000 scholarships and 10,000 training opportunities for Arab states and organize mutual visits for 10,000 Chinese and Arab artists. In April 2017, with the joint efforts of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Educationand the Shanghai Municipal Government, the China-Arab Research Center on Reform and Development was established in Shanghai. It will further enhance the sharing of governance experience and mutual learning between China and Arab countries. In August 2017, the CASCF “China-Arab Civilization Dialogue De-radicalization Roundtable” was held in Chengdu. The two sides reached broad consensus during the meeting and jointly emphasized that dialogue among civilizations should embrace equality and respect for diversity andbe conducted in the spirit of inclusiveness, mutual learning and harmony without uniformity. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education of China also jointly initiated the “Joint Training Program for Chinese-Arabic Translators” to nurture high-level Chinese-Arabic translation talents for Arab countries. Other forms of mutual visits and training are also well underway. 

The Middle East is still plagued by war and chaos. It is the common aspiration of regional people to address differences, overcome difficulties and accelerate development. Regional countries also expect China to inject more strength into regional stability and development. The Middle East has become an ever more importantarea in China’s diplomacy and development strategy.The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China successfully concluded not long ago put forward the building of a new model of international relations and a community with a shared future for mankind as the two goals for major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics. This not only summarizes the overarching goal of China’s diplomacy in the new era, but also showsto the Middle East countries and other members of the international community  China’s commitment to working with them towards the common aspiration. As President Xi Jinping points out, the new era willsee China moving closer to the center stage and making greater contributions to mankind. China’s Middle East diplomacy in the new era will contribute China’s proposals to the early settlement of regional issues, provide China’s ideas on the exploration of development paths by regional countries, create development opportunities for building the Belt and Road for mutual benefit, and offer Oriental wisdom to the exchanges and mutual learning among civilizations. China’s Middle East diplomacy can and will play its due role in advancing the Middle East peace process.

Gong Xiaosheng is China’s Special Envoy on the Middle East Issue.