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UPDATED: June 18, 2014 NO. 10 MARCH 6, 2014
Doing More in the Middle East
China becomes increasingly involved in Middle East issues
By An Gang

Regional interests

China's major interests in the Middle East include protecting a steady energy supply from the region and energy transportation security, preventing extremism and terrorism, resisting neo-interventionism and gunboat diplomacy, and strengthening coordination and collaboration with other big powers like the United States, Russia and the EU.

China's economic interests—especially its energy interests—in the Middle East have increased rapidly. China now is the biggest energy consumer in the world, with an annual crude oil import of 300 million tons. Its external dependence on oil is as high as 60 percent. While the United States is getting closer to its goal of cutting down its oil import from the Middle East to 16 percent of its total oil import by 2025, China's oil import from the region has mounted to over half of its total. In recent years, its biggest oil exporter has been either Saudi Arabia or Iran. Although Beijing doesn't want to put all its eggs into one basket, it is still difficult to get rid of its over-reliance on oil from the Middle East in the short term.

China has become a major trade and investment partner and project contractor in the Middle East. Trade between China and the Middle East in 2013 stood at nearly $300 billion, and their trade volume in 2020 is expected to exceed $500 billion. Contract volume between China and Middle East countries has accumulated to $120 billion in recent years, while China has directly invested over $10 billion in the region. Chinese enterprises are outstanding in the field of infrastructure construction.

The new leadership of China has proposed two concepts—the Silk Road Economic Belt spanning the Eurasian Continent and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road linking the Pacific Ocean with the Indian Ocean—so as to expand its diplomatic strategic layout. The point of juncture between the two concepts is the Middle East.

China is highly reliant on a stable energy supply and a prosperous market in the Middle East, which makes regional peace significant to China's interests. Wang stressed to Al Jazeera that it is true China has paid more attention to economic cooperation with Arab nations because it has always believed development holds the key to solving all problems.

Big power coordination

China and Russia have jointly vetoed UN Security Council motions for military intervention to realize regime change in Syria. Moreover, China adheres to its stance of opposing military strikes against Iran. In the meantime, it has actively come up with its own blueprints to solve Middle East issues by advancing dialogue and negotiation.

China has been implementing impartial diplomacy in the region to make friends instead of foes. It maintains good relations with Arab nations, Israel, Iran and Syria, which makes China a special mediator to promote peace in the Middle East.

Russia is China's biggest partner in dealing with Middle East issues. They have kept a common stance regarding the Syrian crisis, wherein Russia's proposal of "chemical weapons for peace" won high praise in China, making the latter rethink its diplomatic approach.

Washington's Middle East strategy adjustment has helped expand China's role in the Middle East. The United States has become exhausted after overstretching its power for years. The Barack Obama administration now prefers to solve the Iran and Syria issues through diplomacy rather than be dragged into the morass of another war. Obama, now halfway through his second term, is also hurrying to mediate between Israel and Palestine to reach a framework agreement that intends to realize lasting peace, so as to leave some diplomatic legacy.

Washington needs the help of China, which it does not consider as a strong strategic competitor in the Middle East. China and the United States are opening new channels to coordinate and cooperate on Middle East issues. In 2011, they founded a Middle East consultation mechanism. Also, if China is included in the Middle East Quartet, it is expected to become the new backbone of bilateral cooperation on Middle East issues. China and the United States have maintained practical cooperation on the Iranian nuclear issue as well.

Putting differences aside, a new era is arriving in which the four major powers of the United States, Russia, the EU and China will drive geopolitical changes in the Middle East. In such an era, the prospects for peace are stronger. Many Chinese observers believe that Washington wishes to draw back its antenna to support its "pivot to Asia" policy intended to cope with China's rise. Mutual distrust between China and the United States can be traced in their cooperation in the Middle East. The only way to diminish their distrust is to conduct greater cooperation that can create more peace in the region.

The author is an op-ed comtributor to Beijing Reivew

Email us at: yanwei@bjreview.com

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