The Sino-Middle Eastern relations: history of the past and dynamics of the present (3/3)

.: June 8, 2018

In this serie of three articles, Xiaodong Zhang discusses the interests of China in the Middle East and the relations between China and the countries in this geographical area. In this third and last part, Zhang talks about the current issues: the peace process in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the behavior in the face of Islamism and terrorism, the Gulf security and stability or the economic integration.


All signs indicate that Middle East economies, societies and international relations as well as the Middle East policies of the big powers have entered into a period of readjustment. The intellectuals and government of China must take the opportunity and work out a Middle East strategy for the twenty-first century. In my opinion, China should adopt a more progressive attitude and play a constructive role on the following issues.

The Peace Process

Appearances indicate that the Middle East peace process is in a deadlock simply because of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stubborn stand and the U.S. partiality toward Israel. In fact, there are some very real reasons for the deadlock. First, the Oslo accord was made under duress. At that time, Israel was strong and the Arab countries were weak. Palestine sacrificed the national rights it should have according to the relevant U.N. resolutions. One party was arrogant and attempted to gain what it wanted, and the other party swallowed an insult and is unable to retreat. Under such circumstances, the peace is doomed to be un­ certain and meet with setbacks. Second, the Oslo peace was based on the following hypothesis: the limited progress made in secondary issues would create a good working atmosphere, lead to mutual recognition and lay down the foundation for the final negotiations. It is clear that from the beginning, both sides - Arab and Israeli - have quarreled over the implementation details of the Oslo accord. Each argument has poisoned the atmosphere.

However, the basic purpose of the Oslo accord was realized: Palestine and Israel recognized each other, and nobody wants to shut down the door of negotiation. In other words, the Oslo approach has reached its limit and resolved all the issues that it can. Meanwhile, its inherent deficiency is revealed. It is time for the Arab-Israeli peace process to seek new inspiration. China maintains good relations with the Arab countries and Israel and does not challenge the U.S. position of monopoly in the Middle East peace process. Although China’s interests are not affected by whether or not the peace process continues, China should be more constructively involved in the Middle East peace process. Such involvement will demonstrate the ability of China, as a permanent member of U.N. Security Council, to undertake its responsibility for international affairs. It is not realistic for China to play a decisive role in the peace process, but effective participation will be beneficial to all concerned.

Islamism and Terrorism

Islamism is an important force both in the domestic politics of Middle Eastern countries and in their regional and international affairs. Generally speaking, Islamism is the response of Islam to Western aggression and suppression, the reaction to the secularism and modernization that most Muslim states blindly seek, and the call for a return to the traditional values and identity that Muslims lost in rapid social change. Obviously, there is no essential difference between this cultural or religious revival and value reconfirmations that have been under other human and social circumstances. However, because many terrorist organizations in the Middle East hold up the banner of Islam, Islam ism and terrorism have actually become two faces of the same coin in the media, in the eyes of the masses, and especially in the minds of some Western policy makers.

In its foreign policy, particularly with regard to the Middle East, China should clearly differentiate between Islamism and terrorism and take a more active attitude toward opposing terrorism, including that which claims to defend state interests and security. China must participate in antiterrorist cooperation within the international community. The benefits are obvious. First, this would help remove misunderstandings of some countries toward China’s promotion of cooperation with Islamic states. Second, it would prevent some countries from adopting state terrorism under the pretext of defending national security. Third, it would help to expand cooperation with the international community and open a new channel of dialogue with relevant countries. Fourth, and most important, the international struggle against terrorism intersects with the desire of governments to contain religious and ethnic hostility, for terrorist actions often invite retaliation aimed at maintaining public order. Governments are more aware of their vulnerability with each passing day.

Gulf Security and Stability

To ensure security and stability in the Gulf area after the second Gulf War, the United States established a military alliance with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait while maintaining its military presence in the Middle East. At the same time, the United States encouraged the Arab countries in the region to engage in arms expansion. In addition, the United States drew the strongest Arab countries, Egypt and Syria, into this security structure. In the international community, the United States tried its best to preserve the alliance formed against Iraq in the Gulf War. Following the so-called policy of "dual containment," the United States has attempted to completely remove the threat to the Gulf from Iran and Iraq through an international blockade and economic sanctions. The United States has resorted to every conceivable means to contain Iran and Iraq. However, it has paid a price for the deficiency of its Middle East policy: the security structure painstakingly developed by the United States has been on the verge of dissolution since 1997. The erosion of the Middle East peace process hardly encourages Arab countries to accept the aggressive U.S. policy toward Iraq. The United States energetically promoted the military alliance between Israel and Turkey, but this also gave rise to unexpected alliances among some Middle East countries.

The greater challenge comes from Iran. Opposition from France, Russia and Germany made the D’Amato Act a laughingstock. If the new Iranian president becomes reconciled with Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the others, the containment of Iran and Iraq will collapse. It is not surprising that the U.S. security strategy in the Middle East will gradually fail. One of the important reasons is that Iran perplexes the United States. There can be no real security and stability without the participation of Iran, but accepting an Iran that will not take orders would make it difficult for the United States to realize its objective to control and monopolize Gulf affairs.

A stable Gulf undoubtedly conforms to the interests of China and all other countries. Iran is key to the Gulf’s security and stability, a major door to Central Asia, and an important oil hub for Central Asia. China must strengthen its economic and political ties with Iran. As an organic component of its policy toward Iran, China should also promote and mediate Iran’s relations with its neighbors, particularly the Arab countries, helping them renounce old scores and reestablish friendships. China should even include the improvement of Iranian-U.S. relations in its foreign-policy perspective. The stability of the Gulf area will occur only if complete reconciliation comes into being and a security structure accepted by all the parties is built.

Economic Integration

From the current perspective, the future of economic cooperation in the Middle East is obscure. The main Arab countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria, boycotted the latest economic conference on the Middle East and North Africa, held in Doha. Economic cooperation among the Arab countries has also met with many obstacles. In 1964, the Arab countries began to work for the establishment of a common market, but they have not achieved any results yet. The Gulf Cooperation Council set up in 1981 is today quarreling over the integrated tariff. However, we cannot ignore the positive changes in the economic cooperation of the region.

Economic development will unavoidably link the economies of the Middle East with the world economy. While promoting a multiple-faceted economic strategy, the Gulf oil-exporting countries are transferring investment funds for the petrochemical industry into the Asia­ Pacific region, which urgently needs investment and petrochemical products.

As for China, the trend of economic development in the Middle East presents a huge commercial opportunity. The exploration and exploitation of China’s land and marine oil have been opened up to foreign countries. Many sectors, such as oil transportation, construction of storage facilities, and the reorganization and extension of refining facilities and petrochemical industries are listed in catalogues that guide foreign businessmen’s investments. These sectors are recognized by and identical with the development strategies of the GCC states.

Cooperation in the oil and chemical industries will effectively promote a rapid increase of Sino-Arab trade and investment. In addition, strengthening economic and trade ties with Israel should be a top priority in China’s economic and trade strategy toward the Middle East. Israel’s highly efficient agriculture, advanced irrigation technology and desert exploitation will be of significance for China. Israel’s high-tech industries and its high level of R&D also enjoy international prestige. Obviously, there must be a bright future for cooperation in science and technology between China and Israel.


The recent changes in the Middle East provide a good opportunity for China to participate in Middle Eastern affairs with a more progressive and engaged attitude. At the same time, rapid growth of the economy objectively requires China to work out a forward-looking strategy toward the Middle East. The aim of such a strategy is very clear: to strengthen political and economic cooperation between China and the Middle East, improve China’s international environment and, along with the international community, help to develop stability, peace and security in the region.

Xiaodong ZHANG © Middle East Policy Council (USA)

Xiaodong Zhang is associate professor and director of the Division for International Relations Studies at the Institute of West Asian and African Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and secretary-general of the China Association for Middle Eastern Studies.

Anglais Français Arabe Persan Turc Hébreu Kurde