Written by Yitzhak Schichor.

As post-World War II international relations have become polarized into two competing and even confronting and blocs, Middle Eastern countries had a choice, sometimes real and sometimes virtual, of identifying with one or the other. To some extent this was not a free choice. It was conditioned by the fact that the two systems had been asymmetric primarily in historical terms. While one system was headed by a newcomer – the Soviet Union that had been absent from the Middle East until then, the other system – headed by the United States, while also nearly absent from the Middle East not unlike the Soviet Union, has been never the less committed to preserve Western legacies and even more so assets. Some Middle Eastern countries ultimately opted to remain under the Western umbrella – like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf countries, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan – to this very day. Others preferred to associate with the Eastern bloc – first the Soviet Union and then Russia – also to this very day (such as Syria, Yemen and Sudan). Still others have switched sides – more than once, like Egypt, Iran, and Iraq.

China is a newcomer in the Middle East as a potential superpower, not unlike the United States in the late 1940s and the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s. Although both had risen from World II as victors they were not yet recognized as superpowers. China appears to have many of the ingredients needed to be termed a superpower, though not yet – let alone in the Middle East. In Mao’s time China had been a marginal player in the Middle East, if any. And the reason was not that its ideology lacked attractiveness; actually, its ideology was China’s only advantage in the Middle East since it could not compete with either Washington or Moscow in any other way. This ‘advantage’, however, proved to be inconsequential and ultimately pointless.

Middle Eastern perceptions of Mao’s China were largely determined by its isolation and weakness. Excluded from the United Nations until the early 1970s and reluctant to make use its newly acquired power; absent from many capitals of the world, including some of the most important such as Washington; lacking economic and military capabilities that could have been used to provide support to other countries – Beijing was perceived as a non-actor in the Middle East. China managed to compete with the Soviet Union and the United States, with limited success, only in revolutionary rhetoric, ideological militancy, and the small-scale provision of military training, political indoctrination and light arms to ‘national liberation movements’ such as Palestinian organizations and violent groups in south Arabia. China’s actions, however, ultimately failed to win the goodwill of these organizations – and the governments’ that had occasionally sympathized with them and had even created them. Chinese rhetoric could not compete with the concrete political, economic and military assistance provided by the United States and the Soviet Union. It is a lesson Beijing seems to have forgotten over the last three decades. Its attractiveness in the Middle East will never be based on the so-called China Model; it will be based on acquiring political, military and economic assets – and, even more so, on the will to use them.

Today China has all the foreign policy tools that were missing in Mao’s time: it is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and is ready to use its power (including the veto, to be discussed below); it has diplomatic representation in most of the countries in the world (171 as of now), including all the important capitals; it is also a member of numerous international organizations including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and many others; it has achieved dramatic economic growth to become the second economy in the world; and it has made remarkable progress in military affairs to become an arms exporter. In short, China is the next upcoming superpower. Is it a new option for Middle Eastern countries? Could it be considered a substitute to the United States or Russia? How Middle Eastern countries perceive China’s rise? These are some of the questions dealt with in this chapter. It analyses the changing perceptions of China and the Chinese by Middle Eastern countries, especially since China’s emergence as an upcoming superpower.

Middle Eastern Perceptions of China as a Political Power

While representing domestic ideologies, politics and culture, perceptions also reflect, to a larger extent, the agenda and priorities of the other side. Since its rise as an upcoming world power, China has consistently – with few exceptions – declined to play a role of a stake holder in international politics; to use its increasing influence for resolving regional conflicts; and to assume its responsibility as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Most exceptions have to do with its Northeast Asia backyard where its interests are vital. This is not the case with the Middle East, although China joined a few motions such as UN Security Council resolutions on sanctions against Iraq and Iran, and even – despite traditional opposition – on the use of force. However, Beijing has hardly initiated any significant policy or proposal related to the Middle East. To continue reading…

Yitzhak Shichor is Professor Emeritus in Asian Studies and Political Science at the Hebrew University and the University of Haifa. He is also Major (res.) in the IDF, and one of the world’s most prominent experts on China’s relations with the Middle East and Central Asia. An extended version of his essay will appear in E. Kavalski and N. Horesh eds., Asian Thought on China’s Changing International Relations (forthcoming 2014).

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