Written by Niv Horesh.

China’s relatively quiet endorsement of Vladimir Putin’s stance during the recent Syrian crisis was noted with suspicion if not cynicism in the West. Many commentators suggested that China instinctively played the role of US foreign-policy spoiler again, thus turning a blind eye to the horrors of chemical warfare against civilians. Others argued China was only concerned about a spike in oil prices as a result of a possible conflagration, whereas Russia could ironically benefit from precisely such a spike because it is a net exporter of oil. Then a few defence analysts pointed to a principled Chinese objection to pre-emptive strikes on other countries which — quite apart from the lack of UN security-council mandate — could conceivably be directed against China itself if it became the US norm again worldwide.

Either way, China was not seen to be actively seeking higher profile in the region as opposed to its engagement with African or Southeast Asian countries. All of this raises a bigger question: does China have a distinct Middle East policy beyond the rudiments of energy security? Professor Yan Xuetong, one of China’s best-known foreign policy experts, has offered the following insight:-

“China can strengthen cooperation economically with countries in the Middle East, but politically, it had better stick with declaring its stand. The US is unable to solve the Syrian problem despite being much more powerful than China… The complexity of Middle East politics is far beyond our comprehension,”

On the other hand, China’s resurgence on the world stage and the roaring success the market reforms there have proven since they were first launched in 1978 are no longer a secret. Obviously, China is no longer perceived as “Asia’s Sick Man” as it had been at the beginning of the 20th century. Neither is it necessarily associated with communist austerity. Yet, it seems some misconceptions about the life-style in China and the country’s ultimate aims still persist in the West as well as across the Middle East.

In Israel, for example, one is more likely to hear of China as the world’s factory for cheap consumer goods of dubious quality, or at best as an “emerging” market, than as a superpower in the making. To be sure, the prospect of Chinese state-run construction firms being invited to complete the Tel-Aviv to Eilat high-speed train project, or talk of such firms being permitted to erect high-rise tenements that would resolve the housing affordability crisis, might change China’s image in Israel somewhat. However, the American-mindedness of Israeli public discourse will not vanish overnight.

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When the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s, the US became the world’s single superpower. Nowhere was this more evident than in the Middle East, where the US fought two wars in Iraq, and has become chief broker between Israel and the Palestinians. The US similarly led sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear programme. And it was President Obama’s momentous Cairo speech that in some ways paved the way for the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring in 2010. Quite rightly, Israel was wary of the implications, as many in the West were being swept up by a wave of springtime euphoria concerning the region’s future. A few liberal commentators even went a step further, predicting how Twitter and Facebook would galvanise mobile-phone wielding youths to topple tyrants all around the world. That popular backlash would, we were told, spread as far as China, and undermine the nominally-socialistic authorities there.

In fact, what has happened since is that China’s position on the world stage solidified on balance. In other words, once the Arab Spring degenerated into civil war in Syria and Egypt, and as negotiations over Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programmes reached deadlock, China regained the mantle of a “responsible adult” in the international community. To a greater extent, its presence was now globally seen as stable and moderating even if the recent semi-official designation of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets as part of China’s “core interests” and occasional brush-ups with the Philippines caused some alarm. At the same time, the notion that social media can immediately deliver substantive change across the developing world is no longer taken for granted.

In his first term in office, President Obama might have raised expectations of an impending American “return” to the Asia-Pacific arena as a means of containing China’s rise. By the same token, America was meant to pull itself out of the Middle Eastern quagmire. Yet, in his second term, Obama has dispatched John Kerry to the Middle East numerous times. Unlike former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Obama is now very careful not to offend the Chinese.

Today, China has enormous foreign-currency reserves and economic interest that straddle the entire plant. What China is sorely lacking, apart from long-range military equivalence, are better public relations. The Communist Party is acutely aware of this shortfall, and its visionaries are therefore engaged — by now, quite openly – in crafting an alternative ethical narrative to the one promoted by the US.  This Chinese aspirational narrative draws much more on the country’s illustrious pre-modern history than on Mao Zedong’s radical thought.  In essence, the Chinese narrative conjures up a more harmonious world, in which diverse religions, cultures, values and lifestyles can coexist peacefully and where big countries do not meddle in their smaller neighbours’ affairs. Imperial China is cast as such exemplary tolerant polity that was administered by peace-loving, selfless sage-bureaucrats; a polity where both Jews and Muslims, for example, could reach high office on merit, and ethnic minorities faced no discrimination; a polity whose emperors always welcomed trade missions from Korea and Japan but, unlike European or Japanese empire-builders, never sought to subjugate other Asian peoples in the name of trade profit.

This historical pattern of non-belligerence and meritocracy is contrasted with the Western legacy of bloody faith wars, powerful hereditary nobility, fascism and colonialism. More pertinently, the Chinese narrative rejects neo-liberalism or the wholesale privatisation of state assets as advocated by institutions like the IMF; “collective” values like poverty alleviation and universal education are cast as more important than “individual” values like free speech.

Such narrative has little appeal in the developed world, but it may prove somewhat more attractive elsewhere in the future. Though Zhou Enlai tenaciously pursued allies in the Arab world in the 1950s-60s, China could never offset Soviet influence there partly because Mao Zedong thought was seen as blatantly secularist and destabilising. It is therefore noteworthy in this context that ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who is a devout Muslim, had chosen to visit Beijing on his first state visit before he flew to Washington.

Similarly, there are signs of an emerging strategic partnership between Riyadh and Beijing that might contrast sharply with how China had been portrayed around the Gulf before the 1990s. Saudi Arabia has over the past decade turned into China’s largest oil supplier, well ahead of Angola and Iran.  That partnership with Sunni Saudi Arabia might also explain why China has been careful not to indulge Putin, Assad and Ahmadinejad too obsequiously. It is also a cause for guarded optimism that more international pressure cab be brought to bear on Tehran in the near future so that it suspends its nuclear programme. Yet, in the Arab street and amongst intellectuals, there is little sign of attitudinal change: while many are impressed with China’s economic achievements, China’s vision for the world’s future has not aroused as much interest thus far as Erdogan’s rhetoric has, for example.

This lack of interest is not necessarily due to a perception of China as the enemy of global Spring. Rather, it may have more to do with China’s own consternation at what is unfolding in the region, as captured by Professor Yan statement above. Ultimately, China is seen as purely acting in accordance with its own short-term economic interests, whereas Putin’s grand neo-imperial pride often transcends the immediate economic interests of Russia. In that sense, the primacy of Beijing’s energy-security considerations might “expose” China as one of the greatest beneficiaries (if not free-rider) of the US-maintained order in the Middle East.

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China ‘bears’ often point to the smug illusion of exceptionalism (nihonjinron) that had besotted Tokyo in the 1980s right until Japan’s economy tumbled into its “Lost Decade”. The same obsession with national exceptionalism (Zhongguo teshu lun) is observed today by foreign critics of the “China Dream”. Indeed, there is no greater nightmare preoccupying the authors of the ”China Dream” than what they see as US plots to nip China’s rise in the bud, that is, a kind of US-imposed Plazza Accords that would deprive the country’s economy from its edge before it has overtaken America’s in size.  The Middle East is not yet a priority for Beijing beyond oil and rhetoric, and both the Arab World and Israel have realised this, it seems. But that does not mean China’s aspirations for global leadership should be construed as designed for purely domestic purposes either; namely, a strategy of boosting the Party on the back of nationalism; a phantom unfurled so as to distract the masses from the worsening inequalities and environmental degradation that are ripping Chinese society from within.

Though not entirely unwarranted, the domestic argument irresponsibly plays down the complexity of China’s emerging narrative, the ambition with which it is animated, and its historical foundations. China’s prominence in pre-modern times is not a figment of this or that Party’s imagination. Neither is it merely the stuff of historians’ chatter. Rather, it is one that informs the world view of hundreds of million individuals. One day, perhaps not so far into the distant future, the “China Dream” might even reverberate through places like Jerusalem or Mecca. But in the meantime China has every reason to continue its “low profile” approach.

Niv Horesh is Associate Professor and Reader in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham.

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