China Hedges Its Bets in the Middle East

By Gabriel Weinstein

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States was only the beginning of a busy week of diplomacy. Last Tuesday 10 Chinese government officials and academics arrived in Israel for three days of meetings with Israeli academics, policy analysts and government officials. The meeting is China’s latest attempt to bolster relations with Israel and become a trusted ally among Middle Eastern Countries.

For most of Israel’s history official relations with China were non-existent. Israel sought to establish a firm partnership with China after the declaration of the People’s Republic of China in January 1950, but the Chinese government  did not acknowledge Israeli’s recognition. The relationship disintegrated in the mid-1950’s when Israel supported UN forces during the Korean War and chose to align with the United States during the Cold War. Though Israel and China engineered a series of covert weapons deals in the late 1970’s, official diplomatic relations were not restored until 1992.

Since then China and Israel have enjoyed a healthy commercial relationship. In 1992 the two countries traded $54 million worth of goods. By 2009 the figure mushroomed to $4.6 billion. Israel is a major supplier of agricultural, telecommunication and defense technologies in China. Major Israeli universities such as the Technion, Tel-Aviv University and Hebrew University have relationships with Chinese counterparts and integrate Chinese language and Asian studies into their curriculum.

Yet, much to Israel’s chagrine, China has showered goodwill on other Middle Eastern countries over the past decade to feed its insatiable appetite for oil. It helped Syria modernize its aging energy infrastructure and provided caches of weapons since the 1990’s. In October Chinese Premier Wen Jiabo and Turkish Prime Minister announced plans for a railroad dubbed the “Silk Railway” to honor the ancient Silk Road between the countries. China is a major investor in Iraqi oil and has excused the government from paying outstanding loans from the Saddam Hussein era. Since 2005 leading Chinese oil companies Sinopec, China National Offshore Oil Corporation and China National Petroleum Corporations have invested in the several oil development projects in Israel’s arch nemesis Iran. Trade between China and Iran is valued at $21 billion and over 100 Chinese companies conduct business in Iran according to a report by CNA Analysis & Solutions on Sino-Iranian relations.

Although China’s cordial relations throughout the Middle East seems ominous for Israel, experts believe China does not want to become entangled in the regions mangled military landscape. Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said China has “walked away from its past as a supporter of liberation movements” in the Middle East during a speech in July. According to Alterman, China does not view the region as strategically significant and prefers to maintain a low profile throughout the region. He cites China’s relationships with Israel and Iran as proof of China’s indifference.

The CNA report draws similar conclusions about China’s ambitions in the region. The report states China’s four goals in the Middle East are to prevent one global power from dominating the region, stem anti-Chinese and pro-Taiwan sentiments and garner support for broader Chinese foreign policy.

Although most experts believe China is not overly interested in the Middle East, China’s attitude toward Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons is cause for concern. Experts in the CNA report were concerned Chinese companies sell equipment to Iran that could be used nuclear weapon production. The latest round of Wikileaks cables revealed the American government shares the same sentiments, as American diplomats have pleaded with China to monitor the industrial products that can be used to build nuclear weaponry it sells to Iran.

As China continues its geopolitical ascent, potential allies must not fear confronting China about its potentially careless political tactics. A nuclear-armed Iran is not just a threat to Israel, but to the entire global community as a potential strike on Israel might encourage Iran to broaden its military ambitions. The United States must respect and acknowledge China’s ascent to global prominence, but make clear that China’s policy of potentially reckless commerce will not be tolerated.

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