Can China be both be actively engaged and non-interventionist in the Middle East?

During our trip, we were able to attend an off-the-record briefing with Chinese experts on the outlook for China’s policy in the Middle East. The event was an excellent forum to witness how China sees its changing role in the Middle East, and how this view differs from the assessment of Western foreign policy commentators and analysts.

A common view is that China’s growing economic and commercial ties in the Middle East will force it to abandon its longstanding policy of non-intervention in other country’s internal affairs. The unstable geopolitical climate in the Middle East, coupled with China’s growing energy interest in the region, make non-intervention an even harder policy to maintain. In an article for “The Diplomat”, Scott Romaniuk and Tobias Burgers write that “the prospect – a rather unfeasible one – of [building political, economic, and commercial ties with states abroad] and moving forward without consenting to the necessity of military capabilities to defend those interests is omnipresent”[1]. They conclude that China will have to assume a more active role in the region, with military involvement being one of its central pivots.

The Chinese experts on the panel presented a starkly different view. First, they highlighted Beijing’s commitment to neutrality and to the principle of peaceful coexistence. Second, they acknowledged that China’s growing dependence on Middle Eastern oil, the larger trade volume with the region, and China’s new position as a world power all imply a changing role in the Middle East. This change, however, need not manifest in military intervention or the abandonment of the principle of non-intervention. Rather, it translates into more closely engaged diplomacy, involvement in regional negotiations, and the adoption of multilateral deals in the region. This changing role, moreover, reflects China’s historic approach to the region and is simply its continuation: it began with strategic partnerships with specific countries, grew into the establishment of larger institutions and mechanisms for cooperation (such as the China-Arab Cooperation Forum), and is now continued through the One Belt, One Road Initiative. In other words, China’s growing role in the Middle East need not deviate from its commitment to economic cooperation and diplomacy.

In my opinion, while it is true that China’s involvement in the Middle East has followed a consistent approach, with commercial and diplomatic ties growing in parallel, its growing economic interests in the region might force it to depart from merely diplomatic engagement. However, as in other policy realms, any changes in foreign policy in the region will be subtle and provide enough room for experimentation and adaptation. If military intervention in the region is eventually called for, it will most likely be following global rules of military engagement and in cooperation with the UN, rather than defined unilaterally.  China has demonstrated its commitment to the global order and the international system, and while growing economic interests in the Middle East might signal the end of non-intervention as it has been known, China’s economic interests worldwide are too important for it to simply abandon the current global world order.

[1]  Scott N. Romaniuk and Tobias J. Burgers, “China’s ‘Arab Pivot’ Signals the End of Non-Intervention“. The Diplomat, 12/20/2016. Accessed 05/15/2017.

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