SINOGRAPH China widens stride on Middle East stage
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - China has decided to enter the realm of Middle East politics, offering to host for the first time in Beijing a summit between Israelis and Palestinians and attempting to confront vexing questions at the heart of the many conflicts in the region.
The summit initiative is not intended to undermine peace attempts by the United States, which after the Cold War became the world's only superpower. It is exactly the opposite: China's policy arises from America's diminishing interest in the region and the reorientation of its foreign and economic policy away from the
Mediterranean and into the Pacific, with the now-famous "pivot to Asia".
The deep reason for this is almost trivial. New technologies to exploit shale gas are reducing American dependence on energy imports from the Middle East and promise by the end of the decade to turn America into a net exporter of energy.
In that case, the Middle East becomes a general geostrategic problem. Though the issues are still tied to the special relationship of the US and Israel, it stops being a matter that affects strategic supplies that give life to the American economy.
At the same time, China has already become the largest importer of energy from the Middle East, and this dependence will grow in the coming years as its economy develops.
China, while rich in shale gas, is far behind in developing extraction technology and finding concrete areas to be exploited. It should be conceivable that China will become independent of imported oil in some years with the proper technology, but in fact the opposite is happening.
China's dependence on oil imported from overseas will grow in the coming years and will move through sea-lanes guaranteed and controlled by the US Navy.
All this compels China today to take an interest in an area from where it would rather stay away, and that it has carefully avoided for many years.
Chinese interests are actually two-fold. In principle, Beijing wants to maintain good relations with all countries of the region and with the Arab nations in particular. With Turkey, there are longstanding problems in getting the support of Ankara due to the fight for independence of the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region of western China. Relations with Iran were once warm, but are cooling. This is due to American pressure and is also meant to improve relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional rival. Finally, any moves related to Tehran bring in Israel.
China's growing ties with Israel are the most significant development in the region. For example, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who began his five-day visit to on May 6, will sign an agreement for a joint Sino-Israeli green technology investment fund to be used in China for energy saving.
Moreover, Israel would like to build a train line from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea that could bypass the Suez Strait, endangered by the Egypt instability, and would like the Chinese Railway industry to build it. This is a very substantial commitment compared to the substance of talks between Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who met Chinese president Xi Jinping on May 6 and left China the following day.
When Netanyahu meets Xi on May 9, part of the conversation will likely be taken up by a four-point peace plan the Chinese president proposed to Abbas, according to the Jerusalem Post. The proposal calls for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and peaceful coexistence with Israel, Chinese news agency Xinhua reported.
Palestinian billionaire and philanthropist Munib Masri began working on the idea of a summit over a year ago, when he was in Beijing for a series of private meetings. The theory of the Palestinians, especially those like Masri, in seeking Chinese involvement is that Beijing brings a fresh approach that could give unexpected results.
The Chinese themselves are very uncertain and often unprepared to accept a new role as mediator. But the opportunity does not allow hesitation.
Certainly, being realistic Beijing is not expecting to achieve peace in Jerusalem, but at least would like more knowledge and relationships in an area that is increasingly important for its national interests - while also being one of rapid disintegration.
Libya was pulverized in the struggles between tribal factions. Syria is a cancer spreading outward. Iraq is far from being a normal country, while the biggest tinderbox in the region, Egypt, wobbles on the brink of the abyss. This directly threatens the entire area, and the delicate sources of Chinese oil imports.
The risk, which is very clear in Beijing, is to be caught in this web of unresolved and perhaps unsolvable problems. On this, a significant dialogue is developing in China. If everything is falling apart in the Middle East, China needs to focus on Israel, the region's anchor of stability, which has no oil to sell, but rather has the technologies to help China reduce its dependence on oil.
This situation also brings China closer to Europe, itself dependent on Middle Eastern oil imports and threatened by instability that can create new waves of immigrants to the northern shore of the Mediterranean.
China and European countries have a common interest in the region, and this is the first real geopolitical point of contact between China and Europe. In the past ties were just based trade and economic interests, but politically there was no concrete common factor.
China is extremely cautious and Europe is politically very fragmented. These two elements are powerful brakes on the forces that potentially draw the agendas of Europe and China together. But the momentum could become unstoppable with time as instability in the Middle East is growing and nobody is really clear about what to do about it.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore. His e-mail is email@example.com