SINOGRAPH China chances a game-changing role
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - The political thaw between US and Iran is of course a big game-changer for the Middle East, but it also presents unprecedented possibilities and challenges for China's role in the region and Central Asia.
China has been reluctant to engage as well as fearful of America's direct presence and interests and the extremely difficult political quagmire that dominates those spaces. However, other considerations are pushing China to pay greater attention.
China is dependent on the area that encompasses both regions for its energy imports. It is also a primary source of ideological
inspiration and possibly political guidance for the insurgency in its restive Xinjiang province, and its neighboring space will provide the route for a planned railway link from China to Europe. The railway is in perspective perhaps the most important element as a future link between vibrant economies.
New Chinese initiatives could take place without the American rapprochement with Iran. However, because China is extremely wary of American sensitivities, Beijing would not feel extremely comfortable taking on Central Asia and Middle East totally against American wishes. China would not want to be perceived as engaging in some sort of proxy Cold War-era type of engagement in the Middle East.
American rapprochement with Iran is occurring at a special time for the zone, as the United States pulls out because of political defeats in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and its inability to enact feasible strategies to bring peace and stability to the two countries. The United States is also becoming less reliant on energy imports from the region as shale gas reserves promise to make it energy-independent by the end of the decade. Thirdly, the fire that America helped start in Syria - now torn by a civil war - is creating reasons to try to balance that action with some other kind of intervention.
The Syrian situation may have much to do with another element of the Iranian puzzle: Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have been financing rebels in Syria, the military clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the anti-Gaddafi faction in Libya. In Libya and Egypt, although the situation is far from peaceful, there is some sort of temporary quiet - especially in Egypt, where Arabian money is funding a fragile steadiness. Syria, however, is a different matter: the Saudis are also backing al-Qaeda-leaning rebels in their fight against the Damascus government, for decades the region's main supporter of Iran.
It is hard to tell which would be the worst nightmare for Washington: new pro-al-Qaeda rule over large swathes of Syria and Iraq, making that area the base for future attacks against Israel and the West, or the old pro-Iranian hostility from Damascus. Realism should push the US to prefer an old, known enemy to an unknown threat. Ultra-realism should also encourage the United States to push for some kind of balance of power between adversaries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, who perhaps could try to find some common ground to survive and contain each other.
In recent history, however, the United States has not been very adept at balancing power and has preferred so far to look for definite solutions that eradicate what it perceives as evils. This attempt to squeeze out evil has proved a failure in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Syria. That is because there is no Hollywood-style battle of good versus evil; there are different shades of evil, which might be less evil if balanced and containing one another.
China's value in the quagmire
In this quagmire, can China bring some extra value? Objectively, China doesn't know how to intervene politically, and even less how to mediate between opposing factions. However, China could bring new elements to the table.
First of all, China is very pragmatic and doesn't have any special view about religious loyalty; pro-Iranian Shi'ites or pro-Arabian Sunnis are the same for Beijing. Second, China can bring into the region new sources of development such as trade and land communications. The economy by itself will not be the ultimate answer for peaceful development in a conflicted region where religion seems to count more than welfare.
China has tried and failed to assuage conflicts and opposition based only on economic hand-outs in Xinjiang, where religion and nationalistic sentiments are strong in part of the local population. Faith and religion have trumped economic calculations in Xinjiang, where people rebel against Chinese rule in spite of the economic benefits brought to them.
Yet, the fact that for many years China has been inclined to look at Iran in a different light to official Western coverage gives Beijing a special position there. Chinese officials have pointed out that in Iran people vote, women drive cars, and there is a relatively vibrant cultural scene. All these liberties are certainly restricted by the council of conservative mullahs who ultimately rule the country, however the situation looks much better than in Saudi Arabia. China has in the past decade built bridges with Saudi Arabia and somewhat cooled its formerly warm relationship with Iran. But even , Beijing could be in a position to talk quite freely to both Iran and Saudi Arabia.
China as a force for stability
China is still far from becoming a key player in the Middle East, where not only the Americans but also the Russians have historically had a better understanding of the region and better ties with its many fighting factions. However, a new force of stability could help change the game in the long term.
Russia, despite its ambitions and its deep knowledge of the region, is economically and strategically unable to be a major player in the region, at least in the near future. In the same near future, America is willing to withdraw from the area. A new war by proxy is being fought between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Syria, with one on the side of Damascus, the other on the side of the rebels. The victory of either side is far from desirable and a new balance possibly could and should be reached with some kind of partition of Syria. Can China, able to speak to both Riyadh and Tehran, help to reach some solution in Syria?
In both places, despite the official facade of religious extremists, a new reality may be looming. Thirty years of religious rule in Iran has made Iranian society much less religious than in the past, and while no one sees a clear end of the government of the mullahs, everybody sees clearly the limits of their rule as they have been forced to compromise to the great Satan, the United States.
Saudi Arabia similarly is in a very difficult position, ruled by a very old king surrounded by princes jockeying for power, while extremists are funded abroad in return for agreeing to keep peace at home. Internally, normal Saudi people have cozy jobs while "imported" foreign workers do the difficult work. This extreme fragility of both societies doesn't seem to bode well for long-lasting stable solutions, but if carefully crafted, the countries could find a way to balance each other in the medium and long term.
Here, China and Israel's views on these matters may to some extent coincide. Israel doesn't seem eager to find a permanent solution to the problems in the area, and perhaps it is quite skeptical that a permanent solution can be found. It is important that the present situation doesn't reach a dangerous boiling point or spill over into Israel and the rest of the world. Israel also knows that it has to live in this environment almost day by day. Its real area of interest is outside of the region in Europe, America, and East Asia.
Similarly, China doesn't think that permanent solutions can be easily imposed in an area that has been at war for decades, and it is realistic enough to realize that it has to deal with whoever is in power. These two elements are passive, but there is also an element of activity that could push China to intervene more: its interest in the oil in the region, the transportation and stability of which could guarantee its own domestic stability.
All these considerations could get the attention of Israel, Riyadh, Tehran, and also Ankara, the other superpower in the region, encouraging them to take small steps to slowly turn down the fire under the dangerous Syrian pot. In this case, it could be done without raising excessive opposition from America and possibly getting some interest and support from Washington.
If the United States pulls out of Afghanistan, wouldn't it be in Washington's best interest to maintain local stability? This doesn't rule out intervention by other countries, such as India, which is the main supporter of Hamid Karzai's regime. But a foreign stabilizing intervention could be better than leaving the country in the hands of the Taliban.
Something similar could happen in Iraq, where American companies are already selling their oil wells to the Chinese. The same thing cannot be imagined in Syria, but a peaceful environment in the broad region, creating greater peace of mind in Saudi Arabia about its future, could help to diffuse some of the most dangerous strains in the Syria predicament.
At the same time, it is in China's best interests to keep America in Central Asia and in the Middle East. First, American presence will ensure that Washington doesn't feel left out and irrelevant with the development of the Eurasian rail link. This link de facto bypasses sea-lanes patrolled by the American navy.
On the other hand, American presence in the region could help the Chinese to take their focus off the US efforts in the sea-lanes around China. Here, America has been active with Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam in the many disputes between these countries and China. For Beijing, the eastern sea borders could be far less interesting than an expansion of its interests and influence spreading into the West, starting from Afghanistan where the power vacuum calls for some form of foreign intervention.
Yet beside Afghanistan, the new US-Iranian thaw could also lead to some other form of American rethinking about Chinese intervention in the region.
China and the many neighboring countries interested in developing a railway through Eurasia are aware of the positive consequences from the link's transit through Russia as it underscores Russia's role as a bridge between East Asia and Western Europe and gives Moscow a sense of a future for the region besides the extraction of gas and oil.
Yet if Russia is the only land route between east and west, ties with China could become very tight - perhaps too tight - and therefore not in the best interests of America and the West. East Asia could also reach Europe via the historical southern route moving through Iran and Turkey. This second route could balance the two options.
Moreover, Iran, reaping the benefits of becoming an integrated passage between East and West, could have less qualms about its own long-term security. This would help better implement the international nuclear agreement under which Tehran has promised to curb the most sensitive aspects of its uranium enrichment program in return for the lifting of some Western sanctions.
In general, China could cooperate with US more, making the Middle East and Central Asia an expansion of the experience concerning their relations over North Korea. US-China cooperation did not radically solve the huge threat Pyongyang is to the neighbors, but it contained this threat; there was no war, no invasion, no major damage to neighboring economies and societies. That is a huge result, especially compared with the outcome of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Jasmine revolutions from Libya to Syria, which could disrupt economies and societies for decades.
The Middle East and Central Asia are far more complicated than North Korea, and the stakes may be higher. But rewards could also be higher as the area is immense and the threat of extreme religious zeal, be it of Shi'ite or Sunni leaning, is not going to disappear anytime soon.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org