Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Greater China
     Apr 9, 2011

Page 1 of 2
China under pressure over Saudi rise
By Peter Lee

China is doing its utmost to avoid contagion from the Arab revolutions. At the same time it is trying to anticipate developments in the Middle East and get on the right side of history - instead of impotently mourning strongmen it couldn't save and military interventions it couldn't prevent - by championing the Palestinian peace process.

However, Beijing's Middle East initiatives may be scuppered by its two biggest energy suppliers - and mortal enemies - Iran and Saudi Arabia.

In mid-March, China dispatched its special envoy for Middle East affairs, Wu Sike, on a swing through Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Qatar. Wu's stated aim was to highlight the central

importance of the Palestinian peace process to security in the Middle East. His theme: change is perhaps pregnant with opportunity.

His interlocutors appear to have listened politely. It's difficult to say for sure, since his visit was virtually ignored by the regional press. Chinese media dutifully reported his earnest statements about how the Palestinian question could not be marginalized, even in the current turmoil.

As the Arab nations nervously listened for the sound of the next democratic domino - or interventionist bomb - to crash on their heads, Wu's views do not seem to have excited any conspicuous response.

China has no credibility as a democratic reformer or clout as a military power in the Middle East; it seems to be trying to carve out a role for itself as a regional facilitator, one with good relations with all the key players, from Egypt to Israel to Saudi Arabia to Iran.

China's emphasis on the Palestinian peace process is, to some extent, founded on wishful thinking: the People's Republic of China government attempting to shift the framing from the uncomfortable "freedom-loving people assembling in a big square to overthrow authoritarian masters".

As paraphrased in a Xinhua article, Wu stated in a March 25 interview, "A partial reason for the unrest was the dissatisfaction of the people of the region with the Middle East policies of their governments. Therefore, if the Palestine problem is resolved, it would be beneficial for the resolution of other problems." [1]

A similar, hopeful view was outlined in an op-ed by Zhu Weilie, head of the Middle East Department of the Shanghai Foreign Languages Institute. He asserted that the Chinese cooperative approach contrasted favorably with the "clash of civilizations" narrative that put the West at odds with Islam. [2]

Taken as a whole, this indicates that China has decided to view the overthrow of the Hosni Mubarak regime not as a reaction against corrupt authoritarianism; instead it takes the more comforting position that changes in Egypt are a repudiation of failed US Middle East peace policies and its strategy of using Egypt as a bulwark against Palestinian aspirations.

Conspicuous progress in the Palestinian peace process post-Mubarak could be viewed as a validation of China's views and, one would imagine, a source of some internal reassurance to the anxious Chinese leadership.

The context for China's interest in the Palestinian issue is that the matter of Palestinian statehood will probably be the next big drama that roils the Middle East.

Mahmoud Abbas has stated that Palestine will unilaterally declare statehood in September unless significant progress occurs in negotiations with Israel. It appears likely it will gain recognition from a not inconsiderable number of Western and developing world states.

Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak stated that Israel faces a "diplomatic tsunami" if Palestine declares statehood. [3]

China apparently hopes to surf that diplomatic tsunami. If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu persists in his usual policy of defiance, China enjoys the favorable contrast between its conciliatory policies and Israel's intransigence, inevitably abetted by the United States.

If Israel is stampeded to pre-empt the Palestinian move by announcing its own peace process - a group of security and business heavyweights forwarded a plan to Netanyahu that would fix some key concessions up front instead of withholding them for the conclusion of negotiations - China can claim some credit for being on the side of the good guys. [4]

Beyond lip service to constant principle of Palestinian self-determination, Wu explicitly endorsed reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, a development that was strongly opposed both by Mubarak's Egypt and by the Israeli government.

Wu went to considerable lengths to sweeten this bitter pill for the Israelis, stating, "These new changes will possibly create greater pressures on Israel; only if the Middle East questions are resolved, will Israel be fundamentally relieved of these pressures." [5]

However, the Middle East is hard on dreamers and optimists and diplomats that stake their hopes on Netanyahu's willingness to make peace with the Palestinians.

There are bigger forces afoot in the region, and China is caught between them.

As the various popular revolutions stagger toward their equivocal denouements, China has to deal with the fallout: the Arab counter-revolution and the league of conservative states led by Saudi Arabia that has adopted anti-Iranism as its organizing principle.

While the West focuses on the tragicomic spectacle of the Libyan intervention, the two great powers in the region, Iran and Saudi Arabia are moving towards confrontation.

Saudi Arabia's ruling family is not supportive of Egypt's desire to move beyond its role under Mubarak as America's most reliable client to normalize relations with Iran, and assert its regional clout as a great Muslim nation and a political paragon to the democracy-starved citizens of the Arab world.

Saudi Arabia believes that Egypt, and the Arab League it dominates, can and deserves to be pushed aside.

Riyadh feels a sense of urgency since it must confront the contingency that Iran might be accepted as a legitimate Middle Eastern state, and the regional consensus to contain it through sanctions and military encirclement might waver.

The kingdom also needs to inoculate itself against the possibility that the US response to unrest within Saudi Arabia will be as ambivalent and destabilizing as its at first fitful and then open support of the forces seeking to remove Mubarak in Egypt.

The Saudi response has been to ratchet up the hostility to reframe the instability in the Middle East as a matter of Iranian subversion, not popular discontent, thereby shifting the focus away from Egypt and North Africa and back to the Gulf.

Saudi Arabia has asserted its freedom of action by reclassifying the United States as more than an asset but something less than an ally in its front-line struggle against the Iranian threat.

Two days after US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Bahrain on March 14 to urge conciliation with the demonstrators, the Obama administration was blind-sided as the Peninsula Shield Force was sent across the Fahd Causeway to backstop Bahraini security forces in a pervasive and violent crackdown on demonstrators and activists.

US-Saudi relations are now "strained" and Gates was obliged to visit Riyadh again to persuade King Abdullah of American reliability and the attractions of concluding the largest US arms deal in history - a $60 billion package of F-15 fighter jets, bunker busting bombs, and a variety of missiles suitable for blasting Iran.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia has made the case for the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) - a Saudi-dominated collection of Persian Gulf sheikdoms - as the successor to the widely derided Arab League as the premier leadership grouping in the Middle East.

The GCC recently met to condemn alleged Iranian meddling.

How much Iranian meddling is going on - and how important it might be as popular demonstrations shake Middle East autocracies to their foundations - is open to debate.

Iran has continually flayed the Saudi government in official and press statements for its role in the crackdown in Bahrain on the largely Shi'ite demonstrators. Kuwait claims to have cracked an Iranian spy ring and has sentenced two Iranians and one Kuwaiti to death, withdrawn its ambassador to Tehran, and promised the expulsion of several Iranian diplomats.

The April 3 backgrounder given to Arab Times, a Kuwaiti newspaper, is a clear indication that the GCC has gone all-in on the Iranian threat.
Persian conspiracy seen to target GCC countries ‘Bahraini crisis just a spark'

KUWAIT CITY, April 3: The Iranian plan includes dangerous plots against the Gulf nations, not just Bahrain. Kuwait, in particular, is one of the targets and the spy network is only a tip of the iceberg, because the main objective is for the Iranian Naval Forces to invade some islands in the country and other Gulf nations under the pretext of protecting Shiites in Bahrain, say security sources in the Gulf.

Sources disclosed the Bahraini and Kuwaiti foreign ministers revealed the conspiracy uncovered by the security departments in both countries in the recently-concluded meeting of the GCC foreign ministers in Riyadh. After hearing the report, the GCC foreign ministers presented recommendations, which will be implemented soon, because the GCC nations are keen on revealing the truth to the international community. [6]
Bridge-burning is definitely on the agenda.
[An integrated and strongly-written] letter will be delivered to Tehran by the Qatari foreign minister or his Omani counterpart, without disclosing details of the trip ... the letter will contain an explicit and direct call for an end to the ridiculous game on the security and stability of the GCC countries - a situation which can no longer be denied by the Iranian leadership and authorities, considering the clear pieces of evidence in the hands of the GCC.

The diplomat confirmed there are efforts to inform Tehran on the deportation of some Iranian diplomats from the six GCC countries, especially Bahrain and Kuwait. The number of diplomatic representatives in the cities of Arab nations will also be reduced after the GCC authorities found out that many Iranian intelligence agents are using diplomatic cover and immunity to engage in unscrupulous activities; thereby posing grave security threats to the countries, so there is no option but to expel them, he asserted.
Bahrain has emerged as the key proving ground for the anti-Iran doctrine.

The GCC countries are attempting to overturn the accepted narrative: that Bahrain has a Shi'ite majority that has been unfairly disenfranchised and which is now attempting to gain expanded political rights through popular agitation.

The GCC framing is that Shi'ite are not the majority, that in fact they are a minority attempting to seize power on behalf of their Iranian masters.

The determination of the GCC to deny the Shi'ite majority - and the legitimacy of the demonstrations - is clear from the Arab Times backgrounder.

The arcane and conveniently murky issue of Bahraini demographics - there hasn't been an official census since 1941 since the results would inevitably embarrass the emirate's ruling Sunni minority - is being thrown into the fray.
Sources went on to say the world powers have taken into consideration the real demographic situation in Bahrain, particularly the fact that the Shi'ites are not the majority, contrary to the claims of Iran and others involved in the conspiracy. These world powers have also realized that what is happening is not a sectarian conflict, considering the attempt to manipulate the demographic scale to deprive the majority of their political rights. They have discovered there is no truth in such claims and the naturalization issue was based on the law, not politics; hence, no one can interfere in the process, sources added.
Justin Gengler, PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, who administered the first-ever mass political survey of Bahrain in 2009, provides a unique and authoritative statistical profile of the local demographics.

According to Gengler, the Shi'ite share of the population probably peaked at 65 to 70% in the mid-1980s. Since then, there has been a concerted effort by the government to dilute Shi'ite numbers by an aggressive program to naturalize Sunnis.

Also, it was alleged that, in order to boost Sunni turnout in the 2002 parliamentary elections, the Bahraini government naturalized a large number of Sunnis residing in the Saudi town of Dammam, on the coast facing the island and, for their convenience, erected a polling booth on the King Fahd Causeway! 

Continued 1 2  

Syrian sauce for the Chinese gander
(May 18, '10)

The Iran chip in Sino-Saudi relations (May 18, '10)

1. The sweet smell of counter-revolution

2. Peace gets a new chance in Afghanistan

3. Ahmadinejad hits back at Obama

4. Money can't buy China happiness

5. Turkey: The sultan of swing

6. Japan nuclear crisis is here to stay

7. Maliki's doubts threaten US troop plan

8. Exposed: The US-Saudi Libya deal

9. Wise man on the hill

10. Dangerous change rattles Bahrain

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Apr 7, 2011)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
© Copyright 1999 - 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110