Guang Pan is director of and a professor of political science and history at the Institute of European and Asian Studies in Shanghai, and director of the Chinese Society of Middle East Studies, with a special interest in Jewish, Middle Eastern, and international studies.
China is building closer ties to Middle Eastern states, exerting greater influence there, and finding that the region has a growing place in overall Chinese diplomacy. It has reached the point that not knowing China's Middle East policies means not understanding Chinese diplomacy as a whole. Nor can one understand the Middle East without knowledge of that region's relations with China.
Policies of the People's Republic of China (PRC) toward the Middle East divide into four eras since the state was established in October 1949.
1949-1955. The first era was marked by an ambition to keep pace with the Soviet Union and to maintain an ideologically consistent set of policies. Consistency was simplified by Beijing not setting up diplomatic relations with any Middle East countries. For this reason the Chinese leadership generally had a critical attitude towards rulers of independent nations in Middle East. These were not many in number—eleven independent countries, of which just four were republics. With the exception of Israel, none of them recognized the People's Republic of China; in August 1950 the Political Committee of the Arab League voted to recognize Taiwan rather than the PRC as the legitimate representative of the Chinese people.1Many Middle Eastern states followed Washington's lead in voting against China's efforts in the United Nations and some sent troops to help South Korea. In response, the Chinese media routinely referred to Middle Eastern leaders as "the anti-revolutionary rulers" and "feudal dictators." Even after Egypt's July Revolution of 1952, Beijing continued to refer to "the anti-revolutionary military dictators" of that country.2 While criticizing the rulers, the people's republic supported anti-colonial efforts. The Chinese press cheered the 1951 anti-British campaign in Egypt, the nationalization of Iran's oil industry in 1952-53, and the anti-French struggle in Algeria. Chinese support was only moral, however, and not material.
The only exception to this pattern of condemnation was Israel with its socialist leaders. The Chinese press welcomed the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and condemned the British for "agitating" the Arab "anti-revolutionary rulers" to launch an anti-Jewish war.3In both 1950 and 1955, China and Israel nearly reached an agreement on diplomatic ties. The first effort failed due to U.S. pressure on Israel after the Korean War started;4 the second fell through due to a change in Chinese policy following the Bandung Conference of Asian and African states.5
Regarding most Middle Eastern leaders as pro-Western, Beijing saw conflicts between Middle East states as mere proxies for the Western powers and adopted a neutral stance toward these. The Chinese press portrayed the first Arab-Israeli conflict as one in which the Americans supported Israel and Great Britain the Arabs.6 The Chinese government adopted a neutral stance in the territorial dispute between Turkey and Syria, in Iran-Iraqi conflicts, and other problems, always denouncing those imperialists thought to run things from behind the scene.
1956-1966. In the second era, the Chinese leadership came to see the anti-Western Arab states and movements as anti-imperialist (and later also anti-Soviet revisionist); Beijing responded favorably, seeking to strengthen relations with them.
After the Bandung Conference, as radical pan-Arab nationalist leaders such as Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser entered into conflicts with the West, they turned for support to the Soviet Union and also to China. In return, Beijing established diplomatic relations with Egypt, Syria and Yemen in the short period between May and September 1956. After the Baghdad Pact Organization was set up in 1955, China increased its criticism of the pact's members and showed a friendlier attitude toward Middle Eastern states that rejected the pact, especially Egypt. During the Suez Canal crisis of October 1956, China became the second strongest supporter of Egypt after the USSR. On November 6, 1956, the Egyptian ambassador in Beijing announced the startling news that a quarter of a million Chinese had taken to the streets in support of Egypt and volunteered to go to Egypt to fight with the Egyptians,7 although none actually did so.
In the summer of 1958, the Chinese government strongly denounced the American intervention in Lebanon and the British intervention in Jordan, then established diplomatic ties with the newborn republic of Iraq. The following two years saw newly-independent Morocco, Sudan, and Somalia establish diplomatic ties with China. China also became one of the first to recognize the anti-French provisional government in Algeria.
This burgeoning of relations with the Arabs meant that Sino-Israeli relationship cooled down. After the Suez Canal crisis, Beijing denounced Israel as "the tool of imperialist policies," and all contact between the two countries came to an end. From then on until the mid-1980s, China stood entirely on the Arab side in its conflict with Israel.
The Sino-Soviet break of 1960-61 led China to adopt an even more radical attitude than the Soviet Union in support of pan-Arab nationalists. At the same time, its policies took on an anti-Soviet color, which had the paradoxical result of cooling relations with Soviet allies such as Egypt and Syria, and a warming of ties with pro-Western countries such as Iran and Turkey. This explains the much milder Chinese attitude toward the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) than previously toward its predecessor the Baghdad Pact Organization.
At this stage too, Chinese support became practical and tangible, including shipments for military and civilian use plus the training of personnel. In most cases, such aid was gratis. For example, Chinese weapons supplied to the Palestinians between 1965 and 1969 have been valued by Israeli intelligence at about $5 million, all provided free of cost.8
1966-1976. The Cultural Revolution paralyzed China's relations with the outside world, including the Middle East, for several years. Once diplomacy resumed in the early 1970s, and until the end of Mao Zhedong's life, China's Middle East policies featured an anti-Soviet premise. The Soviet military force comprised the biggest threat to China; in response, Mao and Zhou Enlai proposed the uniting of all forces to fight Soviet hegemony, a policy that influenced their outlook on the Middle East.
As an active Middle East diplomacy developed on the basis of anti-Soviet goals, Beijing established diplomatic ties with three pro-Western countries between August and November 1971: Turkey, Iran, and Lebanon. It did not, however, restore contact with Israel, for fear of this harming relations with the Arab world. Nonetheless, China and Israel had in the Soviet Union a common opponent and at one time both were fighting Soviet soldiers—Chinese infantry on the common border with Russia, Israeli pilots over the skies of Egypt and Syria. In 1971, Zhou even told Senator Henry Jackson (Democrat of Washington) that China supported Israel in its efforts against Soviet expansion in the Middle East.9 After 1971, Beijing backed Egypt's Anwar as-Sadat, Sudan's Ja‘far an-Numayri, and other Arab leaders as they expelled Soviet forces from their countries.10
1977 on. With the accession of Deng Xiaoping, China started to adopt a less ideological and more practical diplomacy, with the aim of creating a favorable international environment for China's modernization program. This approach led to relations with all the Middle East countries and a substantial increase in Chinese influence as a result. Beijing no longer made a state's relations with Washington or Moscow the criterion for distinguishing between enemy and friend; instead, benefits to China itself became the basis of decisions.
Between 1977 and 1990, China set up diplomatic relations with a great number of Middle Eastern states: Jordan, Oman, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, as well as the Palestinians. In January 1992, China capped this sequence with diplomatic relations with Israel. Top leaders of almost every Middle Eastern country have visited Beijing, and China's counterparts have in turn traveled throughout the region. China now maintains good relations with all Middle East countries, ranging from America's close allies (Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) to intensely anti-American states (Libya, Iran, and even Iraq)—a major accomplishment in the history of Sino-Middle East relations. In comparison, it bears noting that Russia, China's old rival, has steadily lost influence in the region. The Kuwait war further enhanced China's influence in the region, as it supported the moderate forces (such as Egypt and the Gulf states) at the same time maintaining normal relations with the hard-liners of the Arab world, while Russia's role continued to diminish.
In addition, China moved fast ahead in a wide variety of fields, building economic, trade, cultural, scientific, technological, and military ties. By 1990, China's exports to the Middle East countries reached $1.5 billion, and more than 50,000 Chinese workers were employed in the region.11Chinese arms also entered Middle East with major buyers including Egypt, Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The Chinese government has a distinct policy on four major issues that bear on its interests: oil, arms sales, Iraq and Iran, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Oil. China in 1993 became a net oil importer and one Japanese estimate foresees China importing 40 percent of its oil needs by 2010.12 This prospect has lead many Chinese to call on their government to pay special attention to relations with the oil exporters and to make unceasing efforts to ensure an expanded petroleum supply from the Middle East.13 In the long-term future, the energy situation may spur Chinese military efforts directed toward the Middle East; for the near term, however, that prospect is out of the question. Financial and technical shortages restrict China from building an oceangoing navy to defend its sea-lanes to the Middle East, plus the fact that it must now remain focused on Taiwan and the South China Sea.
This being the case, the Chinese authorities prefer to exploit oil and gas resources in Siberia and Central Asia. However unstable a supply these may be, they are less risky and more feasible for at least the next decade; and two border security treaties, signed in 1996 and 1997 with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan and Tajikistan, further increase China's confidence in pursuing this Siberia-Central Asia energy strategy.
Arms sales. Western media have repeatedly reported and commented on sales of Chinese arms and nuclear technology to the Middle East.14 Western suspicions that China may be using these arms sales for political purposes focus on three issues: retaliation for sales to Taiwan; weakening the West by building up its enemies; and establishing a special political relationship with energy suppliers, given that China will become a significant importer of oil.
Rumors about missile sales and nuclear reactor sales have caused serious disturbances and have even become a sensitive issue in Sino-U.S. relations. Several factors must be taken into consideration by way of background: (1) Military sales to the region result directly from the modernization program that badly needs capital; it also indicates China's change from "ideological diplomacy" to "practical and realistic diplomacy." Commercial factors, rather than ideology, play a major role in determining these sales. (2) China's arms constitute only a very small proportion of the arms entering Middle East countries, far less than those from the United States, the former USSR, France, or Britain. British statistics show that between 1984 and 1989, Iraq bought $3.3 billion worth of arms from China, $5 billion from France, and $14 billion from the Soviet Union. (3) China is unable to control the circulation of arms once they are sold. In the Iraq-Iran war, for example, Iraq bought Chinese arms through Jordan and Egypt; Iran obtained Chinese arms through Pakistan and North Korea.
At the moment, the West is most worried about high technology and weapons of mass destruction, concerned particularly that the median- or long-range missiles China has probably sold to Middle Eastern states will undo the strategic balance there. The Chinese authorities have reiterated their promise not to sell advanced arms that would wreck the Middle East balance of power, and several rounds of talks have been held between China and the United States over this issue; however, the latter has never believed the former's promise. Instead, the U.S. repeatedly accuses China of breaking it—something not uncommon when arms exporters engage in an intense competition.
An internationally binding agreement seems to be the only solution to this issue. It is for this reason that the five major arms sellers in the Middle East (who happen, incidentally, also to be the five permanent members of the Security Council) gathered in Paris in 1991 for an international conference on arms sales control in the Middle East. China will benefit if this and similar conferences can arrive at an agreement on the quantity and quality of arms sales to the Middle East. The small quantity and moderate quality of its arms will make it less subject to restrictions than will its competitors.
China's official stance on this issue rests on three principles: arms control in the Middle East should be comprehensive, balanced, and effective; its support for setting up a weapons-of-mass-destructive free area there; and arms control goes together with the peace process to achieve the final aim of peace. As China's Premier Li Peng explained, exports to all countries of the region must be put under control "without the practice of exercising control over some particular countries while relaxing control over other countries." Also, "all kind of weapons" must be controlled, and there must be an end to "unbalanced armament" which poses a threat to Middle East security.15
Since the early 1990s, the Chinese government has adjusted its policy toward arms control and disarmament from one of "detachment" to "active participation" and joined a dozen major international treaties.16 Talks between China and the United States resulted in China's agreement to abide by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which restricts the numbers and capabilities of sales to the Middle East. But the U.S. government continues to try to prevent China from joining the unofficial group that determines international regulations over the sale of missiles. In short, conflicts on the issue between China and the U.S. still occur frequently.
Iraq and Iran. Chinese abstentions in the Security Council before and during the Kuwait war, though sometimes resented in the West, were in line with two of China's principles: avoid getting involved in crises and keep normal relations with all parties. This meant condemning Iraq's invasion and occupation of Kuwait and continuing to recognize the legitimate government of Kuwait;17calling for a peaceful solution to the crisis, even after fighting broke out (which explains many of China's United Nations abstentions;18 not connecting the Iraq-Kuwait conflict with other Middle East issues;19and trying to mediate a peaceful solution.
China lacks the enormous strategic interests that the United States has in the Middle East and does not seek to play a leading role there. This premise shows the logic of China's policies in the Kuwait crisis and Iraq, which in the long run help China expand its influence in the region.
The Chinese position opposes terrorism but rejects sanctions against states as an effective measure to prevent terrorist activities. Beijing opposes the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act that punishes companies which invest in Iran or Libya, arguing that persons or organizations can be called "terrorist," but not a country or a state.
The Arab-Israeli conflict. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, a slow but sure change has characterized China's attitude toward the Arab-Israeli conflict: what began as opposition to Israel and support for the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) has become support for a just and peaceful solution to the issue. Already in 1978, Beijing applauded the peace talks between Egypt and Israel.20A top Chinese official announced in 1980, for the first time, that "Every country in the Middle East should enjoy the right to exist and be independent."21 In 1988, China proposed a five-point package to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict which centered on mutuality: Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab lands and a guarantee for Israel's security; the states of Israel and Palestine recognizing each other; Arab and Jewish peoples peacefully co-existing.22
China took a more active role in promoting peace talks after the Kuwait war, and especially after its establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel. From 1991 on, Chinese diplomats attended more conferences on Arab-Israeli issues than in the forty-four prior years, including such events as the third phase of the Middle East Peace Conference in Moscow, conferences on economic cooperation in Casablanca and Amman, and on water resources in Musqat. China strongly supported the Oslo accords and the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty. Good relations with hard-liners may give China a special advantage in promoting the peace process in the future.
While Sino-Middle East relations remain in flux, some trends have emerged.
All is well in relations with Turkey and Iran, with the possible exception of ideologies coming from those two countries. Pan-Turkism has gained ground with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rediscovery of Turkic speaking peoples there and in China; but all Turkish governments have repeatedly guaranteed that they would not support any kind of Turkic separatism in China, so this is unlikely to damage Sino-Turkish relations. Sino-Iranian relations cooled down with the Islamic Revolution but then warmed up after the Iraq-Iran war and yet more after the Kuwait war. As in the case of Turkey, the only significant worry concerns the possible export of ideology to China—in this case the ideology of fundamentalist Islam.
Some Western observers predict that the recent rioting in Xinjiang that brought considerable damage and deaths could harm China's relations with Turkey and Iran. This has not happened, however, because the main bases of Xinjiang's Muslim separatists are located not in those two countries but in the neighboring Central Asian countries. Civil wars in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Kashmir offer opportunities to move weapons across borders, including into China. One report holds that "if there is an outside source of guns and influence in Xinjiang, it is likely to be Afghanistan's Taliban militia."23
China has no serious issues with the Arab world, making steady Sino-Arab relations likely. As a permanent member of the Security Council, China is becoming more involved in Middle East politics. The export of labor to the Persian Gulf is likely to increase, though not much investment (the Kuwait war scared that away for a while). Economic and trade ties with the Arab countries will further develop, but will stay well behind those with the industrial states. Two factors may complicate Sino-Arab relations: China's closer ties with Israel and Taiwan's official contacts with Arab states. But these problems are receding as Arab states themselves establish official relations with Israel and most Arab states have avoided angering Beijing after Taiwan's leader, Lee Teng-Hui visited several Arab countries in 1994.
The main problem that could hamper relations with Israel is that the two states still differ on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Especially since Likud came to power in 1996, China has been concerned about the stalemate of the Middle East peace process. However, there are grounds for optimism here, given that the two countries have historically and culturally been on good terms and have no serious bilateral problems.
1 Lillian Craig Harris, China Considers the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris, 1993), pp. 81-82.
2 Yi An, "Aiji De Zhenbian," Shijie Zhishi (Beijing, 1952), No. 31, and "Najibu De Houtailaoban," ibid., No. 45.
3 Jizhong Daobao, May 27, 1948. See also Xinhua News Agency, June 6, 1948.
4 Michael Curtis & Susan Aurelia Gitelson, eds., Israel in the Third World (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1976), p. 225.
5 Li Qiao, "Zhongguo Yu Yiselie Jianjiaomiwen," Fu Hao & Li Tongcheng, eds., Waijiao Fengyun (Beijing: The Overseas Chinese Publishing House, 1995), p. 256.
6 Xinhua News Agency, June 6, 1948.
7 Al-Abram (Cairo), Nov. 8, 1956. See also Tareq Y. Ismael, International Relations in the Contemporary Middle East (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1986), p. 202.
8 R. Medzini, "China and the Palestinians - a Developing Relationship?" New Middle East, May 1971, p. 36.
9 Le Monde, July 30, 1971.
10 Yitzhak Shichor, The Middle East in China's Foreign Policy 1949-1977 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 168. See also Aryeh Y. Yodfat, The People's Republic of China and the Middle East, (Brussels: Centre D'Étude du Sud-Est Asiatique et de L'Extrême Orient, 1977), pp. 2- 15.
11 Zhongguo Duiwai Jingmao Nianjian, 1991 (Beijing: Chinese Financial & Economic Publishing House, 1991).
12 The Japan Economic News, Apr. 12, 1995.
13 For example, Ji Guoxing, "Jiaqiang Yatai Hezuo Nengyuan Yinsu Burong Hushi," Jiefang Daily (Shanghai), July 20, 1997.
14 For a current report, see Frank J. Gaffney, Jr., "China Arms the Rogues," Middle East Quarterly, Sept. 1997, pp. 33-39.
15 Speech by Chinese Premier Li Peng at a press conference in Cairo, press releases from Chinese Embassy, (Cairo), No. 011/91, July 17, 1991.
16 Wang Ling: "Whither Arms Control?" Contemporary International Relations (Beijing), vol. 7, no. 3, Mar. 1997.
17 Harris, China Considers the Middle East, p. 246.
18 Speech by Zhang Shiliang, Chinese ambassador to Egypt, at the Diplomatic Club, Cairo, Jan. 30, 1991.
19 Xinhua News Agency, Feb. 20, 1991.
20 The International Herald Tribune, Feb. 6, 1978.
21 Xinhua Yuebao (Beijing), Aug. 1980.
22 Beijing Review, Oct. 16-22, 1989.
23 The Economist, Feb. 15, 1997.