Cheap and secure access to Middle Eastern oil is what has allowed the United States, in part, to flourish during the past 75 years, and necessitated a degree of political engagement with the Middle East. Yet, while the US supposedly works to break its ‘dependence on Middle East oil,' China is surpassing it in oil imports from the region with around 50 percent of its imported oil coming mainly from Saudi Arabia and Iran. Moreover, China has also replaced the United States as the largest exporter of goods to the region, with exports and imports nearly doubling in the past five years. Last September, several Arab leaders attended the first ever Sino-Arab Economic and Trade Forum in Ningxia, a sign of the improving relationship between China and the region.
Given this shifting reality, is the time approaching when Middle Eastern countries begin to seek a greater involvement of China in the region's politics-in an effort to counterbalance the United States and Europe? In fact, this summer alone several countries have sent high-profile delegations to Beijing, including Syria, Israel and Iran.
For the time being, China has been measurably averse to enhanced participation. An assertive role for China in the politics of the Middle East would inevitably pit Beijing in confrontation with Washington, something it is all-to-ready to avoid. Despite China's growing economic input in the Middle East, it pales in comparison to the business China currently does with the United States-relying heavily on its consumer markets and financing much of its debt. Also, the consequences of entering into a potentially costly US-Soviet style conflict for control of the region goes against the objectives of China's pragmatic interests. A business-only approach to the Middle East has allowed China to build relationships with all parties without getting involved in the myriad political disputes that have bogged others down. This approach could, however, open China up to criticism. A choice to stay on the political sidelines, all the while reaping the economic benefits, may become unpopular. Indeed, over the past decade China has made various forays into Middle Eastern politics in a possible attempt to ease that tension. In 2002, it sent a Middle East peace envoy to the region-albeit a low-level retired diplomat-and has showed signs of wanting to take a greater role in the peace process. In 2006, while the US took a hard line stance to Hamas' victory in the Palestinian democratic elections, China invited the foreign minister of Hamas to attend the second meeting of the Arab-Chinese Forum for Cooperation in Beijing.
In the recent conflict between Iran and the international community over its nuclear program, China-which is the largest importer of Iranian oil-was forced to take a stand on the issue at the UN Security Council. China took the better part of a year watering down a sanctions program that it ended up supporting, therefore not crossing the United States or its oil supplier. Similar instances may only increase as Middle East countries look to China more frequently, especially because of its blind stance to the nature of the regimes with which it deals. As well as Iran and Hamas, China also maintains close ties to Syria, Libya and Sudan,: on one hand not wanting to encourage or play a role in toppling authoritarian regimes, while on the other keeping open the prospect of good relations with any new government that may take their place.
Yet, China's dealings do not end with nations on the United States' black list. China is also close with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and even Israel, proving itself adept at engaging with all-comers. Chinese relations with Israel have advanced greatly since the 1990s over the sales of high-tech military equipment, a relationship that has aroused American ire more than once. As regional specialist John Alterman says in his book, The Vital Triangle, "Basically, China seeks multidimensional cooperative relations with all governments in the Middle East, especially those ruling the more powerful nations in the region, regardless of the condition of those government's relations with the United States."
According to Alterman, China has also become a bit weary of the destabilizing effect US foreign policy is having in the region, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it may not be long before China thinks it can do a better job. Although the country has the cash reserves to insulate it from conflict-induced fluctuations in the market, growth and stability of supply have been China's main concerns for quite some time. Moreover, China's leadership could eventually see entry into politics as a tool serving its economic optimization.
If China does choose to take a more active role in Middle Eastern politics and fill the void that America's sluggish economy will inevitably force it to leave, it may eventually find itself engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the most magnetic force in the region. Although China is not even part of the peacemaking Quartet on the Middle East, despite being a permanent member of the Security Council and the second largest economy in the world, its good relations with Israel and the Arab world could allow it to play a very constructive role. Thus far, China's position has largely reflected international consensus, calling publically for negotiations based on two states and an end to occupation. Yet, in the popularity contest of winning hearts and minds, resolving the Palestinian question is the Middle East's trump card. China already recognizes Palestine as a state, a step taken after Yasser Arafat's 1988 declaration. At the same time, it has spent the past two decades building cooperative relations with Israel.
As the Palestinians seek to internationalize the conflict by heading to the United Nations in September, it may be high time for China to make its move. President Obama has already signaled his readiness to open up the globe to a multi-polar system, allowing emerging nations to take a larger role. Indeed, Brazil, Russia and Turkey have spent the last few years laying inroads into the region's politics. With its robust economic and strategic relationships, will it now be China's moment to sacrifice its neutrality and take a greater lead in the Middle East?