China's fast-growing Middle East problem

By Michal Meidan

A growing economic juggernaut and rising political power, China has many reasons to look to the Middle East: to import oil, extend its diplomatic influence, diversify its trade ties, and undermine U.S. hegemony. In that context, it seems hardly surprising that Beijing (alongside Moscow) vetoed a recent U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria and set aside its commercial dispute with Iran to conclude an oil import deal -- undermining U.S. and European sanctions on Tehran.

But Beijing's Middle East strategy is hardly the coherent, well-thought-out doctrine that some believe. Instead, it's the product of a number of (sometimes competing) domestic interests that must be coordinated each time a crisis unfolds. Worryingly for Beijing, as China's commercial ties to the Middle East increase, it will inexorably become more involved in the region's politics. In the process, the risk of antagonizing an important commodity supplier, getting on the wrong side of Washington, or fueling unwanted domestic debates will become more costly and more complicated.

Some argue, simplistically, that when China blocks pressure on Iran to protect its commercial relations with that country, it pays no price for it. The reality is not nearly that simple.

First, Beijing's decisions on Iran and Syria have clearly irked Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dubbed the Syria veto "despicable." Moreover, ongoing oil trading between China and Iran has already led Washington to slap sanctions on a Chinese trader. In a year of presidential elections in the U.S. and political turnover in China, when both sides are trying to keep tensions at bay, Middle East politics will burden an already complicated relationship with an unwelcome irritant.

But Beijing has more than the United States to worry about. Take China's ties with Saudi Arabia, which provides China with almost one fifth of its oil. Beijing's reluctance to support Western-led sanctions on Iran isn't going down well in Riyadh either. Nor has China's decision to veto the U.N. Security Council's Syria resolution, a choice that Beijing claims was intended to prevent the situation on the ground from escalating further.

Finally, several diplomatic principles -- non-interference in a third country's sovereignty, support for non-proliferation, China's rise as a responsible stakeholder -- are increasingly being called into question by other governments. The decision to veto the U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria may have been motivated by diplomatic principles of non-interference in a country's sovereignty and by Beijing's desire to prevent the situation from getting worse, but it has plainly damaged popular perceptions of China elsewhere in the region, and Premier Wen Jiabao's criticism of the Iranian nuclear program rings hollow to Western ears.

When thinking about its foreign policy goals, does Beijing really want to provide the security framework for the Middle East? These are difficult debates that Chinese leaders must have, but they will certainly want to postpone them until after Beijing's leadership transition is complete next year.

In short, the more deeply Beijing becomes involved in the Middle East, the more complicated its foreign relations and internal policy-making processes become -- and the more China has to lose. The choice between alienating an oil supplier, challenging an important trade partner and a global political power or opening up its diplomatic principles for debate is one that Beijing would like to avoid. But as its global reach extends, so will the trade-offs it has to make.

Michal Meidan is an analyst in Eurasia Group’s Asia practice.

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