Niu Song: Neutrality gives China edge in Middle East
Publish time: 2016-04-11 Browsing times: 11

In late March, China appointed career diplomat Xie Xiaoyan as a special envoy for the Syrian crisis to help push forward the Middle East peace process. Xie is a former ambassador to Iran.

The Middle East has seen more conflicts than any other region in the world after WWII. This results from the contest of major powers and also the complex wrestling among countries, ethnic groups, religious sects and political forces in the region.

Many of the Middle East problems are intrinsic ones that arise in the operation of the region's established system framework. They generally relate to five forms of relationships. What comes first is the government-religion relationship.

In the case of Egypt, the escalating strife between Egyptian government and the Muslim Brotherhood has finally led to the removal of elected president Mohamed Morsi and turbulences in Egypt's political arena. The region also has complicated military-government relations. Many republics in the Middle East have seen frequent military rule. Egyptian presidents often serve in the army before taking power while Turkish officers have staged frequent coups. Yet Turkey military intervention has been dramatically restrained under the rule of the country's Justice and Development Party.

Then there are ethnic relationships, such as the conflicts between Iraqis, Syrians, Turks and Kurds, and the Arab-Persian strife. Moreover, the Middle East faces religious-sectarian antagonism typified by the Sunni-Shia strife, and finally the relationship between Islam and modernization.

Many intellectuals have raised the issue of how Islam can adapt to the modern world since extremist Islamic forces can expand due to the absence of modernity.

In addition to inherent problems, external factors have exerted huge influence on the Middle East.

Above all, Middle East countries have unavoidably met many clashes in joining the modern international system. The political involvement of Islam doesn't match with the Westphalian exile of religion in the modern international system. Many Middle East countries, as tribal unions by nature, cannot be identified as modern sovereign states in the sense of international law.

Besides, great powers exploit the intrinsic problems in the Middle East to escalate the conflicts and manufacture a variety of chaos in the region so as to serve their own national interests. Examples of this kind include the US-Soviet Union contest during the Cold War, the lopsided strategy of the George W. Bush administration and its dire consequences, and the ongoing struggles and compromises between the US and Russia in Syria.

The Middle East is one of the key regions for the US, the only superpower, to expand its hegemony. While gaining lucrative benefits in the Middle East, Washington also has to deal with various challenges to its national interests.

For instance, the rise of the Islamic State has much relation with the US invention in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. The US has taken some actions to ease the tensions in the region, such as the historic reconciliation with Iran and support of peace talks between Afghan government and the Taliban, but generally Washington has failed to come up with a clear plan to push forward the region's development.

China has had a long history of cultural and peaceful exchanges with the Middle East. Having both experienced colonial occupation, the two sides have never invaded each other. As China is now proactively pushing forward the westward strategy that features the Belt and Road initiative, Middle East countries constitute important partners for cooperation with China.

China faces squarely the inherent problems of the Middle East and vows not to interfere in the internal affairs of regional countries or take side in their sectarian strife. Its neutrality differs significantly from the US. China has actively promoted peace talks in the Middle East and behaved objectively. Time will show that China's policy on the Middle East is reasonable and foresighted, as implied by the reversal of the Arab world's attitude toward China's three vetoes of UN Security Council resolutions regarding Syria.

All in all, both China and the US are confronted with the intrinsic problems of the Middle East. But China's principles of diplomacy enable it to seek common grounds while reserving differences, and to address existing problems instead of creating new ones. On this basis, China can call for more tolerance of the Middle East by the international community since diverse civilizations are equal. Meanwhile, it expects Western countries led by the US to play a more positive role in the Middle East and to jointly foster the peace and stability in the region.

The author is an associate professor at the Shanghai International Studies University and Center for Religion & China's National Security of Fudan University.

Source:Global Times