China — China Needs to Change Mideast Foreign Policy

China’s deci­sion to veto a con­dem­na­tion of Syria’s regime at the Unit­ed Nations Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil is just the lat­est sig­nal that illus­trates the need for a fun­da­men­tal change in Chi­nese for­eign pol­i­cy.

The ques­tion is no longer whether offi­cials in Bei­jing will aban­don the prin­ci­ple of non-inter­fer­ence in oth­er coun­tries’ affairs to pro­tect their expand­ing inter­ests around the globe. The ques­tion is when.

Chi­na joined Rus­sia in veto­ing last weekend’s res­o­lu­tion part­ly for fear that back­ing the UN’s rebuke of a government’s bru­tal sup­pres­sion of its peo­ple may come back to haunt Chi­na itself, giv­en its treat­ment of Tibetans and of Uighur Mus­lims in the Xin­jiang autonomous region.

Yet China’s eco­nom­ic growth and asso­ci­at­ed need to secure resources increas­ing­ly have been at odds with this long-stand­ing pol­i­cy of being aloof. That’s espe­cial­ly true in the resource- rich region that stretch­es from the Atlantic coast of Africa to Cen­tral Asia and the sub­con­ti­nent, much of which is now in revolt.

Over the past year, a series of inci­dents in the region have test­ed China’s non-inter­fer­ence pol­i­cy, but with­out seri­ous dam­age to the country’s image. With China’s veto of the UN res­o­lu­tion on Syr­ia, Chi­nese deter­mi­na­tion to cling to a prin­ci­ple root­ed in 19th-cen­tu­ry diplo­ma­cy seems set to back­fire.

Paint­ed Into Cor­ner

Rather than por­tray Chi­na as a glob­al pow­er that seeks good rela­tions with all and — unlike the U.S. — doesn’t med­dle in oth­er coun­tries’ affairs, last weekend’s veto of a rel­a­tive­ly tooth­less con­dem­na­tion of the regime in Dam­as­cus has paint­ed Chi­na into a cor­ner. The nation now appears to sup­port an inter­na­tion­al pari­ah that bru­tal­ly sup­press­es its peo­ple, a stance that risks roil­ing ties with some of China’s most impor­tant ener­gy sup­pli­ers in the Arab League, which spon­sored the defeat­ed UN res­o­lu­tion.

In Libya, Chi­na ini­tial­ly avoid­ed its pol­i­cy dilem­ma. There, the Chi­nese abstained from vot­ing on a UN res­o­lu­tion that effec­tive­ly autho­rized inter­na­tion­al mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in Libya on human­i­tar­i­an grounds. Chi­nese diplo­mats then went a step fur­ther. They sup­port­ed a Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion that imposed an arms embar­go and oth­er sanc­tions on the regime of Libyan leader Muam­mar Qaddafi, and endorsed refer­ral of the regime’s crack­down to the Inter­na­tion­al Crim­i­nal Court in the Hague.

Chi­na cul­ti­vat­ed rela­tions with both Qaddafi’s embat­tled regime and the Beng­hazi-based rebels. Yet that even­hand­ed approach didn’t pre­vent the rebels from threat­en­ing a com­mer­cial boy­cott, par­tic­u­lar­ly after they found doc­u­ments pur­port­ing to show that Chi­nese defense com­pa­nies had dis­cussed the sup­ply of arms with Qaddafi oper­a­tives. A Chi­nese Min­istry of Com­merce del­e­ga­tion vis­it­ed Libya this week in a bid to recov­er at least some of the loss­es that Chi­na, Libya’s biggest for­eign con­trac­tor, suf­fered with the evac­u­a­tion last year of 35,000 work­ers who were ser­vic­ing $18.8 bil­lion worth of con­tracts.

The Arab revolt is cer­tain to force not only a revi­sion of China’s pol­i­cy of non-inter­fer­ence but also of the employ­ment prac­tices of Chi­nese com­pa­nies. With new and long-stand­ing gov­ern­ments in the region des­per­ate to reduce unem­ploy­ment — a key dri­ver of the revolts — author­i­ties in Libya and else­where are like­ly to demand that Chi­nese con­struc­tion com­pa­nies employ local, rather than import­ed, labor.

Social Media Crit­i­cism

More­over, Chi­nese author­i­ties have twice in recent days come under crit­i­cism in the country’s social media for the government’s inabil­i­ty to pro­tect work­ers abroad after 29 Chi­nese nation­als were kid­napped by rebels in Sudan’s volatile South Kord­o­fan province, and an addi­tion­al 25 were abduct­ed by restive Bedouin tribes­men in Egypt’s Sinai Desert. The crit­ics charged that as a super­pow­er, Chi­na need­ed to project its eco­nom­ic, as well as its mil­i­tary, mus­cle to stand up for those who put their lives at risk for the nation­al good — much like the U.S. sent Navy Seals to res­cue two hostages in Soma­lia.

Cen­sors were quick to remove the crit­i­cal mes­sages from social media because they touched a raw nerve. A pol­i­cy of win­ning friends eco­nom­i­cal­ly rather than make ene­mies by flex­ing mil­i­tary mus­cle is increas­ing­ly incon­sis­tent with China’s dis­like of appear­ing weak and vul­ner­a­ble. Nation­al pride was at stake. The dilem­ma sparked pub­lic debate, with offi­cial media say­ing Chi­na needs time to build the nec­es­sary mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ty to inter­vene when its nation­als are in jeop­ardy, while oth­ers argue that China’s inac­tion may encour­age fur­ther attacks.

The need for a revised approach to the Mid­dle East and North Africa, as well as coun­tries such as Pak­istan and Afghanistan, will become increas­ing­ly clear as Chi­na boosts its invest­ment in Cen­tral and South Asian nations before the sched­uled 2014 with­draw­al of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, where Chi­na has secured oil and cop­per rights.

Reports that Chi­na is con­sid­er­ing estab­lish­ing mil­i­tary bases in Pakistan’s insur­gency-plagued north­west­ern trib­al areas near the bor­der with Afghanistan, and a naval base in the Balochis­tan port city of Gwadar, could cre­ate fur­ther pres­sure for change. Chi­na holds the Pak­istan-basedEast Turkestan Islam­ic Move­ment respon­si­ble for attacks last year in Xinjiang’s city of Kash­gar. Defeat­ing the move­ment is key to Chi­nese plans to keep region­al trade and ener­gy flow­ing, and the bases in Pak­istan may tempt Chi­na to take on a role as local police­man.

If it takes an event to dri­ve a change of China’s for­eign pol­i­cy, Yemen may prove to be the spark. With $355 bil­lion worth of trade with Europe and a quar­ter of China’s exports trav­el­ing through Bab el Man­deb — the strait that sep­a­rates Yemen from Soma­lia and Dji­bouti — Chi­na can­not afford a col­lapse of law and order in Yemen. The cri­sis-rid­den coun­try is coun­ter­ing mul­ti­ple threats, includ­ing an al-Qae­da insur­gency after mass protests and inter­com­mu­nal fight­ing that forced the res­ig­na­tion of Pres­i­dent Ali Abdul­lah Saleh and paved the way for elec­tions lat­er this month.

Pol­i­cy Breached Before

Chi­na has breached its non-inter­fer­ence pol­i­cy to respond to these pres­sures in the recent past. Its deploy­ment of naval ves­sels off the coast of Soma­lia to counter pira­cy, for exam­ple, con­sti­tut­ed the first Chi­nese ven­ture of its kind.

But China’s sta­tus as an emerg­ing eco­nom­ic super­pow­er demands that it become a more mus­cu­lar glob­al actor to pur­sue its inter­ests. Ulti­mate­ly that will mean tak­ing posi­tions on domes­tic dis­putes and con­flicts around the world that have a bear­ing on China’s glob­al nation­al-secu­ri­ty inter­ests, the very oppo­site of the stance it adopt­ed on Syr­ia. Sim­i­lar­ly, Chi­na will need to main­tain mil­i­tary bases in key regions that serve to secure Chi­nese demand for nat­ur­al resources, and to sat­is­fy domes­tic calls to ensure the safe­ty of its nation­als abroad.

In short, Chi­na will have to use vir­tu­al­ly the same tools employed by the U.S., shoul­der­ing the risks of a for­eign pol­i­cy that is inter­est-dri­ven and there­fore, at times, con­tra­dic­to­ry.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.